Not All Negative Emotions Are Bad: Setting Realistic Goals For Therapy

“I just want to be happy”

I don’t want to feel anxious anymore.”

“I never want to feel like this again.”

Early on in your CBT journey, your therapist will ask you what your goal is. What you want from our time together. Often clients will say they want the tools to manage their emotions better, or to become again like the person they used to feel they were. They have realistic and achievable goals.

But sometimes clients will say their goals are like the examples at the top. To never feel a certain emotion again, or to ‘just be happy’. It’s then that a good therapist will gently point out that they do not possess a magic wand, and such goals are highly likely to be unrealistic and unachievable.

It is true that Rational Emotional Behavioural Therapy (REBT) wants you to be happy, and will always encourage you to make healthy decisions that ultimately guide you towards a more balanced emotional life. But it is also true that REBT is realistic in its outlook and will always consider what is actually most likely to happen, good or bad.

Is it realistic to ‘just be happy’? There are some schools of thought that say the pursuit of happiness is a relatively recent human endeavour, and one that shouldn’t be focussed on to the detriment of other goals. And is it possible to never experience worry or anxiety again? Probably not.

In REBT, we have a useful model of healthy and unhealthy negative emotions. We rationally and realistically admit that negative emotions are a part of life, and to be expected as we experience the trials and challenges we all must face. One of the goals of REBT is to learn to accept this fact, and actively work to move from unhealthy negative emotions to healthy (but still negative) ones, through the identification of irrational beliefs and replacing them with healthy, rational beliefs.

We’ve already shared several blogs on the various ‘emotional pairs’ of healthy and unhealthy negative emotions (such as Depression & Sadness and Guilt & Remorse) so we will pick just one example here…

If a client presents with anxiety, let’s say about their health, an REBT therapist would not try to get this client to never worry about their health ever again. Apart from being unrealistic and probably impossible, this could also be dangerous. We all need to keep an eye on our health! Instead, they would work with the client to move from unhealthy anxiety to healthy concern.

Why? Because anxiety will turn you away from the problem through unproductive worry, avoidant behaviour and unhelpful behaviours such as overthinking, hypochondria and anxiety attacks, as well as assuming every little ache is terminal.

Concern, on the other hand, will actually turn you towards your problem and help you find ways of dealing with it. Concern, whilst still being an uncomfortable, ‘negative’ emotion, allows you to think clearly and rationally about an issue. It helps you choose positive action instead of negative procrastination. It helps you make healthy choices for the right reasons and make a realistic assessment of how serious that pulled muscle might actually be.

Telling someone that by the end of therapy they may still experience negative emotions might not always be what they want to hear. But healthy negative emotions are a part of real life, and often play their part in helping us live full and emotionally balanced lives. And that is what every therapist wants for their clients, believe me.

Nick Jones
REBT / CBT Therapist

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