Emotional Responsibility: Taking Back Control

“The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.” – Albert Ellis, founder of REBT

At the heart of Rational Emotional Behavioural Therapy (REBT) is the concept of emotional responsibility. That we are largely responsible for how we feel. This philosophy acknowledges that yes, when adverse things happen to us, it is natural to feel an emotion, negative or otherwise, such as fear, anger, sadness etc. But it is when we become stuck in that emotion, say we still feel depressed and a failure months after failing to get the job we wanted, that it becomes a problem. We are most likely maintaining that unhealthy emotion through what we are telling ourselves, not because of the hiring manager’s decision.

When we find ourselves to be emotionally disturbed, it can seem natural to try and find an external entity to blame. Thus, we say to ourselves things like ‘my mother makes me so angry’, ‘that rude shop assistant has ruined my perfect day’, or ‘it is because of my horrible manager that I have no confidence in big meetings’, and so on and so on.

Not only can this seem natural, it can also seem comforting. If only others had behaved or treated you differently. If only the world wasn’t so unfair. However, REBT, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in general, is not interested in comfort at any cost. We believe in accepting the world as it is, and that taking responsibility for our own emotions is the healthier, if more difficult path to emotional balance.

Emotional responsibility in practice

As an example, let’s take one of the hypothetical situations mentioned above. Say someone had a bullying or unsupportive boss who treated them poorly. Because of this treatment, this person may have experienced the belief that this boss was horrible to them because they were bad at their job, and that they were in fact incompetent and a failure. If only their boss had been nicer, they could have helped them improve! These beliefs lead to self-damning consequences (I am no good), hurt (I have been treated unfairly by my boss), depression (I am a failure at my job) and lack of self-confidence.

But if it were true that your ex-boss made you feel this way, wouldn’t they make everyone feel that way, if they truly had the power to control other people’s emotions? So how is that another colleague, who also experienced similar behaviour from this manager, might have instead chosen to believe that they were in fact good at their job, that their manager was just a bully with poor people skills, and that if they weren’t going to be supported, they would go and work elsewhere? This colleague might be blaming the manager for their poor behaviour (and rightly so), but they are not allowing the manager to dictate how they feel, think or behave, or blaming them for their own emotional state.

Choosing the second option above might take more work. It involves acknowledging someone else’s behaviour can have an impact on how we feel, but that we can also choose to go beyond the quick and easy blame game to instead take responsibility for ourselves.

So, our first hypothetical colleague could instead put time and mental effort into thinking: I am actually good at my job, my boss just treated me like I wasn’t, I have a realistic view of my own competency. My boss definitely treated me unfairly, but there is no rule that says they absolutely have to be fair. That is their decision, whether I like it or not. Instead of being hurt, I am simply disappointed in them. I am sad they chose to treat me this way, but it does not affect my confidence in my abilities. Maybe I’ll go and find another job too!

As the quote from Albert Ellis above implies, choosing emotional responsibility can be the start of a whole new way of thinking and living. It is at once the most liberating idea in REBT, but also, in some ways, the most challenging. You can no longer blame everyone else. You have to look honestly and unflinchingly at yourself and your long-held beliefs and accept some of them are neither true nor helpful. You have to be prepared to tolerate a certain amount of discomfort as you change your beliefs and behaviours.

But do you know what? Taking back control of how you feel for yourself, instead of giving it to others is totally worth it.

Nick Jones
REBT / CBT therapist

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