‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’
So wrote Viktor E. Frankl, one of the 20th century’s great thinkers and a major influence on the ideas behind Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT, the type of CBT we practice here at the College).
Frankl formed his ideas in, amongst other places, the concentration camps of World War Two, where he was held because he was Jewish. There he learnt that despite the Nazi’s attempts to strip him of everything, he was ultimately able to retain his humanity (and, almost unbelievably, his sense of humour), through his ability to choose his own thoughts and attitudes. As he also wrote, in his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’
Most of us, hopefully, will never experience the horrors that Frankl did. But that doesn’t mean we cannot learn from his wisdom and insights. His idea that between stimulus (the thing that happens) and response (what we do, feel or think) there is a space in which we can choose, is directly reflected in the REBT concept of emotional responsibility (that we are largely responsible for how we feel), and that it is our beliefs, rational or irrational, that provoke those feelings.
In REBT, we present this idea in the ‘ABC’ structure, developed by Dr Albert Ellis, the creator of this type of therapy. This foundational idea is taught to all REBT clients by their therapists, and is one of the great ‘takeaways’ that many people find most useful.
Learn your ABCs
A is for Activating event. This is the thing that happens (Frankl’s ‘stimulus’), and can be pretty much anything. Humans are experts at disturbing themselves, to paraphrase Ellis, so your ‘A’ could be real, imagined, internal, external or from the past, present or future. This includes things like thoughts, memories, other people’s behaviour or things we have done or are about to do.
B is for Belief. This is the thing we tell ourselves about the event (Frankl’s ‘power to choose’). Beliefs can be rigid, irrational and unhelpful, leading to disturbance and unhealthy negative emotions, or flexible, rational and helpful, leading to positive or healthy negative emotions (you can read more about the differences between healthy and unhealthy emotions here).
This is where our ‘power to choose’ comes in, and where we can exercise our emotional responsibility. REBT helps the client identify the beliefs that drive our responses, and replaces irrational beliefs for rational ones. Just as Frankl’s words might seem simple, this process is simple to explain too, but is it neither simplistic nor necessarily easy. Successfully identifying and living according to a healthy, rational belief can take work, and this is what takes up most of the therapeutic process.
C is for Consequences. These are the things we experience or do (Frankl’s ‘response’). Consequences are most often split into behaviours, emotions, action tendencies (the things we feel like doing, whether we do or not), symptoms, and thoughts (also known as cognitive consequences). As mentioned above, the type of consequences we experience is determined by the belief that provokes them. Healthy beliefs lead to healthy consequences, healthy emotions (positive or negative though they may be), and move us towards our goals. Unhealthy beliefs very much don’t.
Whilst many people believe A causes C (he makes me angry, flying makes me frightened etc), REBT, and Viktor Frankl, are strongly of the opinion that it is in fact our B (for belief) that determines what happens at C. By honestly and unflinchingly looking at our beliefs about various situations, we can identify and replace the irrational. This is when we take responsibility to choose our response.
This is when we fill the decision gap, the space where, just for a moment, things could go either way, towards wellbeing or disturbance. With practice, and repeated application, it becomes easier and easier for the rational to fill the gap. Once we accept that responsibility, we can begin to take control of how we think, feel and behave. And once we do that, no matter where we may be in life, we begin to grow and become free.
REBT / CBT Therapist