Embracing the preference: how letting go of rigid demands doesn’t kill your ambition

As a therapist practicing Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), it’s not uncommon to meet clients who are experiencing anxiety about their work or studies, or depression about real or perceived failures and setbacks.

These disturbances are often tied to the irrational, rigid demands they hold about how they absolutely should be performing. They will often take the familiar form of ‘I must succeed / get top marks / win that promotion. If I don’t, it would be awful, unbearable and prove I am a failure’. Often, when challenged on these beliefs, the client will say they are vital to achieving their goals. Without such inflexible demands, how could they ever spur themselves on to achieve their dream?

Unfortunately, these beliefs not only drive them on to (hopefully but not always) achieve their goals through fear, they also become intrinsically tied to their emotional wellbeing and sense of self-worth, or self-acceptance. They become like steel traps we set for ourselves, surrounding us in rigid bars of musts, shoulds and have-to’s. I must pass all my exams. I must succeed in every project. I must get a pay rise. Success, if it comes, is blighted with anxiety and fear of losing what they’ve gained. Failure, for whatever reason, to achieve these, leads to depression and self-damning beliefs. The whole process, from beginning to end, is not only stressful, it’s also not even enjoyable.

Even when this is pointed out, many still believe that if they take these demands away, how will anyone ever achieve anything? Surely accepting the possibility of failure, and being OK with it, means the death of ambition. Why bother, if it’s OK to fail?

This is where the preference comes in. And not just any preference, but the strongly held preference. Instead of saying ‘I must get top marks’, we encourage them to say ‘I really, really WANT to get top marks, BUT I accept I do not absolutely have to’. We encourage clients to replace the demand and to accept that there is no law of nature (like gravity) hat says they have to have what they want.

We would also then encourage them to create a full, healthy belief along the lines of say ‘I really, really WANT to get top marks, BUT I accept I do not absolutely have to. If I don’t, it would be (really) bad, but not awful, (very) uncomfortable but I could tolerate it, and it would simply mean I am a fallible human being, my worth does not depend on success of failure’.

That statement acknowledges that failure or frustration WOULD be unpleasant. It WOULD be uncomfortable. But it would also be tolerable. We can accept something without having to like it. We do not have to be OK with failure. We just acknowledge it as a reality. Failure does exit as a human experience.

And by not tying our emotional wellbeing and self-acceptance to what we do or do not achieve, we are better able to bounce back from our failures (they are temporary after all), no matter how unpleasant they may be. If you believe that you are not a failure just because you failed, you will come back even more determined than ever, should you so choose.

Instead of allowing every setback to become a devastating and shattering blow, proving your lack of worth, why not see them as a bruising but surmountable challenge that simply reflects the difficult realities of the world we live in.

A strongly held preference can fuel your ambition just as much as any rigid demand. But it can also make sure the journey to success is less anxiety-provoking, and, dare we say it, even enjoyable sometimes.

REBT teaches us that by replacing rigid demands with strongly-held preferences, we become more resilient, adaptable, and motivated to reach our goals. We free ourselves from the chains of perfectionism and open ourselves up to a world of possibilities.

Nick Jones
REBT / CBT therapist

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