By Albert Ellis, Ph.D.
How would one go about using REBT in order to cope and to help others cope with the tragic events that took place on September 11th? I am looking for a proactive way to deal with the brutality of this act, but find that my irrational beliefs and shoulds are getting in my way.
Albert Ellis replies:
Your irrational beliefs and shoulds that get in your way probably include:
1. “I absolutely must be able to figure out a way to stop terrorists from acting so brutally and killing and maiming so many people, and there is something very weak and inadequate about me because I can’t find a way to stop this kind of terrorism.”
2. “The terrorists and their backers have perpetrated some of the worst deeds imaginable; this makes them completely rotten people who should absolutely be exterminated—quickly—since only killing all of them will stop this deed from happening again.”
3. “Because the world is so full of cruel violence and terrorism, it is a totally despicable place and I cannot continue to live in it and be at all happy.
“These ideas are irrational because, as Alfred Korzybski noted in Science and Sanity in 1933, they are unrealistic and illogical overgeneralizations that render people “unsane”. My 1962 book, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy, showed that all three of these beliefs—and many similar absolutistic shoulds and musts—lead you (and innumerable other people) to make yourself not only very sad and displeased with the terrorists’ abominable behavior, but also to dysfunctionally overwhelm yourself with panic, rage, and depression. Thus, the first of these irrational beliefs will cause you to loathe your entire self, or personhood, not to only deplore your weakness and inadequacy to halt terrorism. The second of these irrational beliefs will make you thoroughly despise the terrorists (and all other people who do cruel deeds) and consume yourself with rage. The third of these irrational beliefs will make you hopelessly depressed about the present and future state of the world and encourage you to obsessively contemplate—and perhaps actually commit—suicide.
Ironically, these three self-defeating shoulds and musts are probably very similar to these held by the terrorists who unsanely killed themselves and thousands of innocent people for what they considered a sacred holy crusade. They first considered themselves powerless because they could not stop America from “cruelly” siding with their enemies; and they therefore felt that they absolutely had to punish America to prove that they themselves were powerful and worthwhile individuals. Second, they devoutly believed that Americans absolutely must not oppose their position and that all Americas are complete devils who deserve to be wiped out. Third, they dogmatically convinced themselves there is no use living in and trying to lead a happy life in such a totally evil world; and therefore, by killing the infidels, they would attain eternal, blissful life. So, with these unsane beliefs, they enthusiastically killed themselves along with countless innocent people.
If you and the rest of American and world citizens keep reinforcing your irrational beliefs, you will enrage yourself against the terrorists and their backers and in the process will likely encourage them to increase their fury against Americans and other people who oppose them, and will encourage more retaliation by them, by us again, until the cycle of retaliation precipitates a world-wide war and quite possibly the end of our planet. As ancient lore and modern history have amply shown, love begets love and hatred and violence beget increased hatred and violence—with no end in sight!
You ask how REBT would help you cope with and help others cope with the tragic events of September 11th. That requires a long answer, which I can only briefly summarize here.
First, you can use REBT to teach yourself—and all others—unconditional self-acceptance. That is, you fully accept yourself with all of your warts and flaws, while heartily disliking and doing your best to change some of your self-defeating behaviors and poor behavior toward others.
Second, you can use REBT to unconditionally accept all other people as persons, no matter how badly they act. You can, of course, firmly try to induce them, in a variety of ways, to change their self-sabotaging and immoral thoughts, feelings, and actions. In Christian terms, you unconditionally accept all sinners but not their sins. Ultimately, some behaviors may require sanctions or imprisonment for individuals.
Third, you unconditionally accept life, with its immense problems and difficulties, and teach yourself to have high frustration tolerance. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, you strive to change the unfortunate things that you can change, to accept (but not to like) those that you cannot change, and to have the wisdom to know the differences.
If you achieve a good measure of these three REBT philosophies—that is, unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other-acceptance, and unconditional life-acceptance—will you therefore be able to convince terrorists to change their absolutistic bigoted ways? Not exactly. But you will cope much better with terrorism, help others to cope with it, and model behavior that can, if you strongly encourage it to be followed around the world, eventually reduce it to a minimum. This will take many years to effect, and will require immense and persistent educational efforts by you and others to promote peaceful and cooperative solutions instead of hateful and destructive “solutions” to serious national and international difficulties. If we fail to work on our own belief systems to produce this long-term purpose, we will only insure renewed terrorism for decades, and perhaps centuries, to come.
Are you willing to keep relentlessly working for REBT’s recommendations for self-peace, peace to other humans, and peace to the world? If so, you may help people of good will to think, plan, and execute eventual answers to terrorism and many other serious world problems.