In last week's Southern Star, I advised people to watch out for the 'three major musts' that hold us back and generate unnecessary psychological distress. The column is reproduced below.
‘There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.’
The above quote comes from the late cognitive psychologist Dr Albert Ellis, a famously plain-speaking therapist who believed people make life unnecessarily tricky by holding all kinds of irrational beliefs about themselves and others. Ellis listed a dozen or so especially common examples of these beliefs, some of which included:
- It is a dire necessity for adults to be loved by significant others for almost everything they do;
- Certain acts are awful or wicked, and people who perform such acts are terrible individuals;
- It is horrible when things are not the way we like them to be (continued below...)
- Human misery is externally caused and is forced upon us by outside people and events;
- If something seems dangerous, we must be extremely upset and obsess endlessly about it;
- It is easier to avoid life’s difficulties than to face them;
- I must be thoroughly competent, intelligent and achieving in all important respects;
- My past shapes my present so if something once strongly affected my life, it must indefinitely affect my life;
- I must have certain and perfect control over things;
- I have virtually no control over my emotions and cannot help feeling disturbed about things.
Over time, Ellis boiled these down to the ‘three major musts’: I must do well and win the approval of others or else I am no good; other people absolutely must treat me kindly and fairly or else they are rotten; anything other than a comfortable, easy life is awful and insufferable.
The language used by Ellis was deliberately extreme and exaggerated, to highlight the absurdity of thoughts and actions people often take for granted. Everyone can see these beliefs are irrational, but people nevertheless ‘awfulise’ all the time, turning molehills into mountains and causing all kinds of unnecessary psychological suffering, torturing themselves with various ‘must’ and ‘should’ statements (‘musturbating’, as Ellis called it!).
All of us fall prey to this kind of faulty thinking, as Irish Times columnist and psychotherapist Padraig O Morain admitted recently. ‘I was walking along by St Stephen’s Green in spitting rain and with a cold breeze getting inside my bones’, he wrote. ‘I spotted the state of gloom this change of weather had thrown me into and realised, without much joy, that my attitude was pathetic. Since when did making me feel better become one of the tasks of the weather systems of the world?’
It’s a humorous example, one we can all relate to, but this is a serious matter. Failing to catch habitual negative automatic thoughts can have serious consequences for your well-being, driving dysfunctional beliefs that breed anxiety, low mood and low self-esteem. Rather than acting on autopilot and being a slave to your thoughts, Ellis recommended you identify and dispute them – CBT provides you with techniques to do this – thereby forming new, rational and liberating rules.
Such as? Yes, it’s natural to be disappointed when I don’t get what I want, but it’s not really awful or intolerable. Yes, it’s disappointing if others let me down, but it’s not the end of the world. Yes, it would be nice if everyone liked me but that’s unrealistic, so why beat up on myself for not meeting impossible standards? Yes, it would be nice to have perfect control over my life and environment, but life can be random and unexpected and I can still be happy by accepting this reality.
As I often say, remember that your thoughts are opinions, not facts. Left unchallenged, subjective thoughts harden into unhelpful beliefs, and anxious and depressed thinking patterns become normalised over time. Being alert to the ‘major musts’ that drive our behaviour can help you see the truth in Ellis’s observation that typically, ‘men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them’.