A friend who got her PhD in Psychology but gave it up to be a headhunter, because it paid more and felt more fun, recently told me that Albert Ellis’s A Guide to Rational Living changed her life.
I’ve heard that from a few smart friends—that Ellis’s 1975 bestseller on depression gives some of the clearest, most practical help on improving your life.
Ellis founded Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy; and he principally argued that depression results from holding onto false, frustrating beliefs about the world. Therapy would help you edit those beliefs.
A sample false belief might be “Everyone should like me”; and it could be helpfully edited to something like this: “I’d like everybody to like me, but I'll survive if they don’t.” In this sense, Ellis encourages people to be more active in positive assessment of their selves and the world.
His bestseller includes chapters titled the following: “Tackling Your Dire Need for Approval,” “Reducing Your Dire Fears of Failure,” and “Acquiring Self-discipline.”
That last one—about self-discipline—might sound out of place. After all, many depressed people are depressed because they are overly self-punishing, and so we might assume that depressed people need to practice more self-soothing, not “discipline.” But here discipline means something quite specific.
The word gains meaning in the light of work by another psychologist in the field of depression, Lynn Rehm. Rehm, author of Depression, developed a theory of depression called the Self Control Model. In it, he argued that depressed people lack self control or cognitive strength in the following areas:
Focusing attention away from negative content
Focusing on long-range goals
Encouraging yourself in spite environmental feedback
Replacing self-criticism with self-approval and reinforcement for progress
In Rehm’s model, depressed people have bad habits in thinking: Research indeed shows that depressed people tend to insult themselves more than others do; they offer a lower amount of positive self-feedback when moving toward their goals; they shy away from long-term goals to focus on immediate problems; and they allow themselves to think too long and frequently about bad news. Rhem’s therapy includes exercises in reversing every one of those trends. Like doing Kegel exercises to control urine flow, patients practice silencing their negative thoughts, to control the flow of them.
Practice. Strengthening exercises. Changing habits. Those are some key ideas behind what are called “cognitive and behavioral methods” in treating depression. This therapy includes homework—activities to practice at home—and all this self-revision from rote can sound dry to some. It does include a gross shift in self: accepting that negative thinking, no matter how comforting it can seem, is not as justified as it often feels. But for all the self-erasure and “discipline,” this stuff often works. It can pump joy back into a life, I’ve heard.
Have any of you read Ellis? Rehm? Have these methods ever been of any use to you?
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.