REBT's key principle of emotional responsibility

One of REBT’s most fundamental principles is that of emotional responsibility. This principle is at the heart of the ABC model of psychological disturbance which, as we have seen, states that it is our attitudes towards life’s adversities that are centrally implicated in our emotional and behavioural responses to these events. This does not mean that these events do not contribute to our problems, but that they do not create or lie at the centre of our emotional experiences.

The principle that it is the client’s attitudes that lie at the core of their experiences and that they are responsible for these attitudes is a simple one which a client may have enormous difficulty in grasping fully because while they may intellectually understand it, being able to integrate it into their life in a way that makes a fundamental difference to their life is an entirely different matter. Thus, the REB therapist tends to keep returning to this principle and keep emphasizing it, particularly when their client indicates that adversities directly cause their emotional and behavioural responses.

The REB therapist does not bring this principle to their client’s attention every time they say something like ‘he makes me upset’ or ‘she made me disturbed’, etc. - far from it. Doing so will probably only serve as an irritant to the client. However, the REB therapist can usefully refer to the ‘emotional responsibility’ principle at important junctures in the therapeutic process since this will serve as a helpful reminder for the client to look at B-C connections rather than A-C connections.

Practically, there are a number of ways in which the REB therapist can encourage the client to become more aware of the emotional responsibility principle. One is to suggest that they watch television and note the extent to which people use A-C language. They can then apply this exercise in real life. It may also be helpful for them to rephrase people’s language (in their own mind, not directly to these people!) so that they can get used to changing A-C language to B-C language. If, for example, a client hears somebody say: ‘He made me upset’, they can change this in their own mind to: ‘She made herself upset about what he said and this is how she did it.’

Encouraging the client to look for the rigid attitudes (e.g. musts), awfulizing attitudes, discomfort intolerance attitudes and devaluations in their and other people’s thinking serves to reinforce the emotional responsibility principle. They can then be helped to see the connection between such attitudes and the ensuing emotional and behavioural responses.

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