Bolster the jockey – being rational in a hard world

I would like to thank Karen DeCoster (@notchuraverage1), a career and technical education specialist at Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, for contributing this post — David
Christmas Photo by theirhistory

This jockey may not require bolstering

Several months ago, a series of discussions on the LinkedIn Group Careers Debate caused me to re-examine my counselling beliefs and methods, particularly as they apply to helping individuals  struggling with career indecision.  For the most part, I use a direct and sometimes confrontational approach in assisting individuals such as the panicked college junior who can’t seem to settle on a major,  the millennial who describes being miserably “stuck” in a job that she hates or the chronically unemployed 50 something professional who is resistant to change.  While no single methodology can guarantee success in counselling indecisive individuals there is one that seems to fit well with my direct approach.

In graduate school, one of my first classes was a course in which we examined various theories and procedures used in counselling.   Two theories particularly resonated with me:  Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and William Glasser’s Reality Therapy (now called Choice Theory) in that order.  Over the years, there were a few others but as the saying goes, you never forget your first.

REBT is a clear cut theory of personality that employs a straight talk methodology, based in large part on the hypothesis that there are three musts that hold us back:

  • I must do well.
  • You must treat me well.
  • The world must be easy.

Ellis coined the term ‘musterbation’ to describe such thinking.

When a college junior says that she can’t choose a major she may well be dodging the decision fuelled by the irrational belief that making no choice will protect her from the threat of imperfection (i.e., choosing ‘the wrong’ major, or worse, failing in the major of her choice).  She may be held back by the irrational belief she must always do well and that it would be shameful to make a mistake in her choice.  The unemployed jobseeker who resists a longer commute or new course of action in his job search may well be saying, ‘I’m not interested in exploring these options because that will be too difficult and will require personal sacrifice; life must be easier for me.’

REBT maintains that, in large part, our absolutistic thinking and grandiose desires not only hold us back but lead to emotional disturbances if kept unchecked.  That resonates with me.  I’ve been guilty of such crazy thinking too, which is why I believe that many clients struggling with career indecision would benefit from a counselling approach that is directive, educational, at times confrontational.  Ellis’ straight-talk methodology offers clients a means to an end based on the belief that self discipline and hard work is the way to ‘get unstuck’ and moving in a positive direction.

Rational thinking vaporizes musterbation

The role of the practitioner in REBT oriented counselling is to ‘teach people to replace their musts, shoulds and demands with flexible preferences’ (Ellis & Dryden, 1987). According to Albert Ellis, our emotional reaction to having our goals blocked (or even the possibility of having them blocked) is directly tied to our irrational beliefs.

The way out of our musterbatory cave is to shine a flashlight on our thinking, using a simple format for examining our beliefs—the ABCD Model.  The model helps us recognize that there is little if any direct causal relationship between our emotional reactions (Consequences) and the Activating events that precede them.  Instead, our attention is directed to our Beliefs about the event (the thing that we tell ourselves between A and C ) where we are then asked to question the logic of our beliefs (Dispute) and replace them with rational thinking about the events in our lives.

For example, a client describes and exhibits great anxiety (C) following an interview that went poorly (A).  She believes that she will never find a job because she ‘bombed another  interview.’  The counsellor helps her to identify the Belief that is really upsetting her (e.g. interviewing should be easy and/or I must always do well in interviews) and to Dispute that belief  (e.g. ‘Who said interviewing should be easy? Can you prove it?).  Once the client acknowledges that interviewing is not easy for the vast majority, the counsellor helps her to replace her musterbatory thinking with a more rational preference: ‘It would be nice to have done well in my interview today but it doesn’t mean I won’t do better next time.  I wish that interviewing was less stressful but it’s that way for most people.  If I do a lot of mock interviewing and learn and practice stress reducing strategies I’ll get better at it.’  The counsellor may even point out as I once heard Ellis do in a live counselling demonstration, ‘So it’s difficult, so what?  Life is hard.  Show me the evidence that life is supposed to be easy.’

While REBT is not effective with all clients in mental health counselling (no methodology is) several studies document its efficacy in treating a number of psychological conditions (e.g., social anxiety, depression).  And the research points to its efficacy (Feltham, 1997; Lyons & Woods, 1991).  I believe this is precisely because it is based on a theory and methodology that  guides the individual away from musterbatory thinking toward unconditional and sensible acceptance of self, others and life in general.  As outlined below, the efficacy of the REBT acceptance model has numerous implications and potential for assistance in career planning and decision making (source: www.rebtnetwork.org).

 Self-acceptance Other-acceptance Life-acceptance
I am a fallible human being; I have my good points and my bad points. Other people will treat me unfairly from time to time. Life doesn’t always work out the way that I’d like it to.
There is no reason why I must not have flaws. There is no reason why they must treat me fairly. There is no reason why life must go the way I want it to
Despite my good points/bad points, I am no more/less worthy than any other human being. People who treat me unfairly are no more/less worthy than any other human being. Life is not necessarily pleasant but it is never awful and it is nearly always bearable.

Some think rationally all of the time, but most think rationally only some of the time.

Year ago, I latched onto a powerful metaphor while reading Laurence Gonzales’ enthralling book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why‘Reason is the jockey on the horse called emotion.’  In my lifetime I have know a few die-hard pragmatists who don’t even own a horse; incapable of making decisions fuelled by emotion, they saunter towards their goals on foot.  But most of us mount our horse straddling our grandiose wishes, dreams and desires and canter towards our goals. Some prefer to stay in the stable.  Recalling times when I did, I now recognize that it was my horse that was holding me back.  If I had it to do over again, I’d have my jockey yank on the reins and use spurs if necessary.   Perhaps when people seek help with career indecision it’s because their horse isn’t budging?

Karen A. DeCoster

Further reading

  • Ellis, A. & Dryden W. (1987). The Practice of Rational Emotive Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing  Company.
  • Feltham, C. (ed) (1997). Which Psychotherapy?: Leading Exponents Explain Their Differences. SAGE.
  • Lyons, L. C. & Woods, P. J. (1991). The efficacy of rational-emotive therapy: A quantitative review of the outcome research. Clinical Psychology Review, 11, 357-369

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  1. #1 by Tom on 20 January 2012 - 07:35

    Sometimes the horse is riding the jockey. This is not only uncomfortable for the jockey, but frustrating for the horse.

    In my own case, it took me many years to understand that I was lumbering along under the weight of a horse. When I finally asked the horse if they would mind getting off my back, she replied: “I thought you’d never ask.” But instead of taking charge of the reins, I let the horse take me wherever they want. Horses are pretty smart: if allowed to be free, they stop to eat and drink when they need to, travel at a pace they want. Horses have good social skills and herd members cooperate and stick together.

    The lead mare in a herd of horses is responsible for the overall safety of the herd, is familiar with the terrain and resources available, takes the lead when the herd travels, determines the best route, decides when to move from one place to another and, more importantly asserts her right to drink first at the pub and stake out the best location for gourmet pizza.

    The herd stallion fights off predators and male teenagers who think they should be the king of the heap and, when the herd is on the move, brings up the rear, watching for predators (and the rear ends of the fillies) and driving straggling herd members on to keep the group together. Apart from mating season, most of the time, the stallion is fairly relaxed. Who wouldn’t be, with a bevy of mares and fillies to watch over at a ratio of around 10 to one!

    Where was I? Oh yeah, when treating life as a series of random events by allowing the horse to take most of the control, life becomes more interesting, fulfilling, challenging and fun. Realising that there is little we can do about many things in life releases energy for the one or two things over which we can exercise control.

    The life of a horse is not easy – whether in the wild or in domesticated environments – but it’s the one you have.

    • #2 by David Winter on 20 January 2012 - 11:12

      Hi Tom

      Thank you for your picturesque extension of the metaphor Karen referred to.

      Do I interpret your choice to let your horse take you wherever it wants as a recommendation to follow your emotions and your gut instincts?

      Letting the horse have free rein only works if the horse is fairly placid and is familiar with the territory. Perhaps the same is true of following your gut instincts. It’s fine if your instincts are reliable. And this usually happens in areas with which you have some experience and familiarity.

      However, when your emotions are more impulsive or unreliable, or when you are dealing with situations that your previous experience has not prepared you for, it may be more dangerous to let the horse have free rein.

      The irrational thinking that Karen describes in the rest of the post, might represent situations in which your horse has a tendency to bolt at the slightest disturbance or to randomly bite other horses and riders, or just to walk round in circles.

  2. #3 by Tom on 20 January 2012 - 12:22

    David – Many important decisions are well made on the basis of emotions and gut instincts. However, intuition works best when there is a foundation of strong evidence. And heck, no metaphor is perfect.

    Horses are pretty relaxed and placid most of the time – except during mating season when things get a bit hectic. But watch horses in the wild and you will see that they don’t tend to rush around too much, except for fun and when there’s a wolf or coyote or dingo or some idiot in a helicopter. And then it makes sense to head for cover. Horses bolt when they perceive a need to amscray. Many people bolt when they should sit and consider first.

    In horse culture, the less experienced rely on the experience/wisdom of the more experienced. I had this experience only a few hours ago. A friend and her daughter visited me today to share some sad news and to ask me for a pretty big favour in relation to that event. My gut instinct was to do the favour, but since it involved a few bales of hay and I was in unfamiliar territory, I consulted by phone with my partner, who is away for a few days. I asked her to speak to our friend to get an understanding of the situation and the circumstances. (My partner and our friend are from the same cultural background background which is different to mine and this had a bearing on the matter.) My partner’s advice was to not do the favour and her understanding of the bigger issues is deeper than mine. Even though I was the one who had to tell our friend that we sorry that we were not prepared to do what she was asking, at the end of the day it was the decision made.

  3. #4 by Karen on 20 January 2012 - 12:25

    A most excellent and provocative comment,Tom, thank you! I was really drawn to what you wrote here (and I do agree): “Realising that there is little we can do about many things in life releases energy for the one or two things over which we can exercise control.” Questions: What are those one or two things and are they universal? Sure it’s not 3 or 4?

    Great follow up questions and observations, David! Here’s hoping Tom replies.

    • #5 by Tom on 20 January 2012 - 13:06

      If one were a purist, the answer might be that you can’t control nuttin’. I know what I would like for dinner, but if I have a power outage or I forgot to buy the key ingredient the last time the deli owner had the pleasure of my company, even that flies out the window and it’s take out.

      However, a less flippant responses is that one can control how one perceives and responds to a situation: the glass half full / empty kind of thing. I could get angry and hungry or I could see my predicament as a chance to try a new item on the menu or a chance to have a romantic dinner with my partner and see my moves still work.

      One can also control how much energy, enthusiasm and effort one puts into something. As in, the more you put in the more you get out of it. Lifting light weights with ease is not as beneficial than exerting the greater effort required to lift heavier weights. It’s also more impressive to onlookers.

      You can also probably control how much joy, enjoyment and pleasure you are prepared to allow yourself from a situation, event, task or activity. If you don’t have fun either make it fun or don’t do it.

      You can control how much you think about something and what you think about it. If one is missing one’s other half, as I am because she is away managing a construction project, I could get depressed if I think too much about that or I could think about a creative welcome back.

      That kind of stuff. The rest is in someone else’s hands. With that in mind, I am off to lift weights. Heavy ones.

  4. #6 by Karen on 20 January 2012 - 13:30

    “Many people bolt when they should sit and consider first.” Indeed while others don’t move when they’d be better off if they did.

    Great story about experience/wisdom too, Tom.

  5. #7 by Arlene on 21 January 2012 - 00:05

    I love the image of the horse riding the jockey and Tom’s sympathy for how frustrating it must be for the horse. If the horse is a symbol for strong feelings or emotions and the jockey (aka the voice of reason) is positioned underneath the horse rather than riding atop the horse, that doesn’t sound like a recipe for success or satisfaction. On the other hand, if you have a skilled rider (strong, well-developed sense of reason) then the rider can use the power and strength of emotion to move through time and space with grace, and intentionality.

    I know that Freud has fallen out of favor but this is Freud’s metaphor. He was the theorist who used the metaphor of the “riderless horse” to illustrate how important it is for an individual to develop a strong ego (in Freudian terms meaning strong Voice of Reason) that, in turn, fuels competency and gives an individual greater influence over the outcome of their own lives.

    Sorry David, I know you don’t like the Freudian metaphor.

    • #8 by David Winter on 21 January 2012 - 07:18

      Hey! I’m all for metaphors, wherever they come from. My worry is when the metaphor is mistaken for the reality and when the limitations of the metaphor are not recognised.

      For example, this rider-horse metaphor makes you conceptualise rationality and emotion as two separate and disinct entities. Are they? What about the borderline? What about the grey areas that mix up rational and emotional reasoning? What if it’s a continuum rather than a dichotomy? Maybe we should be talking about centaurs, rather than horse and rider.

  6. #9 by Karen on 21 January 2012 - 13:59

    Thank you for the ah ha moment, Arlene. I had no idea that this was really Freud’s metaphor. I am fascinated by the concept of ego as the voice of reason. It works for me.

    As always David you ask such fabulous questions! My knee jerk answer to the one about the distinction between reason and emotion is: yes, they are very different entities like salt and pepper (seems to be a fitting comparison and a readily available one as a pan of duxelles [to which I JUST added S&P] is simmering behind me as I comment) but after I log off and resume my dinner party preparations you can be sure that I will be turning your question of continuum over and over in my head. Must say that your brilliant use of the centaur metaphor drives your point home powerfully.

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