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).
|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
- 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