Showing People They Are Not Worthless Individuals
by Albert Ellis, Ph.D.
Originally published in Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy, 1965, 1( 2 ), 74 -7 7.
Perhaps the most common self-defeating belief of disturbed people is their conviction that they are worthless, inadequate individuals who basically are undeserving of self-respect and happiness. This negative self-evaluation can be tackled in various ways — such as by devoting them unconditional positive regard( Carl Rogers ), directly approving them( Sandor Ferenczi ), or otherwise devoting them supportive therapy( Lewis Wolberg ). I prefer, as I have indicated in my volumes Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy and How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything — Yes, Anything !, an active-directive discussion of the clients’ basic philosophy of life and teaching them that they can view themselves as okay just because they exist, and whether or not they are competent or loved. This is a central teaching of rational emotive behavior therapy( REBT ).
As may well be imagined, I often have great difficulty in proving people that they are merely defining themselves as worthless. For even if I show them, as I often do, that they cannot possibly empirically prove that they are valueless, they still may ask, “But how can you show that I do have value? Isn’t that concept an arbitrary definition, too? “
Yes, it is, I freely acknowledge: For, philosophically speaking, all concepts of human worth are axiomatically dedicated values and cannot be empirically proven so( except by the pragmatic criterion that if you think you’re worthwhile — or worthless — and this belief “works” for you, then you presumably become what you think you are ). It would be philosophically more elegant, I explain to people, if they would not evaluate their self at all but simply accept its existence while merely evaluating their performances. Then they would better solve the problem of their “worth.”
Many people resist this idea of not evaluating themselves for a variety of reasons — particularly because they find it almost impossible to separate their selves from their performances and therefore insist that if their deeds are rotten they likewise must be highly rotten people. I maintain that no matter how inefficient their products are, they are still an ongoing process, and their process or being( as Robert Hartman and Alfred Korzybski have shown) simply cannot be measured as can be their products.
I have recently added a cogent argument for convincing people that they are much more than are their acts. Instead of only demonstrating them that their ego is not to be measured by the criterion used for assessing their performance, I also demonstrate how their( or anyone’s) good creations are not a measure of their self.
“Did you ever realize, ” I ask a person “that almost all emotional disturbance comes from inaccurate or unoperational the definitions contained in our terms about ourselves and our deeds and that it could be minimized if we would force-out ourselves vigorously to define our self-descriptions? “
“How so? ” she usually asks.
“Well, ” I respond, “let’s take Leonardo da Vinci. We usually call him a genius or even a universal genius. But that’s nonsense — he of course wasn’t anything of the sort.”
“He wasn’t? “
“No. To call him — or Michelangelo, or Einstein, or anyone else — a genius is to indulge in slipshod reasoning. Leonardo, admittedly, had aspects of genius. That is, in certain respects and for a specific epoch of history he did remarkably well.”
“But isn’t that what a genius is — one who does remarkably well in certain ways? “
“That’s what we carelessly say. But, actually, utilizing the noun genius clearly implies that a person to whom this title is given is generally an outstanding performer; and of course , no one, including Leonardo, is. In fact, he did many silly, asinine things. He fought with several of his patrons, he often depressed himself, he made himself very angry, etc. So he often behaved stupidly and uncreatively — which is hardly what a true genius should do. Isn’t that right? ” “Well — uh — perhaps.”
“Moreover, let’s even consider his best work — his art. Was he genuinely a thoroughgoing genius even in that respect? Were all, or even most, of his paints great examples of coloring and composition and draughtsmanship and contrast and originality? Barely! Again, if the truth is acknowledged and accurately described, we’d better admit that only certain aspects of Leonardo’s art were masterful; his work as a whole was not.”
“Are you saying, then, that there are no real geniuses? “
“I definitely am. Nor are there any heroes or heroines, any great people. These are fiction, myths which we fallible humen seem determined to believe in order to ignore the fact that we presently are, and probably will always be, highly inefficient, mistake-making animals. So if we want to be sensible, we’d better candidly admit that there are no geniuses or extraordinary people; there are merely people with exceptional deeds. And we’d better sensibly evaluate their acts rather than deifying — or, as the case may be, devil-ifying — their personhoods. People are always human , not deities or devils. Tough! — but that’s the way it is.”
So I now continue, demonstrating as best I can to people that they will never, except by overgeneralized definition, be a hero or an angel — or a louse or a worm. Does this new tack always convince them that they are not the worthless, hopeless slob they are generally think they are? Hell , no! But it has so far proved to be a useful tool in my rational emotive behavior therapy( REBT ).
Discussion by Dr. Bingham Dai
This approach does not help a person to work through his original experiential basis for his sense of worthlessness ;P TAGEND It tends to encourage people to avoid responsibility for the guilt that may be involved ;P TAGEND It overemphasizes the therapist’s intellectual prowess and may enhance a client’s sense of inadequacy ;P TAGEND
It fails to stimulate a client’s own potentialities for health or to make use of his own ability to think through his problems; and
One has reason to doubt that an individual’s sense of personal worth can really be enhanced by the sort of arguments presented here. Since this is claimed to be a report of effective psychotherapeutic techniques, perhaps the reader may want to see some evidence of the effectiveness which is entirely missing.
No, my approach does not help people work through their original experiential bases for their sense of worthlessness; and in my estimation it is only an unverified( and virtually unverifiable) assumption that it is necessary or even desirable to do this. Whatever the original cause of their self-depreciation, the current cause is largely their notion that they are still slobs because they are, and should and must not be, imperfect. I think that they were born with a predisposition to think this nonsense and then were raised to give into this predisposition. No matter! They are capable of giving it up — else psychotherapy of any sort is useless. The notion that they can only change their notions about their worth by understanding the complete origin of these ideas is only a theory, scarcely a fact.
Teaching people that they are worthwhile just because they exist does not encourage them to avoid responsibility for any immoral act they may have committed. On the contrary, by showing them that they are not bad people, even if some of their acts are wrong, are encouraged to to be responsible for their acts, be recognised that they have been mistaken, and to focus on changing their behaviour for the better in the future. Guilt or self-blame promotes repression and depression. Unconditional self-acceptance( USA) even when one is fallible encourages honest confession and greater responsibility in the future.
Clients who feel more inadequate because their therapist displays intellectual prowess do so precisely because they falsely believe that they are worthless if someone else, even their own therapist, excel them. The technique advocated in REBT teaches them that they are never no good , no matter how bright their therapist( or anyone else) is. It thereby helps appreciably to lessen their impressions of inadequacy.
It is Dr. Dai’s hypothesis that teaching people how to guess straighter fails to stimulate their own potentialities for health or make use of their own ability to think through their problems. The entire history of education would tend to show otherwise. If Dr. Dai were correct, every client( and every high school and college student) should be left to muddle through on his or her own rather than be helped to acquire various kinds of helpful knowledge.
Dr. Dai is quite right in asking for evidence of the efficiency of my briefly stated technique. I can only say that I have now utilized it on about 20,000 clients; that about 20 percent seemed to be little affected by it and 80 percentage seemed to be significantly helped. One young female patient was so greatly helped by a single conference consisting almost entirely of this kind of material that she seemed to surrender her deep-seated impression of worthlessness, got out of a serious nation of depression, and began to function much better in her love life and her work.
Decide to define yourself as a “good” or “worthwhile” person merely because you exist, just because you are alive, merely because you are human. For no other reason or condition! Work at — that is, think and act at — unconditionally accepting yourself whether or not you perform “adequately” or “well” and whether or not other people approve of you. Acknowledge that what you do( or don’t do) is often mistaken, foolish, or immoral, but still determinedly accept you, your self, with your faults and do your best to correct your past behavior.
Don’t dedicate any kind of global, generalized rating to your ego, your essence, or your being. Merely — yes, merely — measure or assess what you think, “youre feeling”, or you do. Usually, assess as “good” or “healthy” those thinks, feelings, and behaviors that help you and the members of the social group in which you choose to live and that are not self-defeating or antisocial; and rate as “bad” those that are self-defeating and socially disruptive. Again, work at changing your “bad” behaviours and continuing your “good” behaviors. But stubbornly refuse to globally rate or measure your self or being or personhood at all. Yes, at all!