Most of us believe that the pain in our lives is caused by the painful events in our lives –our failures, losses, betrayals, and disappointments. But a fundamental insight of cognitive therapy is that, to a surprising degree, our suffering is the result, not of events themselves, but of our ideas about the events. More than fifty years ago, Dr. Albert Ellis, one of the founders of cognitive therapy, identified three core beliefs which he believed were behind most of the unnecessary suffering he saw in his psychotherapy office. They are
1. “I absolutely must be thoroughly competent, adequate, achieving, and lovable at all times, or else I am an incompetent, worthless person.” The reality that we are all imperfect and fallible, and that we inevitably fail and make mistakes is too threatening for the perfectionist to concede, because the person caught in this belief fears that if any of his or her imperfections are seen, they will be exposed as worthless and unlovable. A corollary to the unrealistic goal of perfection is the idea that we must have complete and perfect control over everything that happens in our lives, rather than acknowledge that the world is full of accidents and surprises and that we can still enjoy life in spite of its unpredictability. Perfectionist beliefs inevitably lead to feelings of anxiety, panic, depression, despair, and worthlessness.
Some people try to “major” in one area of perfection in order to cut down on the number of areas of life they have to master, in the hope that if they have one specific kind of perfection, all the good things in life will follow. One common example of this among some gay men is the relentless pursuit of the absolutely perfect, gym toned body, a pursuit based on the belief that if I am completely hot than I will also be completely loved. Unfortunately, sexual attraction and love are different things, and being the object of lust in no way guarantees that we’ll be respected or loved. The pursuit of bodily perfection is one of the most unreliable foundations for self-esteem. Even the most perfect body can only remain so for a while, because all bodies get sick, age, and die.
2. “Other significant people in my life absolutely must treat me kindly and fairly at all times, or else I can’t stand it, and they are bad, rotten, and evil persons who should be severely blamed, damned, and vindictively punished for their horrible treatment of me.” This idea leads to inordinate dependence and a passive focus on being loved by significant others for almost everything that one does instead of concentrating on living by one’s own values; earning one’s own self-respect; being recognized for real achievements; and on loving rather than being loved. When we believe that we must have unconditional love from others, instead of accepting that, no matter what we do, some people will love us imperfectly, and some won’t at all, we’re easy marks for the film industry fantasy (so popular among so many women and gay men!) that we all have a “soul mate” out there, and that when we find him or her we’ll have all we’ll ever need to live happily ever after. Paradoxically, since the demand that everyone love us unconditionally cannot be fulfilled, it inevitably results in feelings of anger, rage, fury, and vindictiveness and leads to actions like fights, feuds, wars and genocide.
3. “Things and conditions absolutely must be the way I want them to be and never be too difficult or frustrating. Otherwise, life is awful, terrible, horrible, catastrophic and unbearable.” A corollary to this belief is the idea that if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome we should be terribly upset and endlessly obsess about it – rather than understand that we’re better of if we face it and render it non-dangerous; or, when that isn’t possible, accept what we can’t change. Another related belief is the idea that it is easier to avoid than to face life difficulties and personal-responsibilities rather than understand that the so-called easy way is usually much harder in the long run. Another commonly related belief is that we absolutely need someone or something stronger or greater than ourselves on which to rely – such as an all-knowing Leader or guru, or some magical “secret” which will make all of life’s frustrations go away. Believing that things must always go my way leads to superstition and magical thinking; low-frustration tolerance, self-pity, anger, and depression; and to behaviors such as procrastination, avoidance, and inaction.
These three ideas: I must be perfect; I must always be loved; things must always go my way – are recipes for keeping us frustrated, unhappy, disappointed, and immature, because they are the beliefs of children. But let’s admit it, most of us haven’t one hundred percent reconciled ourselves to being adults. Still, to the degree that we hold these beliefs we put ourselves in contention with life, and when we contend with life we always lose, because, as a friend said to me long ago when we both really were children, “There’s me, and there’s the universe. And the universe is bigger.”