One of the great secrets of life, and a central insight of cognitive therapy, was summed up in a simple way two thousand years ago by the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.” Most of us assume, most of the time, that when we’re unhappy, the causes are outside of ourselves, in the painful and disappointing things that happen to us. But, to a surprising degree, according to cognitive therapy, our suffering is the result, not of events themselves, but of the attitudes we have about the events. Several decades ago, Albert Ellis, one of the early pioneers of this approach, identified three basic ideas which he believed were behind most of the unnecessary suffering he saw in his psychotherapy patients. 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 fact that we’re all imperfect and fallible, and that we inevitably fail and make mistakes is too threatening for many of us to admit, because we’re afraid that, if anyone sees our imperfections, then we’ll be exposed as worthless and unlovable. Related to this expectation 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. Refusal to accept this basic uncertainty inevitably leads to feelings of anxiety, panic, depression, despair, and worthlessness.
Some people focus on 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’m completely hot than I’ll also be completely loved. But we all know that sexual attraction and love are different things, and that being the object of lust in no way guarantees being respected or loved.
- “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.”
When we demand 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 set ourselves up for inordinate dependence and for a passive focus on being loved by significant others for almost everything that we do instead of concentrating on living by our own values, earning our self-respect, and focusing on loving rather than being loved. Paradoxically, the demand for unconditional love inevitably makes us less lovable, because it is a sense of entitlement that leads to indignation, rage and vindictiveness.
- “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 related belief is the idea that if something may be dangerous or scary we should be upset and endlessly worry about it rather than understand that we’re better off if we face it and remove the danger, or, when that isn’t possible, accept what we can’t change. Another related belief is the idea that it’s easier to avoid than to face life’s difficulties and personal responsibilities rather than understand that the so-called easy way is usually much harder in the long run. Believing that things must always go my way leads to 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 these are the expectations of children. Let’s admit it – we can all be childish sometimes. But to the degree that we hold onto these unrealistic expectations we put ourselves at odds with life, and whenever we fight with life we lose.