John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD


How I became a better patient

Recently I had surgery. It wasn’t major surgery, but the recovery was just enough to put me in pain for a week or so and make it difficult to function. During that time, I discovered that I am not a very good patient. Which, curiously, got me remembering Albert Ellis, an eminent psychologist who died in 2007 at the age of 93.

Albert Ellis is familiar figure to mental health professionals around the world. He’s considered one of the founders of the cognitive therapy movement. Today, virtually all therapists-in-training are taught the basics of his Rational-Emotive model. As for Ellis himself, he was known for his salty humor and tireless devotion to helping people overcome their problems. But all accounts he was quite a character. He didn’t just help you identify your irrational beliefs, he disputed them.

And what sort of irrational beliefs did he help you dispute? Consider this one:

“The world must always be comfortable and provide me with exactly what I want.”

Now, I’d like to think I’m a rational guy. I am, after all, a therapist. I try to practice what I preach. Normally, I don’t think the world owes me anything.

But when I was laid up after surgery, my rationality went right out the window. Oh, for the few days I was just fine. But after about a week I’d spent what little patience I had saved up and now I felt emotional overdrawn.

In my world––let’s call this John’s irrational world––I would not need surgery. Hey, I wouldn’t even get sick, because, after all, I don’t have time for something as inconvenient as illness. In my world, my body would do exactly what I demand it must, which is to work perfectly at all times, under all conditions, now and forever more, thank you very much.

You see, Ellis believed that we have a tendency to fall into the habit of thinking in absolutes. Words like must, should, ought-to lead to a cognitive system that’s too rigid. And when these absolutes are applied to the world (we also have a tendency to apply them to ourselves), we are prone to poor stress tolerance, frustration, and anger.

Stress is a fact of life. We all know this. Yet how often don’t we operate as if we must never be stressed? As if somehow there was a rule in the universe that said we should never be made uncomfortable.

When you’re stressed, inconvenienced, or challenged by some unexpected circumstance, have you ever had one of these thoughts?

“This shouldn’t be happening

“I shouldn’t have to put up with this.”

“This just isn’t fair.”

Once we hold the universe to the standard of providing us with comfort, it’s easy to get frustrated or angry when the world fails to comply.

So let’s return to John’s crazy world for a moment. If he were to break the habit of thinking in terms of musts or shoulds, what would the alternative be?

The more rational view might go like this:

It would nice if John’s body stayed free of trouble and he didn’t have to undergo surgery, and certainly preferable. And it would be pleasant if, when the surgery was completed, he bounced back in a few days, pain-free. But these are preferences, not demands.

You might think you’re above absolutist thinking. And maybe you are. Maybe you’re one of those well-balanced individuals who stays rational all the time, not matter how much stress, inconvenience, or hardship you face. Still, think back to the last time you felt angry because life felt unfair. Then ask yourself this: what was your underlying assumption? Did you place an implicit demand on the universe? Was there a should somewhere in your thinking?

I’m still recovering from the surgery. I still have some pain and discomfort and I still can’t do everything I want to do. But if I let the ghost of Albert Ellis be my guide, who, in his salty humor kind of way, would be pointing out that I’ve been must-erbating my way through recovery, I might just become a better patient.