I asked Canadian psychologist and Queen’s University adjunct assistant professor, Dr. Irwin Altrows, to share the two most important ideas he learned from Albert Ellis, the famous founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy. Irwin not only shares them, but also shows how to use them for overcoming an excruciating public speaking anxiety. These two interventions apply to overcoming practically every form of needless anxiety.
When he thought about his upcoming English class’ oral presentation, Jake trembled. He thought, “What if I blow it? What if I bomb?”
Before training with the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), Dr. Albert Ellis, this is how I would have responded: “Relax, you’ll do great. You’ll deliver a great talk. You’ve rehearsed it many times. You’ve made cue cards. You’ve even read it to a group of friends, who all gave your talk an A rating. It’s very unlikely that anything will go wrong.”
Like many others, Jake might respond, “Yeah, you think I won’t blow the presentation, but what if you’re wrong? What then?” I might have responded, “Relax. You’ll do fine.” I might have heard Jake respond, “Yes, but…” This reassurance yes-but interaction heads us toward a therapeutic stalemate. In therapy, stalemate means that everyone loses.
Ellis would not have let a stalemate occur in the first place. Let’s see how this interaction plays out using REBT with Jake’s public speaking anxiety. See how you can use these same ideas to combat your own anxieties.
Identify and Dispute Demanding Thinking
Ellis would ask evocative questions to get to the core of Jake’s public speaking anxiety. He’d educate Jake on how he evokes his own anxiety, and how he can gain relief from anxiety thinking by rational self-awareness and self-questioning.
One of Jake’s core irrational beliefs was “I MUST do perfectly or else I’m a failure,” and “I MUST avoid public rejection for an imperfect performance.” This inflexible thinking, even if expressed in different words, can evoke extreme public speaking anxiety. A performance demand of this kind reflects a contingency for worth: You are worthy if you deliver a tremendous speech, and worthless if you do not. This contingent-worth thinking will almost inevitably create a lot of anxiety, since success cannot be guaranteed.
It’s no wonder that Jake felt terrorized about the speech. His personal worth and public image were on the line.
Here is a perspective-creating question for Jake: “If your friend, Tom, gave an oral presentation fell below his standards, would that make him less of a person?” Jake quickly saw that he was far more understanding and tolerant of a poor performance by Tom than he was of himself. That shift in perspective started Jake thinking about his thinking.
To educate Jake on the perils of negative irrational thinking, I used an Ellis-style humorous intervention.
Me: “What’s the worst thing that can happen if you blow your speech?”
Jake: “People would think I was a loser and I would have to retake the course.”
Me: “If you think that’s bad, let’s make it worse. Would the world end? Would you grow three heads?”
Jake embraced the idea that his life would go on even if everyone in his class, including his teacher, thought his presentation was pitiful. The world would not end. He would not grow three heads. Instead, he would learn something valuable from the experience–he could still accept himself even if he, and others, found his performance lacking.
He preferred to do well, but if he didn’t do as well as he wanted, that didn’t make him a worthless person. (This distinction between self and performance can be a powerful antidote for the negative effects of contingent-worth thinking.) That insight was relieving, but Jake had more work to do.
Jake’s cognitive insight was not immediately powerful enough to overcome his anxiety. He expressed the problem just as thousands of others have done: “Up here, in my head, I believe the new, rational idea–rejection won’t kill me. But emotionally, I still feel as if it will.”
Ellis asserted that this cognitive-emotional dissonance is the result of two opposite and co-existing beliefs: the well-established catastrophic and irrational belief about the horrors of failure, and the newly emerging reasonable and calming belief. Although it helps to grasp the logic behind the reasonable idea, this awareness may not be sufficient for the new idea to overcome the earlier, familiar, demanding thinking pattern. Fortunately, Ellis had an evidence-based way to help his clients favorably resolve this dissonance. This may be Ellis’ most important contribution. I call this solution “rational research.”
The Rational Research Technique
Ellis believed that the three most important forces of change are “practice, practice, practice.” To help people overcome various social anxieties, such as public speaking anxiety, he developed routines that he called “shame-attacking exercises,” I prefer to use the phrase, “rational research,” for these exercises are a form of research.
In experimental research, you make hypotheses, conduct experiments, collect relevant data, and evaluate the results in terms of your hypotheses. Jake agreed that he would do rational research for his presentation. Here is how Jake used the concept.
Jake: “I suppose that if I find some other groups to give the speech to, and most of them like the speech, that acceptance will show that my presentation has a good chance of succeeding in my own class. Then I may feel more confident, and I’ll believe that I probably won’t bomb.”
Me: “Your experiment may be a great way of improving your odds of success, but what does it do for your terror of failure?”
Jake: “Nothing. If I succeed, I’ll still be afraid of the next speech, and the one after that, and…”
Me: “Right. So we won’t test the idea that your speech will fail. We’ll test the idea that if you are rejected or unsuccessful in any way, you have to curl up into a ball and roll all the way downhill, pausing only to see the world blow up.”
Jake got it. He tried out several shame-attacking exercises to help himself defuse his social anxieties and fears. He did a few things that were personally hard for him to help defuse his general social anxieties and fears:
- To face his general fear of being turned down and thus rejected, he asked a fellow student to join him for coffee.
- Because he believed he did not deserve any breaks in life, he had never asked for breaks. To help himself confront this problem, he requested a discount at a clothing store.
- Even though he had weak basketball skills, he tried out for his school’s basketball team. (The world did not end when he didn’t make the team.)
- He said hello to dozens of strangers on the street. He received a variety of responses– some positive, some negative, and some interesting–and had some fun doing the research, even though he felt some fear in the process.
Following each experiment, he noted on a memo page in his smartphone whether he had received some kind of rejection or failure experience. If so–and this part is critical–he wrote whether he was physically destroyed and whether the world ended. When people rejected his overtures, he recognized that he emerged unchanged, he did not become a “failure”, and nothing of significance happened.
Jake first felt silly entering these data. As the evidence piled up, he experientially saw that his social anxiety and fear-provoking beliefs were unfounded. His newer, reasonable ideas gained dominance.
Jake started his oral class presentation calmly, knowing that regardless of the outcome, he and the world would survive. And how did his speech go? Well, the earth didn’t shake, but neither did it blow up. Nor did Jake.
Rational research can put the power into new effective beliefs. As Ellis loved to say: “Try it and see!”
This blog is part of the Albert Ellis’s centennial year (and beyond) blog series. Albert Ellis Revisited (Carlson & Knaus 2013) is the Albert Ellis Tribute Book Series centennial yearbook. The publisher, Routledge, offers a 20% discount on the book. Control click on this link: Albert Ellis Revisited. Type the code Ellis for the discount. The book qualifies for free shipping and handling. Bill Knaus’ royalties from this book go directly to the Denan Project charity. When you buy the book, you are helping yourself by learning ways to live life fully, and you are helping bring irrigation, crops, and health care to destitute areas of the world.