Teaching Self-Control

Combining a script from a popular movie, with the wisdom from the famous rational therapist Dr. Albert Ellis, Kingston Canada psychologist, Dr. Irwin Altrows, spun a charming story for teaching self-control. He follows this with six tips for using the messages from the story. (Dr. Bill Knaus)

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and my children persuaded me to watch Pirates of the Caribbean with them.  Admittedly, I would have preferred that we hike in the wilderness, but that was not to be.

Shortly into the movie, I heard a phrase from the lead character, pirate Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp. Here’s the phrase that grabbed my attention:

Must, should, do, don’t, shall, shall not — those are just suggestions.”

When I heard these words, I jumped out of my chair and shouted, “Yes! Pure Ellis.  Sparrow gets Ellis.” I continued: “ Sparrow has just given us a super example of a top insight from  the brilliant psychotherapist, Albert Ellis.  Remember these words. They convey an important life lesson.”

“Sparrow”, I continued, “in the shadow of Ellis, implies that we upset ourselves with our personal requirements for fairness and by our demands, our shoulds, our oughts, that we must have the form of fairness that we think we must have and must have now.  For example, if you think that I’m unfair, and this should not be, you will upset yourself whenever things do not go your way. Indeed, we would be better off replacing our demands with preferences or, as Jack Sparrow says, with suggestions. A preference for fairness is understandable.”

My daughter implored, “Daddy, please relax”.

I settled down for a moment. But before I knew it, Jack Sparrow displayed another irresistible gem.

“There are only two absolute rules.  What a man can do. And what a man can’t do.”

I could hardly contain myself. “Brilliant! The script writer must have read Ellis, and then summarized a main Ellis point.”

Surprisingly unimpressed, my son begged, “Daddy, please quiet down! I can’t hear the movie.”

Undeterred, I explained Ellis’ point.  “Don’t you love this revelation? As Albert Ellis points out in his rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT), when we tell ourselves how others should behave, we burn a lot of energy upsetting ourselves, since their behavior does not usually conform to our demands. Meanwhile, if we try to force others to change, we are likely to hit a wall. Worse, this effort takes time from what we can change and can do. ”

I continued. “What are the things we can do? Well, we can choose how we think about unpleasant events.  For instance, when you absolutely cannot get your way, you have the choice of beating your head against a wall or accepting that reality.  You can decide to worry over things you cannot control, or not to anger yourself. If you choose to be calm and accepting, you can take positive decisive action.

As the security guard approached, my daughter whispered, “Sorry Daddy. Too bad you didn’t listen to us.”

The guard was courteous but firm. “Sir, please come with me. You can’t stand up and give a speech in a movie theatre.”

Eureka! Here was another opportunity to impart a lesson. “According to Ellis, and now also Jack Sparrow, I can give the speech. That is something I can do, and I did it. In contrast, I wish that I could stop you from ejecting me, but that, alas, is something I can’t do. Do you see the difference?”

“I understand sir, but you really should not…”

On hearing the expression “should not”, I recognized that the guard could benefit from further elaboration. “According to both Jack Sparrow and Albert Ellis, the irrational demanding version of ‘should not’ is best replaced by a suggestion. For example, some people may prefer that I sit quietly in a movie theatre, and refrain from giving mental health speeches, but their preference does not imply I ‘should not’ speak up. Perhaps some fellow movie buffs will benefit from hearing about Albert Ellis’ wisdom.”

The security guard had a different view, and handed me over to a police officer.

On the way to the station, I had an epiphany. Turning to the officer, I inquired, “Hey, will I have enough time in the bucket to spread the word of a responsible, should-free life, to inmates?”

The police released me on condition that I avoid all movies, plays, and poetry readings bearing on Albert Ellis’ work. I left the station feeling liberated. By following Ellis’ teachings, I had refused to upset myself over the loss of these important but nonessential privileges.

Was this a teachable moment for my children? Perhaps, but I still don’t understand their reactions. For some reason, they have stopped asking me to take them to the movie, in favour of wilderness hikes.

Can you turn the story into a teachable moment? Here are six tips:

  1. Explore the difference between demanding, preferring, and suggesting (without lecturing).
  2. Raise questions about where and why Jack Sparrow’s thoughts apply.
  3. Examine what the “father” could do to avoid social consequences.
  4. Evoke where your child or teen could use the information to benefit themselves and others.
  5. Encourage experimenting with applying the ideas.
  6. Acknowledge self-control accomplishments to reinforce positive self-control behavior.

This blog is part of a series to celebrate the 100th and 101st year anniversaries of Dr. Albert Ellis’ birth. Ellis is the founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy and the grandfather of cognitive-behavior therapy.

Albert Ellis Revisited (Carlson & Knaus 2013) is the Albert Ellis Tribute Book Series centennial book.  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.



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