Do you suffer from musterbation?
Is it always ‘must‘ and ‘should‘ and ‘ought‘ with you? This is a phrase coined by the renowned father of CBT, Albert Ellis.
Musty thinking is a classic recipe for general anxiety and unhappiness. In psychotherapy it is also known as inflexible ‘DEMAND THINKING’, and ‘RULES FOR LIVING’.
Let’s take a look at what it is, and how we can neutralise it with healthy realistic ‘preference’ thinking instead, so that you can feel cooler much more of the time, and so that you will have better communication skills with others….
The Ellis idea is that we have distorted thinking about:
- How *I* am: e.g. I MUST do well and be treated with respect, or it is AWFUL and I can’t bear it.
- How *you* are: e.g. You MUST be kind and respectful and considerate toward me, or you are an AWFUL person and I can’t stand it and I have to give out to you and punish you.
- How *the world* is: e.g. Things MUST be comfortable and as I want them to be, or else it’s AWFUL and it’s not fair and I can’t cope.
Why all the absolute inflexible MUST demands of yourself and others and the world? Is that realistic? Are you a special being that unusual universal laws apply to? Are you somebody who has the supreme power to control people, situations and events? Is it written in stone or in the stars that things must be as you demand them to be?
If the answer to those questions is no (and trust me, it is) – then is it realistic to musterbate? (By the way, Ellis was a colourful character who coined the term musterbate.. he also coined: awful-ising, terrible-ising, absolutistic, and I-can’t-stand-it-itis…).
This kind of demand thinking is inflexible and unrealistic, “I want, therefore it follows that I must have!”. It is irrational and unattainable. You may very well attempt to control your environment and yourself and other people so that you can avoid discomfort (our primal fight or flight response to dangers and hazards) – but actually, all you do is bring your fight or flight stress response on when things inevitably go pear shaped (which they will). Stay thinking that way and you’ll aways be dissatisfied and generally unhappy, not to mention the very poor communication skills it fosters.
Well, the Ellis theory is that actually life is random – sometimes unfair, sometimes difficult and frustrating… and that’s just how it is. We are not Gods that get to control people and things according to our will. Demanding it to be another way is futile and causes us to become excessively upset and uncomfortable. The solution is to quite build awareness of when we attempt to control our environments with our musterbation, and to consciously and deliberately thought stop and replace our inflexible demands with realistic ‘PREFERENCES’ instead – to restructure our negative automatic thoughts with healthy rational alternative thinking – over and over and over again, until we have new hardwired thinking that respects and has UNCONDITIONAL ACCEPTANCE of ourselves and others and the world. Big job, but it can be done, it’s been proven to alleviate stress and anxiety and to curb self-sabotaging behaviours (aggression, avoidance, procrastination etc). And the good news is that the brain (literally!) rewires when your new responses give better outcomes, and makes the healthier attitudes and thinking and behaviours your new automatic defaults. Apply apply apply… Change your life.
Examples of new healthier thinking:
How *I* am: I would prefer to be successful and respected and attractive all of the time – but that’s just a preference, it’s not a demand, as demanding that would be silly. I’m a fallible human being, and I have ups and downs. Sometimes I don’t like the way I look, sometimes things are difficult for me in work or relationships, and not all people respond to me with respect and consideration… this is normal, it’s this way for everybody. I aspire to unconditionally accept myself. I’m a worthy person who is working on ways to live a better life. Waiting for a time my demands will be met to ‘be happy’ would be irrational – there are many things, small and large, to be happy about right now, and in the future.
How *you* are: I would prefer you to think everything I say and do is amazing, and for you to treat me reasonably, considerately and respectfully all of the time. But that’s just a preference, as I know that people are governed by their own priorities, and that I can’t control your thoughts and feelings and behaviours. You might very well have your own ‘must’ demand thinking that I don’t conform to, that’s something I will just have to gracefully lump if I cannot persuade you to change your view. I aspire to unconditionally accept you and your right to think and behave as you wish, even if I don’t like it or agree with it.
How the *world* is: I would prefer it if things and conditions were absolutely as I want them to be all of the time – but that’s just a preference. Much as I’d like it, I’m not the master of the world – and stuff happens… even if I find some situations difficult or frustrating, awfulising them and declaring I can’t stand it and so on is pointless, and only serves to maximise my upset and discomfort and frustration. I can in fact ‘stand it’, it’s more true to say I’d rather I didn’t have to stand it, and that I don’t like standing it – but I accept life is random and it is what it is. I aspire to unconditionally accept the world and it’s randomness.
Get the picture? Start thinking about your own thinking… figure out if and in what instances you use demand thinking, and aim to replace it with ‘preferences’ instead… Write your own short dispute and thought stopping interruption down, and start using it. Today. You will feel better, I promise!
Play around with the theory – consider how it might affect your communication skills – noting that applying must and shoulds to other people’s general behaviour is a recipe for discontent (your own and theirs!) and unhealthy interactions with poor outcomes.
Example: “you must not behave that way! I disapprove as I think that you should and ought to think and behave differently – so I’m going to punish you ...” and so on… Maybe you think somebody is ugly or uncool or dull, and that they should not and must not be that way? Um, because you say so? Maybe you think somebody is ‘full of themselves’ and should not and must not be that way? Maybe you think somebody is selfish and shouldn’t be that way? Do these people irritate or enrage you? Hmmm. Think on… (Tip: whisper ‘Ah here, get over yourself” to yourself when you’re thought stopping).
When we decide how people should and must and ought to look and talk and feel and behave – and when we give ourselves the divine right to punish people when they don’t fit these rules – we might actually be classified as bullying. Think about it… Does this ever apply to you? And if it does, would you prefer it if you were generally kind and accepting and laid back and cool instead of the inflexible Musty way that makes you a ‘punisher’? You can work on that change…
Note: even if someone does behave badly and against general rules and values, it doesn’t make them ‘bad’ – we are all a work in progress and a sum of many parts. People are not their behaviours, their behaviours are just something they do sometimes. And, if we are allowed to discover and challenge our distorted thinking and self sabotaging behaviours, then why can’t we grant others the same rights? People behave as they do (even if it’s appallingly) based on the information they have at that moment in time, based on their judgement and processing of the event or situation, which causes their response. Just like we do. Try to remind yourself of that when you have explody head, and don’t take things personally – even if somebody does think little of you, you don’t have to agree with them. And, often, while you’re raging and visualising full scenes complete with dialogue (“I’ll say this, then he’ll say that…”), the object of your disapproval is oblivious, and off living their life. Makes changes and live your life.
So – do you want to be cool? Do you want to work on having a more moderate temperament? Do you want to develop rational thinking skills that respect what you can control versus what you cannot control? Wouldn’t it be nice to unconditionally accept people as we would wish ourselves to be accepted? Flaws and all? Not least because you’ll be calm and zen(er), instead of being enraged and plotting and planning punishments? Yes? Start today!
And remember… these are aspirations, nobody is expecting you to become Buddha overnight (or ever even), just do your best, and remember it’s not only the right thing to do – this is about you feeling good, being calmer and happier. Have fun…
(Demand thinking is irrational – whereby we apply inflexible ‘musts’ and ‘should’s and ‘oughts’ to ourselves, and others, and the world. Aim to turn these demands into preferences instead… and aspire to unconditional acceptance of yourself and others and the world
The Prince of Reason (an interview with Albert Ellis by Psychology Today)
CBT and Feeling Good Ireland (my website with more info on what I do and how you can benefit )