TWELVE RATIONAL PRINCIPLES - Part I

by Wayne Froggatt

 

[Copyright Notice: This document is copyright to the author (1997). Single copies (which include this notice) may be made for therapeutic or training purposes. For permission to use it in any other way, contact: Wayne Froggatt, 205 Sunnybank Crescent, Hastings, New Zealand. (E-mail: wayne@rational.org.nz). Comments  welcomed.]

The twelve principles outlined below are the heart of the book Good Stress: The life that can be yours by Wayne Froggatt (Harper Collins, Auckland, 1997). [Says Wayne Froggatt:] "They will help you achieve success at stress management in two ways. First, they will help you counter the self-defeating beliefs that create distress. Second, they will help you overcome a number of common blocks to using the practical strategies that are a standard part of stress management training."

Contents - the 12 Principles:
Self-Knowledge
Self-Acceptance and Confidence
Enlightened Self-Interest
Tolerance for Frustration and Discomfort
Long-Range Enjoyment
Risk-Taking
Moderation
Emotional and Behavioural Responsibility
Self-Direction and Commitment
Flexibility
Objective Thinking
Acceptance of Reality

[This article covers the first six principles.  Part II, containing the remaining six principles may be reached via our contents pages or by clicking on the link at the foot of this page]

1. Self-knowledge
Self-knowledge appears as the first principle, because most of the others build on it. It involves knowing your capabilities and your limits, your personal temperament and typical coping style, and your values and goals.

Aspects of self-knowledge
Are you what Hans Selye calls a racehorse, or are you a turtle?. Racehorses thrive on stress and are only happy with a vigorous, fast-paced lifestyle. Turtles require peace, quiet, and a generally tranquil environment. These are of course extremes - people are usually somewhere in between.

What are your values, what matters to you? Though many aspects will be shared with others in your social group, every person has a unique system of values and goals.
Everyone has certain abilities - and limits. Do you recognise your abilities and make the most of them? Do you also acknowledge your limits and know when to stop?

Why knowing yourself is important to stress management
You may feel comfortable with some of your characteristics, less happy with others. In either case, to effectively manage stress you need to be aware of your own optimum stress level and coping style, as well as the goals and values that guide your reactions.
Everyone has their own temperament, style of managing stress, and value system. You need to develop strategies relevant to your personal style and compatible with your personal values, otherwise you are not likely to use them.

Developing self-knowledge
How can you become more aware of your coping style and optimum stress level? Here are some suggestions.

Identify your typical stress triggers. What situations do you typically react to? Keep a log for a few weeks.

You are the best intuitive judge of your optimum stress level. Observe what your body is doing - note your typical stress signs.

Observe how you typically cope with problems. What works for you? What do you tend to do that is unhelpful?

There are some strategies to help you identify your values and goals in Chapter Nine of GoodStress. Use these to check out your preferences, values and standards. Are they realistic and appropriate? Have you thought them through for yourself?
Completing rational self-analyses will help you identify the underlying values that guide your reactions to specific events and circumstances.

Further reading
Asbell, Bernard. What They Know About You. Random House, New York, 1991.
McCutcheon, Marc. The Compass in Your Nose and Other Astonishing Facts About Humans. Schwartz and Wilkinson, Melbourne, 1989.

2. Self-acceptance and confidence
Self-acceptance and confidence are closely related concepts. One builds on the other. Being able to accept yourself as you are, free of any demand that you be different, provides the basis for confidence in your abilities. Confidence, in turn, will enable you to take risks, try new things, and direct your own life.

Accepting yourself
To accept yourself is to acknowledge three things: (1) you exist, (2) there is no reason why you should be any different from how you are, and (3) you are neither worthy nor unworthy.

Acknowledgment that you exist is probably straightforward. It is the other two parts that most people find hard to grasp.
Self-acceptance involves rejection of any demand that you be different. You may sensibly prefer to be different. You may decide it is in your interests to change some things. But keep the desire to change as a preference. Instead of believing that you have to change, see change as a choice.

Do not attempt to measure your selfor set some kind of valueon yourself. Self-acceptance is radically different to self-esteem. Self-esteem is based on the idea that you are a goodor worthwhileperson. Worthwhileness requires some criteria, like how well you perform, or the idea that you are worthwhile simply because you exist. Self-acceptance, on the other hand, is based on the idea that you dont have to be goodor worthwhile. In fact, there is no need to evaluate yourself at all! Instead of evaluating your self, you use your energy and time to evaluate (1) your behaviour, and (2) the quality of your existence.

Evaluating your behaviour is a good idea. You can check whether it helps you enjoy your life and achieve your goals. It is also a good idea to evaluate the quality of your existence. Your enjoyment of life is surely important - more important than worrying about whether you are a worthwhileperson.

Having confidence in your abilities
Self-knowledge and self-acceptance are preconditions for confidence. To have confidence in your abilities involves three things. First, you know what you can and cant do. Second, you are prepared to try things to the limit of your ability. And third, you regularly work at extending your capabilities.
Having confidence in your abilities is different to having confidence in your self. Self-confidence implies perfection - that you, as a total person, are able to do everything well. This is unrealistic and grandiose.

Having confidence in your abilities is more realistic. Instead of talking about self-confidence, follow the advice of Paul Hauck and talk about social confidence, work confidence, driving confidence, house-care confidence, examination confidence, relationship confidence, and so on. In other words, develop confidence in specific abilities rather than in your total self.

In practice, ability-confidence would involve behaviours like the following:
Doing things without demanding you succeed, and viewing mistakes as opportunities for learning. Confidence grows out of the attempt, the doing, rather than from the result.

Evaluating your actions and performances in terms of how they help you reach your goals - not what they prove about you as a person.
Taking calculated risks with important activities such as choosing a career, changing jobs, or starting a new relationship.

Persevering - not giving up when you do less well than you want; rejecting any belief that everything should come easy; and accepting that many good things involve overcoming obstacles, setbacks, and persisting over a period of time.
Learning from your experiences - trying something, analysing your experience, seeing where you went wrong and working out what you can do to improve your abilities.
Why these are important to stress management

If you are prone to rating your total self, you may want to avoid looking closely at your actions because to do so may lead to self-downing. Paradoxically, self-acceptance is more likely than self-evaluation to lead to constructive change. Confidence in your abilities will free you to take risks, try new experiences and learn new lessons.
If you can accept yourself with your unique characteristics and preferences, you will be less likely to live your life to suit other people.

As Martin Seligman has pointed out, there are limits to how much we can change ourselves. Human beings are not perfectible. If you can accept imperfection in yourself, you are less likely to engage in dangerous behaviour striving for the unattainable.

Developing self-acceptance and confidence
Self-acceptance as an alternative to self-evaluation is not an easy concept to grasp. The tendency to self-evaluation seems to be built in to human beings, and the self-esteem concept is pervasive in our thinking and culture.
Think through the philosophy of self-acceptance. Read about it. Write down your thoughts on it. Talk about it with others (many people will argue against the concept, which will give you the opportunity to hone your thinking!).

Finally, and most important, behave like a self-accepting and confident person. As far as possible, practice living in accordance with your preferences, values and standards. Say what you believe, be open and honest as to who you are (but do this appropriately with people significant to you, and take into account their preferences and feelings). Treat yourself to things you used to think you did not deserve. Try things you used to be afraid to do - without any demand that you succeed.

Further reading
Hauck, P.A. Overcoming the Rating Game: Beyond self-love - beyond self-esteem. Westminster/John Knox, Louisville, KY, 1992.
Dalrymple, Theodore. Letting the Steam out of Self-Esteem. Psychology Today, 28:5, 24-26, 1995.

3. Enlightened self-interest
The ability to act in your own interests follows on from self-acceptance and confidence. As we shall see, it is also important to take into account the interests of others. The principle of enlightened self-interest takes into account both parts:

You place your own interests first.
You keep in mind that your own interests will be best served if you take into account the interests of others.

Human beings are fundamentally self-interested
Notwithstanding any precepts that say we shouldbe otherwise, human beings appear to be intrinsically concerned first with their own welfare.

Hans Selye has argued that the desire to maintain oneself and stay happy is the most ancient - and one of the most important - impulses that motivates living beings. All living beings protect their own interests first of all. Selye points out that this begins with our basic biological make-up, in that the various cells in our bodies only cooperate with each other to ensure their own survival.

Human beings are also motivated by social interest
Selye has pointed out, though, that we are also strongly motivated by altruistic feelings. As well as self-interest, we also possess social interest - the wish to ensure that the social system as a whole survives and develops.
How is that two apparently contradictory tendencies can co-exist? The answer is that we help others in order to help ourselves. In other words, our self-interest is enlightened.

It appears that like self-interest, social interest is also inherent within human beings - both have biological roots. Collaboration between body cells promotes the survival of each individual cell and enables the total organism to function.

In effect, individual interests are best served by mutual cooperation. Accordingly, self-interest without social interest is misguided. So is social interest without self-interest. Always putting others first leads to resentment or a martyr attitude. People who believe they are acting purely in the interests of others are dangerous. By denying (to themselves) that their own self-interest is involved, such people may justify all types of manipulative and controlling behaviour toward others.

You are both self-interested and socially-interested. This dual tendency is built in to your very being and begins with your basic biology. By accepting this about yourself, you will be able to do a better job of acting in your own interests - in an enlightened manner.

What is it to be enlightened?
The word enlightenedhas several related meanings. It is humanitarian - charitable, liberal, and idealistic; and at the same time utilitarian - useful, beneficial, and practical.
Can you see how merging an enlightened attitude with innate self-interest can apply at all levels - to yourself, to your family, to your town or city, to your country, and to the world as a whole? Consider the effect on this planet if every person acknowledged their self-interest and then practiced it in an enlightened manner. What if every country based its external and foreign policies on the humanitarian and practical principle of enlightened self-interest?

Why enlightened self-interest is important to stress management
If human beings did not have an inherent will to protect themselves and further their own interests, they would not survive. If you dont attend to your own interests, who will? Knowing what is in your interests will help you get what is best for you and avoid what is harmful. It will keep you moving toward your goals - and ensure that your goals are the right ones for you.

But you had better simultaneously take into account the interests of others. Getting people to have positive feelings toward you is a good idea. They will be more likely to treat you well and less likely to harm you. Contributing to their welfare will encourage them to contribute to yours. And contributing to the development and survival of the society in which you live will mean a better environment in which to pursue your interests.
If you acknowledge that self-interest is inherent in your nature, you will feel less guilty about looking after yourself. If you acknowledge that altruistic behaviour is in your interests, you will be more likely to cooperate with others. If you do both, everyone gains.

Developing enlightened self-interest
Begin by practicing enlightened behaviours. Here are some ideas to get you started now:

Go out of your way to show positive feelings towards others - gratitude, respect, trust - which in turn will arouse goodwill from them.

Choose some new activities in various life areas - work, family, leisure - that will bring goodwill.

At the same time, act assertively. Ask for what you want, say Noto what you dont, and tell others (when appropriate) what you think and how you feel.
Make a point of doing something just for yourself each day for a while.

Until enlightened self-interest becomes part of you, consciously seek to get more of what you want while facilitating the interests of the other people in your world.

Further reading
Selye, Hans. Stress Without Distress. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1974.

4. Tolerance for frustration and discomfort
The ability to tolerate frustration and discomfort is central to stress management. High tolerance will keep you from overreacting to things you dislike. It will help you tackle problems and issues rather than avoid them. It will enable you to take risks and try new experiences.

What is high tolerance?
As we shown in Chapter Four of GoodStress, low tolerance for frustration and discomfort is a key cause of unnecessary distress. It arises from beliefs like: Life should not be hard, it is awful and I cant stand it when it is hard; so I must avoid pain, difficulties and frustrations.

High tolerance, on the other hand, means accepting the reality of frustration and discomfort, and keeping their badness in perspective.
To accept frustration and discomfort is to acknowledge that, while you may dislike them, they are realities. They exist, and there is no Law of the Universe says they shouldnot exist (though you may prefer they not). You expect to experience appropriate negative emotions like concern, remorse, regret, sadness, annoyance, and disappointment. But you avoid exaggerating these emotions (by telling yourself you cant stand them) into anxiety, guilt, shame, depression, hostile anger, hurt, or self-pity.

To keep frustration and discomfort in perspective is to regard them as unpleasant rather than awful. You dislike rejection, pain, bad health, financial insecurity and other unwanted circumstances - but you believe that you can cope with the discomfort when they happen to you.

Why is high tolerance important to stress management?
Low tolerance creates distress by causing you to overreact to discomfort. It may lead to secondary problems (having a problem about having a problem) where you react to your own symptoms and end up with additional symptoms. You might for example, get angry and then feel guilty, or become depressed because you feel anxious. Low tolerance also gets in the way of using stress management strategies like changing your diet, exercising, managing your time or acting assertively.
High tolerance, on the other hand, will help you in many ways. You will be:
Less likely to create secondary problems by overreacting to unwanted events and circumstances.

More willing to experience present discomfort to achieve long-term goals and enjoyment.

Prepared to take reasonable risks.
More able to assert yourself appropriately with other people.
Less likely to put off difficult tasks and issues, including personal change.
How to raise your tolerance for discomfort and frustration
Know when you are engaging in low-tolerance behaviour designed to avoid discomfort or frustration. Keep a log of such behaviour for several weeks or longer. Watch for things like:

avoiding uncomfortable situations;

overusing drugs or alcohol;

compulsive gambling, shopping, exercising, or bingeing on food;

losing your temper;

putting off difficult tasks.

The technique of exposure is the best way to increase your tolerance. Make a list of things you typically avoid - situations, events, thoughts, risks and so on. Commit yourself to face at least one of these each day. Actively confront discomfort by going into uncomfortable situations. Instead of trying to get away from the frustration or discomfort as you normally would, stay with the discomfort until it diminishes of its own accord.
You can prepare yourself to cope with the discomfort by using rational self-analysis, imagery, and the blow-up technique. Afterwards, do a catastrophe scale to get your reaction to the discomfort into perspective. (These techniques are described in GoodStress and in many other REBT books).

Further reading
Dryden, Windy and Gordon, Jack. Beating the Comfort Trap. Sheldon Press, London, 1993.
Hauck, Paul. Overcoming Frustration and Anger. The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1974.

5. Long-range enjoyment
Like most people, you probably want to enjoy life. As well as avoid distress, you want to experience pleasure. And you probably want to get your pleasure now, not tomorrow. As Alice said in Through the Looking Glass: It must come sometimes to jam today. But there are times when it is in our interests to forgo immediate pleasure - in order to have greater enjoyment in the longer term.

What is long-range enjoyment?
There are two parts to this principle. You seek to get enjoyment from each of your present moments, rather than always putting off pleasure till tomorrow, or dwelling on things that have happened in the past.

However, to keep on enjoying your present moments you will sometimes choose to postpone pleasure. You may wish to drink more alcohol - but you restrict your intake now so your body will still let you drink in ten years time. Or you wish to buy a new stereo, but instead you save the money for an overseas trip. This is the long-termpart.
The principle can be summed up as follows: live for the present with an eye to the future. In other words, seek to get as much pleasure and enjoyment as you can in the present - while taking into account the desirability of enjoying your life in the long term.

The concept is not new
The underlying thinking behind long-range enjoyment has been around for a long time. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341270 BC) proposed the idea that pleasure is the supreme good and main goal of life - and that only through self-restraint and moderation can people achieve true happiness.

John Stuart Mill, British philosopher and economist, argued that an act is right if it brings pleasure, and wrong if it brings pain. But he introduced the caveat that the ultimate value is the good of society, and the guiding principle of individual conduct is the welfare of the greatest number of people.

Developing long-range enjoyment
Learn to calculate gains and losses. Weigh the short-term pleasurable effects of an action against its possible longer-term negative effects. Make sure that immediate gain doesn't set you up for future pain - as with overindulgence in alcohol. If in doubt, do a benefits calculation.

Weigh short-term discomfort and frustration against the prospect of greater and more enduring comfort in the long term. To start exercising will be more uncomfortable than watching television - but later you will not only feel the health benefits, you will even begin to enjoy the exercise itself.

The strategy of paradoxical behaviour will help you put the philosophical change into action. Practice deliberately postponing gratification in order to increase your tolerance for frustration. List a few things you could go without and earmark the money you save for something you would really like. Reduce your intake of alcohol, caffeine or fatty foods, and reward yourself with an occasional special treat you would otherwise see as an indulgence. Be creative - what other ideas for practicing long-range enjoyment can you come up with?

By now you will probably see that many of the twelve principles are interdependent. To delay gratification involves tolerating frustration. Sensible long-range enjoyment involves enlightened self-interest and moderation.

To sum up 
If you always postponed your enjoyment till tomorrow, you would never enjoy yourself. But, if you always lived just for the present moment, your happiness and stress management in the future would eventually be compromised. Live your life with the goal of getting as much enjoyment as possible both now and in the future.

Further reading
Dryden, Windy and Gordon, Jack. Beating the Comfort Trap. Sheldon Press, London, 1993.

6. Risk-taking
Human beings, by nature, seek safety, predictability, and freedom from fear. But humans also pursue risk. A totally secure life would be a boring one. To grow as a person and improve your quality of life means being prepared to take some chances.
The principle

What we are talking about is a willingness to take sensible risks in order to get more out of life and avoid the distress of boredom, listlessness and dissatisfaction. Here are some important areas of risk-taking that relate to stress management:

Learning new things which may challenge existing beliefs.

Tackling tasks which have no guarantee of success.

Trying new relationships.

Doing things that risk the disapproval of other people.

How is risk-taking relevant to stress management?
Risk-taking is necessary for self-knowledge. To discover your limits, you need to take some risks and try yourself out. You can open up fresh opportunities to increase pleasure and avoid boredom.

Problem-solving means risking solutions that may backfire. To act assertively is to risk disapproval or rejection. Maintaining a support system involves trusting and opening up to other people.

Finally, experimenting with different activities to discover what you like and dislike will increase your self-knowledge and help you clarify your goals and values.

Increasing your willingness to take risks
Exposure is a key technique for practicing risk-taking. Develop a list of things you would like to try, such as:

Asking someone for something - like a date or favour - where there is a chance of rejection.

Doing something where there is a chance others will disapprove - for example, speaking up and telling a group of people what you think.

Trying something where there is no guarantee of success.

Put one item a day into practice. As you do so, remind yourself that the discomfort involved is not intolerable, and that staying with it will gradually increase your tolerance.

The benefits calculation can help you make rational decisions about the usefulness of risks you are considering.
You can prepare yourself for taking risks and cope with the discomfort involved using rational self-analysis, coping rehearsal, the blow-up technique, and role-playing.

Further reading
Roberts, Paul. Risk. Psychology Today, Nov/Dec, 27:6, 50-84, 1994.