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What is Rational Cognitive Behaviour Therapy? A short interpretation

By Jurriaan Plesman BA(Psych), Post Grad Dip Clin Nutr


Rational Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or RCBT is a very powerful technique in psychotherapy to help people overcome emotional problems.

In order to understand the origin and its rationale we need to have a quick look at “Behaviorism” a school of of psychology which aims at rendering psychology a purely scientific investigation. The earlier approach was to study human behaviour or any behaviour for that matter – including animal behaviour – in terms of references to consciousness or mentalistic constructs. The Behaviourist school had its beginnings in the work of JB Watson (1878-1958) in his many publications such as “Psychology as the Behaviorists Views it” in the Psychological Review in 1913 and many others.
Watson defines psychology as the science of behaviour. The aim of behaviourism is to be able to predict behaviour (or more correctly responses) from a knowledge of stimulus conditions, based on observation rather than upon interpretations involving the concept of ‘mind’, ‘unconscious’ or ‘consciousness’. Thus he was able to do research in a laboratory with animals without any reference to mentalistic concepts. He believed in contrast to prevalent ‘introspective’ psychologists, that psychology was simply the observation of behaviour, similar to those of physical scientist.

There is a principle in science that says that anything that can be measured can become the subject of scientific investigation. So psychologists of the school of behaviourism (learning psychology) look at the elements of behaviour in terms of the following formula.

S —> [-] —> R

S = Stimulus
[-] = organism (also humorously called the empty box)
R = Response.

Scientists can observe stimuli and responses, but behaviourists claim that you cannot observe what goes on inside the organism. Thus according to behaviourists we are just a bundle of stimulus/response connections. They would deny scientific access to what other psychologists call the “mind”.

Cognitive therapists however believe that whatever goes on inside the empty box affects the way you respond to stimuli.

Thus they have a formula that looks like this;

S —> [Attitudes] —> R

Thus if your mother falls under a bus, you may respond to this incidence in a way that depends on your attitude towards your mother. If you hate your mother and are looking forward towards a rich inheritance upon her pending death, you will react in a completely different way, from the position if you love your mother dearly.

Thus attitudes affect the way we react to events (stimuli) in our lives.

Thus RCBT therapists are interested in attitudes, which may be defined as a semi-permanent pattern of reaction (responses) towards persons, objects, institutions or issues.
These attitudes are learned responses and RCBT therapists believe that by examining these attitudes (self-confrontation) we should be able to change these beliefs and RELEARN the kind of ‘positive’ attitudes that are less destructive of behaviour.

And here we find differing theories cropping up among different psychologists. Some will concentrate on ‘negative’ thought processes alone, how they were arrived at, and perhaps stemming from childhood experiences in the family and so on. (Psychoanalysis).
From my experience it does not help a person one iota to know that one’s negative self-image stems from one’s overly critical mother. You cannot rationalize a negative self-image away by analysis. You can only get rid of them in exactly the way you acquired it and by a RELEARNING program.

Others look at what thought processes go on right in the here and now (the “here and now” psychotherapists).

I belong to the latter kind of psychotherapists and start off with a fundamental assumption (axiom as it were) – for which there is considerable scientific support – that one’s attitude to the self – or the self-image (ego) is at the core one’s personality.

The self-image is also a learned response, an attitude, that can be changed. The advantage of this approach is that every one of us have direct access to our self-image. We all know for instance, whether that self-image is positive or negative. Thus you can be your own psychotherapist!!!
If we can change our own self-image, the hypothesis is that we can change a host of other attitudes, which upon examination derive from the self-image.

Thus the formula becomes:

S —-> [Ego] —> R

Now basically a self-image consists of a learned (that is automatic) statement floating around inside your head saying:

“I am ………….”

Here we are looking for an adjective that is either positive or negative.

You as a psychotherapist are interested only in negative adjectives such as;

“I am stupid”

“I am unlovable”

“I am no good” etc etc etc.

The next step is; ask yourselves why???

Perhaps you may have an answer, but you will find that the answer may have a negative adjective too! And then you have to ask an other “why”.

But from my experience most people have no answer as to why they feel “stupid”. “unlovable”, “no good” or whatever nasty things you are telling yourself. This may indicate an underlying metabolic disorder preventing the body from producing feel-good neurotransmitters; i.e., hypoglycemia. This may mean that we have to first treat the underlying metabolic disorder before we can move on to treat it psychologically. This is where I may be in conflict with CBT therapists in that I firmly believe that the underpinning biological aspects of mood disorders must be treated FIRST before considering “psychological” aspects.

From a “learning perspective”,  you know that you may have been taught to believe the idea from somewhere in the past. You have been indoctrinated to unquestioningly accept that you are ‘stupid’. You may have internalized this idea by constant repetition and self-talk. Not only that, because you firmly believe that you are stupid, you may have acted in a way towards other people that has reinforced THEIR belief about you that ‘you are stupid’. You may have been on the defensive as a pattern of behaviour that makes it very difficult for other people to understand you. They may have lost their patience. You may have even triggered their hang-ups and triggered their defensive mechanism.


People are inclined to reinforce your own ideas about yourself by your behaviour towards them!

The answer, according to RCBT,  is to UNLEARN these irrational ideas by again repetition and repetition, by replacing these silly and childlike ideas repetitively with a more positive idea, or simply by saying to your self STOP IT!!!!! Don’t analyze as to where these ideas have come from. Just catch yourself thinking it and then STOP IT!!!

This approach has been elaborated in the self-help PSYCHOTHERAPY course.

By doing this course you can in fact participate in a RCBT course whereby you play your own psychotherapist. You should be able to complete the course in eight week (a chapter per week) and feel a different person at the end of the road.

Of course I would like to add, that RCBT alone may not always help one’s depression, if you overlook the biochemical aspects of depression.

See The Serotonin Connection.

If you feel you have corrected the underlying biochemical abnormality responsible for mood disorders, and you would like to undertake the Self-Help Psychotherapy Course, start reading  What is Transactional Analysis.

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