by Amanda Rosinski, M.A.
Recently, I’ve been watching a series on Netflix that features a young boy who has been diagnosed with autism. The series describes many of the challenges that parents who have children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders face on a daily basis. In one particular episode, the son was acting out in the grocery store checkout line. He and his father were in the express lane, and he had counted the number of items the person in front of them had to checkout, and began yelling that the person was breaking the rules of the express lane. The father was trying to calm the son down, and then the person in front of them called the son a retard. The father reacted immediately by punching the person, and he was visibly angry. Later at home, the father was telling the mother about what happened, and he shared that the person called their son a retard and he felt angry because of it. What this episode portrayed, and what many people commonly believe, is that events actually cause the emotional and behavioral reactions people experience. What this example missed was the irrational beliefs, and the link between the irrational beliefs and emotional and behavioral reactions. So what was actually missing from this episode?
Of course, we can’t possibly know exactly what the father was thinking in the checkout lane after the person in front of him called his son a retard. But, we can hypothesize about his beliefs, and think about how those beliefs were actually what led him to feel angry and punch the person. It is possible that he had demandingness beliefs, like “No one should call my son a retard” or “People should be respectful of my family.” It is also possible that he had frustration intolerance beliefs, like “I can’t stand it when anyone insults my family.” He also could have been holding awfulizing or catastrophizing beliefs, such as “This is the worst thing that ever could have happened to me or my son.” And he could have been globally evaluating the person, such as “He is a bad person for stating that my son is a retard.” There is no doubt that the father was facing an extremely challenging situation and wanted to protect his son. But, with our knowledge of REBT theory, we can reasonably conclude that all of these inflexible beliefs are likely what caused the father to become angry and punch the person, not the activating event itself (i.e., the highly insensitive comment that was made). And we must continue to remind ourselves that challenging those irrational beliefs is the key to leading a healthier, less disturbed life.