I sat down with Johnny Strike, author, musician, former counselor, and founding member of San Francisco's earliest punk band Crime. He conducted a wide-ranging, in-depth interview with me in which we discussed self-esteem, addictions, procrastination, obesity, psychoanalysis, Albert Ellis, REBT/CBT, and more. I wish to share the results with my readers.
Johnny Strike: We are each subject to a host of biological and psychological mechanisms that lead us to make decisions we might otherwise regret. A simple example of this is obesity. Many obese people are not happy with their life decisions, but they still give in to their innate biological impulses, and more than this, we don’t see that a similar number of people from all walks of society make these regrettable decisions, instead we see that obesity is deeply tied to demographic factors such as socioeconomic status and mental health – this is not the sign of a capability to act freely and responsibly, it is a sign of our decisions being determined by things beyond our control over though, in the moment, we sense the illusion that we are in control. Some would say that laws restricting poor eating choices would serve us well. Your thoughts?
Michael Edelstein: Intuitively that position seems to make sense. It feels as if, when we're attempting to diet while eating another slice of pizza, we can't control ourselves.
Yet if this were the case, then clinical psychologists like myself would be out of business. To the contrary, I teach compulsive eaters how to use the free will they have to choose, for example, green salads over pizza.
You're correct, biological impulses and similar influences all play into an individual's food choice. The major point here is these factors all influence the compulsive eater's behavior, but never control it. The thoughts in their head at the decision point is the ultimate control. I teach my clients how to change their thinking thereby learning to refrain from self-destructive eating. I agree with you, "we need restrictions." We're better served when we generate these restrictions for ourselves, rather than having the State do it to us.
JS: Reviewing Chapter 4, "Marriage: Vicious and Delicious Circles" from your book, Three Minute Therapy, I am first reminded of the old saying: "Men want their women never to change, and women think they can change their men." Getting the musts out of the relationship as you point out is wise to attend to pronto, in fact is it not the guiding principle for all emotional disturbances?
ME: Yes. However keep in mind a "want" does not equal a must. The desires you cite of men and women cannot, in and of themselves, cause emotional disturbance.
JS: In one of your case studies the woman wanted more conversation from her husband and he wanted sex on a regular basis. This seemed to me tailor made for the contract. He gives her one hour of sincere, engaging conversation and she gives him an hour of steamy sex, win-win as they say, and if they're both honest in their intentions their relationship could go from on the rocks to skyrocket fantastic. Would this be another delicious circle achieved simply by being rational?
ME: A rational couple may or may not think of this practical solution, although it's often worth a try. The REBT therapist normally suggests many practical techniques such as this one on a trail-and-error, experimental basis.
JS: Congratulations on your first e-book Rational Drinking. Would you tell us more about it and your co-author?
ME: Rational Drinking: How to Live Happily With or Without Alcohol describes Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and applies it to compulsive drinking. Will Ross, my co-author, is an REBT expert. He's responsible for the excellent REBT site, rebtnetwork.org.
JS: What is your thinking about the AA twelve step system for getting sober? One thing I've noticed is that many who use that approach: meetings, sponsors, "working the steps" etc., become addicted to that system and although they move on with their life, they drag that along, often telling everyone they meet that they're "in recovery" and "have been sober for such and such amount of time." They don't seem to care that others might find this neediness and self-obsession off-putting or annoying.
ME: AA fails to address the fundamental cognition's which cause alcohol problems. These consist of demands and usually take the form of, "My life absolutely must be fair, easy, and hassle-free, otherwise I'll be miserable forever." Drinking follows as an escape from an imagined intolerable existence. REBT helps drinkers identify their irrational demands and teaches them powerful tools to uproot them. In addition to REBT books, websites, and individual counseling, there's SMART Recovery, self-help groups for overcoming all addictions, including the addiction to 12-step meetings.
JS: Twelve steppers would be quick to point to your title and claim that an alcoholic cannot drink rationally, that even one drink could send him or her back into full blown alcoholism, because it's a "disease". What would you say to them?
ME: The evidence demonstrates that when humans change their thinking, they change their behavior. Since drinkers are human, they're governed by this principle. Rational Drinking shows them how to stop after one drink.
JS: In your book Three Minute Therapy, Change Your Thinking Change Your Life you begin Chapter 8 "Overeating and Smoking: It's All in Your Head" with a quote from the French theorist, and economist Frédéric Bastiat who is often named as a great influence to libertarian thinking. "The very nature of man impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain." Do you see other similarities in libertarian thinking and the principles of REBT?
ME: They both have the objective of freeing the individual. REBT addresses emotional freedom, libertarianism addresses political freedom.
Emotional freedom involves being free of psychopathological, self-created shoulds, oughts, and musts. Political freedom involves being free of State mandates.
JS: Is anger different than stress? Do both release cortisol or only stress? I have seen prominent REBT psychologists including Albert Ellis show a display of anger, I'm assuming to get a point across. I've noticed a number of current studies that have popped up on the internet that claim as long as it's not a consuming (life view type) anger, it is actually good for you in some ways. Have you changed your view at all on this subject over the years?
ME: "Stress" in the general sense includes all emotional disturbance such as anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, etc. Anger is at its root a philosophy, a way of looking at things. It stems from an attitude of commanding and demanding, running the universe, and tyrannically dictating what's "Right" to others. It says, "You absolutely must do my bidding and if you don't you're a total louse who deserves to roast in Hell for all eternity and I've just appointed myself your roaster." As long as I've been a therapist I've viewed anger as fundamentally self-defeating. It feels bad, clouds your thinking, and leads to poor results.
JS: As a side note this reminds me some of the sixties fad Primal Therapy which John Lennon and Yoko Ono tried and found valuable. I have no doubt screaming on a bridge or in a tunnel can be releasing, but I don't see it freeing up problems like they claim. I understand there's something of a rebirth of PT and they’re now saying (among other things) it will boost the immune system. Do you agree with my take on Primal Therapy?
ME: Yes I agree with you. Primal Therapy fails to teach individuals how to identify their irrational thinking and how to change it. Perhaps worse, it reinforces the wrong-headed Freudian view that emotional disturbance is caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma.
JS: Here’s an example of one of the studies that claim that “Anger Is Good for You”:
A new study from Carnegie Mellon University shows anger may help people reduce the negative impact of stress.
"Here getting emotional is not bad for you if you look at the case of anger," said Jennifer Lerner of Carnegie Mellon. "The more they are displaying anger, the lower the stress responses."
“Subjects were told they were being tested for intelligence. They were asked to count backward from 6,200 by increments of 13, then taunted, corrected and told to go faster. Researchers measured the biological responses as the subjects become more and more stressed.
Stress leads to biological responses such as an increase in heart rate and a release of hormones. Both can have lasting effects such as diabetes, heart disease, depression and excess weight gain.
When people feel fear, those negative impacts spike, but when they get angry, those negatives go down, according to the study.
"Having that sense of anger leads people to actually feel some power in what otherwise is a maddening situation," Lerner said.
The researchers say they plan to look at whether people can train themselves to feel a certain way when under stress.
ME: It's not surprising the physiological markers accompanying stress and fear appear more intense than those accompanying anger, since emotions vary in their intensity. There is a third option, no stress or anger. Rather, great concern, displeasure, disappointment, and frustration are helpful, not harmful, negative emotions. REBT teaches individuals how to change their disturbed thinking in order to avoid self-destructive emotions, including stress, anger, depression, and anxiety.
JS: For closing, and to change the subject radically: I know you are a Bob Dylan aficionado, and have followed his long career. Regardless of where you were in 1965 would you have been with the ones who booed or the ones who cheered when he surprised the Newport Folk Festival crowd by going electric
ME: The first time I heard the electric Dylan in 1965, I rather liked it. I did not relate to the disdain of his detractors.
JS: Thank you for all your insightful and straightforward answers.
ME: It’s been a pleasure.
Dr. Edelstein was mentored by Albert Ellis and now teaches REBT to clients and therapists.