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Walter Matweychuk, Ph.D. | Article

Why College Students Would Benefit from Learning Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

College is challenging for virtually all students in one way or another. In most instances it is a student’s initial attempt to live away from one’s family, to live with one’s peers, and most importantly manage and structure their lives on their own. Social stressors and academic stressors are present throughout the four years of college. There are many important decisions to make and there are no guarantees that all the hard work and money spent on tuition will lead to a good paying job at the end of these four challenging years. The philosophy and therapeutic strategies of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy can help virtually all college students more effectively respond to the challenges they face.

Many college students have an absolute need for peer approval. If a student manages to get the approval he wrongly believes he absolutely needs to have, he may experience equanimity for a time. However, when that same student believes that he absolutely needs peer approval he often has an underlying anxiety that what he needs may vanish at some point in the future. If that student has difficulty meeting peer expectations, his need for approval may go unmet. The consequence of this unmet need can be feelings of anxiety, worthlessness, shame, self-loathing, and despair.

College students often put down their peers in order to elevate themselves in some emotional way. When students put down other students, often the tacit belief is that some other student does not measure up on some arbitrary standard. Some of the arbitrary reasons include getting better grades, having more friends, having a lower body weight or being capable of drinking more beer. When I was in college, I sadly observed my peers labelling our fellow students winners and losers.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is a philosophy based on unconditional self-acceptance and a healthy desire to have the approval of one’s peers. In REBT therapy, I point out to the student that when he sensibly desires approval from his peers and this strong desire goes unmet this leads him to have healthy feelings of sorrow and disappointment. However, when this same student holds the belief that he absolutely needs the approval, validation, and acceptance of his peers he is likely to experience emotional disturbance (i.e. anxiety, depression, shame, and self-loathing) when he does not or cannot get these things. With this student, I teach him to challenge his belief that he needs external approval and social validation. I point out that wanting approval is very different from needing approval and external validation. I also show him how needing peer approval often leads to rating himself as inferior or worthless if the sought after approval is not obtained. I show the student that all ratings of the self are arbitrary, invalid, and ultimately very self-defeating.
I then show this student how to replace his need for approval and his conditional self-acceptance based on peer approval with a healthy desire for peer approval and unconditional self-acceptance. I teach him that he can always unconditionally accept himself even when he is denied the peer approval he strongly desires. I teach him how unconditional self-acceptance leads to better emotional functioning when inevitable peer rejection occurs.

In REBT therapy, we spend a good deal of time talking about self-worth and the numerous arbitrary definitions of self-worth a student may implicitly or explicitly adopt. I patiently teach the student that conditional self-worth based on these arbitrary definitions is very self-defeating. I show them how all people are fallible humans who are in a constant state of flux and are inherently too complex to simply rate based on what they have done, currently do, or hope to do in the future. This is not easy but I do not give ground and until I show the student how it far better and helpful to rate his deeds in the context of his personal goals but it is invalid and self-defeating to rate his personhood from which these deeds emanate. Reflecting on and rating his deeds lead a student to learn from life experiences, while rating his personhood when he does particular deeds leads to emotional disturbance when he inevitably errors.

It is not easy to adopt the philosophy of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. By the time a student gets to college, he has rehearsed his need for external approval quite a bit. He probably also has been taught by his culture, family, teachers, and coaches to rate his essence or “self” based on academic performance, athletic prowess, social approval, sexual orientation, or a host of other arbitrary standards. Although it may be hard for a student to give up such self-defeating beliefs and habits of the mind, it does not mean that it cannot be done and it does not mean it is not worth doing.

REBT can liberate a shy, shameful, anxious college student by teaching him that his beliefs have a tremendous impact on he feels when rejected. To many students this is an epiphany. When a student begins to see and appreciate that, he has emotional choices when things go wrong, a completely new way of being is available to him. The student can begin to live shamelessly and not fear social rejection. The student can begin to assert himself and seek relationships with those he finds interesting. With the REBT philosophy the student can be who he wants to be instead of being who his peers, parents, or society tells him to be. With REBT philosophy and unconditional self-acceptance, the student can be self-directed and responsible for his emotional reactions regardless of the rejections and adversities that occur over the four years of college.
I think it is very unfortunate that colleges do not teach the philosophy and self-help strategies of REBT to all incoming freshman. If a required course teaching the philosophy and self-help strategies of REBT were given to students, they could learn the ABC model of emotional upset before they encounter those first painful rejections and academic setbacks. This is not such an outlandish idea as REBT has always been a psychoeducational approach to problems of daily living and mental health since its inception in the 1950’s. A little emotional education could go a long way at this critical stage of life when a great deal is at stake. Students could also learn to apply REBT’s philosophy and emotional control strategies to academic stressors, career decisions and anxiety, test anxiety, time management, substance and food misuse, procrastination, and problems of self-discipline. If students were armed with the philosophy and tools of REBT early in their college careers, perhaps fewer would commit suicide, develop substance abuse disorders, and would be better able to manage the academic and social stressors that inevitably occur during the four years of college.