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General Semantics and the Psychology of Forgiveness

How Prince Harry could fight his inclination to behave as a grievance collector.

Key points

  • REBT utilizes an ABCD method, where A is event, B is characterization, C is emotion, and D is the disputation of B that neutralizes C
  • General Semantics (GS) theory is a scheme, developed by Korzybski, that was used by Albert Ellis in REBT as a central disputation method.
  • The idea in GS is that the words we use can result in misperceptions.
  • Using E-Prime (English without the word "is") would have caused Harry to have a more forgiving view of occurrences in his life.

In a recent post, I wrote about how the collection of grievances towards family members--as expressed in Prince Harry’s book Spare--is not a mature (even if for him lucrative) lifestyle choice. While Harry claims that airing such grievances is a step towards mental health, it can be argued that a better step towards mental health would be acquiring the ability to not become upset in the first place (and in subsequent rehashings) by the many unfair or disappointing things--family-related or otherwise--that happen occasionally in the lives of all human beings.

A focus of my essay was on how different forms of psychotherapy either facilitate or dispute grievance collecting in patients. I described forms of therapy (particularly Cognitive Behavioral systems such as REBT) that in my opinion help patients learn how to dispute and neutralize negative feelings such as depression or anger through a philosophical reeducation method and contrasted them with therapies influenced by psychoanalysis that accept feeling statements without actively showing how illogical they are. I concluded the essay by expressing the wish that Prince Harry would acquire a better ability to ignore the kinds of things that bothered him (and continue to bother him) so much. Although I did not use the word, the idea I was attempting to express is that emotional (not to mention spiritual) growth involves a journey from blaming towards “forgiveness.”

I described REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) in some detail, because it is the approach (in my case used solely through self-work) that dramatically changed my life for the better, after three years of going nowhere in therapy with an eminent conventionally-oriented therapist. My exposure to REBT (then described just as RT or RET) started with the happy accident of attending a one-hour lecture by its originator, Albert Ellis, when I was a doctoral student in Rochester. I continued over a period of years to practice using this approach whenever a twinge of negative affect began to surface until I reached the point where I automatically (without having to go through a disputation exercise) acquired the ability to remain emotionally even-keeled in the face of situations that in the past I would have experienced as shameful or annoying.

My description of REBT emphasized its debt to Stoicism, which is a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the 3rd century BCE. The basis of Stoicism, and REBT, as formulated by Albert Ellis and as described in my essay, is that emotion (undesired, but also desired) is caused not by an event but by the things we tell ourselves (such as its awfulness) about the event. REBT frames this in terms of a four-step process, called A-B-C-D, in which A is the event (e.g., doing something foolish), B is the cognitive spin we put on the event (e.g., “it was dumb”), C is the affective response (in my former life, depression) and D is the attempt to neutralize C (the depression) by disputing the label (dumbness, in this example) that a neurotic person such as I once was (and Harry still might be) would use to characterize the event at B.

For space reasons I left out of my discussion of REBT an important (for me, maybe the most important) aspect, and that is the role of General Semantics in explaining how we describe an event at B, and dispute the resulting affect at D. General Semantics (GS) is a conceptual framework developed in the 1930s by Alfred Korzybski, a Polish (later American) engineer and independent scholar. His theory (initially dubbed “humanology” by him) was formulated in a very well-received 1933 book: Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

Besides REBT, Korzybski’s theory also influenced other therapeutic systems. The essence of GS is that the words we use to describe things distort our perceptions and can cause delusions. The way to take back control of our reactions and overcome delusion is to change the words that we use. An example of this that was particularly important to Korzybski, as a former Russian Army officer in World War I, was that conflicts such as wars stem from the use of words (such as “evil”) that demonize the enemy and make them inhuman and thus deserving of death. The problem with such categorical thinking is that it always results in over-generalization.

A delusion-neutralizing technique advocated by Korzkbski was to avoid using the “is” form of the verb “to be,” replacing it with a word such as “has.” This idea was taken even further by Ellis through e-prime, a scheme he borrowed from David Bourland, a former student of Korzybski's. E-prime, which became a cornerstone of REBT, consists of the English language with all forms of the verb “to be” eliminated.

An illustration of this technique, which shows how it leads to forgiveness, can be found in a story told by Harry about a dinner that Meghan prepared for William (who had a bad cold) and Kate. When Meghan saw that William was sick she ran to fetch some turmeric and oregano oil (which Harry described as “homeopathic” but more accurately is naturopathic). Kate reacted to the remedies in a haughtily dismissive manner, saying that she would never use such unconventional medicines. Harry was insulted by what he interpreted as Kate's rude behavior towards his wife. Basically, what Harry was doing in this and similar examples was saying (without using the b-word) “what a bitch Kate is.” If Harry was familiar with e-prime he might have described Kate in a more accepting light, as someone with many valued or acceptable qualities, but who has a tendency to occasionally say things that are hurtful. This would have resulted in a more forgiving view of Kate, one with less resemblance to hatred. The message from Ellis for Harry is “Do something Harry (like tell Kate how you feel) or don’t, but ask yourself why she or anyone must only behave as you think they should."

Copyright Stephen Greenspan.

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