Can you dispute a “secondary disburbance”?

Posted by Rex Alexander on Tue 20 Feb 24 in Albert Ellis, Cognitve (Behavior) Therapy, David Burns, Disputing, Secondary Disturbance |

A reader asks what David Burns means in Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy when he says that you cannot dispute a feeling, you can only dispute a thought. 



Hi REBT Mates!

Burns concludes “Therefore, you could not say, ‘I must not feel depressed today’ and that rules out disputing a secondary disturbance.

Good question! I am not sure what David said, but I am quite sure that he did not mean to suggest that we cannot dispute a “secondary disturbance.” We can, and it is very important that we do!

“I must not feel depressed” is a (secondary) distorted thought which provokes guilt over being depressed. If I said, instead, “You must not be depressed!” that would probably cause me to be pissed off or frustrated with you for being depressed! Depression is the primary disturbance, and guilt is the secondary disturbance. You can feel guilty or anxious or angry or ashamed about being depressed, depending on what nutty stuff you are telling yourself. And, you can feel anxious over being depressed or anxious about any other emotion or experience you are having for that matter. And you can be depressed over being depressed, which is a particularly cruel “trick” to play on your dear, sweet self!

The experience that people refer to as “self pity” is a secondary disturbance of awfulizing and “musterbating” over some event or experience. “It is so awful that this [depression or whatever] is happening to me. I must not feel or experience such things, and I can’t stand it when I do!”

BTW, this is just they way our brains evolved. While it is an inherent vulnerability or glitch in the system, it does NOT represent some kind of character flaw or in the old sense of the word a “neurosis.” But we do need to understand how our systems work and how we can manage them in healthy ways.




It is also important to remember that the so called “secondary” disturbance is secondary only because it occurs second sequentially. In terms of difficulty or painfulness, it may be as bad or even worse than the primary disturbance, and in any event, not dealing with the secondary disturbance may prevent you from making progress with the primary disturbance. Conversely, cleaning the secondary disturbance effectively may make successfully disputing and replacing the primary disturbance much easier, faster and more straight-forward than you imagine. Sometimes the primary disturbance will just clear up spontaneously once you have attended to the secondary disturbance.

In CBT-REBT theory, all emotions are intimately entwined with thoughts flowing and skittering along just below the level of conscious awareness, usually. Happily we can learn to tune in to these skittering thoughts fairly easily, like tune in distant radio stations on an old fashioned radio set. We don’t need to lay on a couch and free associate for couple of years as Freud thought and taught. Disturbed emoting is intimately entwined with disturbed thinking. You deal with a secondary disturbance” in exactly the same way as you deal with a primary disturbance.


Regardless of whose system or form you prefer to use, the dynamics are all the same:

Dynamics of Disputing, Step-by-Step


(1) You identify the “activating event.” What happened?

(2) You identify and accept the emotion(s)you are feeling,

(3) You make note of the thoughts just preceding the emotion, and fluttering around it like a flock of squawking sea gulls, as the emotion is/was occurring.

(4) Then you note what particular flavor of distorted thinking or irrational belief (IB) you are dealing with, such as “musterbating,”
awfulizing, name calling and self-downing/other-downing, etc.

(5) You rigorously dispute the distorted thinking until you really “get it” that,

(a) It is the thought (not the event) is provoking your painful feelings, and

(b) That the distorted thought really and truly is distorted in the sense of being false, irrational and/or unhelpful.

(6) You replace the distorted thought with something “cooler,” non-inflammatory, more rational and helpful to you.

(7) TAKE ACTION! Take action counter to your self-defeating behavior, and introduce more rewarding, fulfilling behavior into your repertoire. At the very least, take action, and do what is practical, and see if find yourself thinking, emoting and behaving in new ways toward in response to the events which previously triggered you. If not, you are probably still clinging to some beliefs about how events (not your thoughts) upset you, and need to go back to the drawing board!







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Originally posted 2012-09-21 05:22:16.

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