Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a counseling theory based on the idea that if people are able to change their thoughts they can change their behavior leading to positive outcomes. One of the techniques used by CBT counselors is called thought stopping; this technique involves the interruption of distressing or distracting thoughts. An active contributor to the field of CBT, Albert Ellis, added his own particular flourish to thought stopping, identifying a process he termed
“musterbation.” Musterbation is the fixation on things that a person must, should, or ought to do that lack a rational basis in reality. By exposing and exploring these automatic thoughts, the person is able to free her/his self from them and can focus on other aspects of her/his life.
Many times in therapy, I will work with clients who are holding themselves back with beliefs about things they “must” do. Others often impart these beliefs upon them, and clients feel that by not meeting these obligations some catastrophe will happen, such as the loss of approval. A prime example would be a client who won’t meet a friend who is in from out of town for dinner, because she believes that she “must” always have dinner on the table by 5:00 or she will lose her family’s approval. An exploration with the client of this “must” begins with asking, what would happen if dinner was not on the table at 5:00. To which the following exchange may occur: ”My husband will be upset with me.” “And what if your husband is upset at you?” (We’re assuming a fairly health relationship here) “He might not talk to me for a couple of days.” “Okay; what if you don’t see your friend?” “I will be upset at myself for not catching up with her.” “That sounds like a hard position to be in.” And from here the counselor would work with the client to challenge her beliefs and that the “must” is not an imperative. Without getting to far into the therapy weeds, I wanted to give a brief example of how irrational thoughts may manifest in a benign context to illustrate how with deeper inspection they fall apart freeing us from them.
So what does this have to do with writing? So often as writers we give our characters imperatives—we are their irrational thoughts. We tell characters that they “must” accomplish this goal, they “should” be heroic, and that they “ought” to be good. These all sound good and impactful, but it leaves our characters empty. Why “must” they achieve that goal? What is the consequences for them if they don’t take up the goal or if they fail? Is it enough for them to risk their comfort or their lives to pursue? If it is, this is where we can make the task intriguing to the reader. Why “should” our characters be heroic? It’s not easy being heroic, it’s dangerous. What motivates our character to heroism instead of hedonism? Why does our character care enough about others to assume the role of hero? Most of our readers are not heroes, we need to find something that they can identify with, a situation that would make them think that being heroic is a good choice; most people aren’t heroic just because. Why “ought” our character be good? As someone has said before, the allure of evil is mighty; what is it that compels our characters to not give in to her/his darker instincts? This gives our readers something to hold onto as our characters struggle with why they should be good instead of minding their own business.
These are just example questions, but they are tropes that we as writers often take for granted—a character is born a hero and is good because heroes are good. It’s the equivalent of using a word in its own definition. It’s not compelling and doesn’t tell us anything. As writers, we must remain vigilant to make sure that we help our readers understand what would in any other situation be an irrational thought. We have our
reasons for feeling like we must do things, but we have mundane reasons for doing them and allowing them to hold us back. We owe it to our characters to make sure that if they must do something, there are real consequences to not following through.
Writing Prompt: Write about why your character must take on a task. What are the consequences that face your character if they do not take on the task? Put yourself in the character’s shoes, if it was you, would the consequences of inaction be enough to spur you into action? If not, then you may want to review the task and really think about what carries enough weight that to not do it is worse than doing it.