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Application of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements in Self-counseling: An Intrapersonal Communication Perspective in Japan.


Resolving mental health issues in daily life is an urgent matter in Japanese society. For example, according to a survey on the health management of workers by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (2017) in Japan, 59.5% of the research participants reported that they experienced heavy stress levels because of their current occupation or working life. The most stressful factors were the quality and quantity of the work (53.8%), failures and responsibilities in one's job (38.5%), and matters involving interpersonal relations including power and sexual harassment (30.5%). As this data shows, most of the factors causing deterioration of mental health can be attributed to interpersonal issues. If a person can rationally deal with his or her problems by him- or herself to some degree, the person might be able to reduce stress and to serve as his or her own therapist.

One useful approach by which a person can help modify his or her irrational beliefs is cognitive behavioral therapy. Albert Ellis (1957) proposed his own therapy as "rational-emotive behavioral therapy" (REBT). Ellis (1957) based the therapy on the "ABC" model, which describes the process by which a person can recognize his or her cognitive-behavioral disturbances, and reduce anxiety, anger, and depression. While REBT was originally developed as a therapy practiced in psychological counseling, it is also useful for self-counseling. Ellis (1988) published a book titled How to stubbornly refuse to make yourself miserable about anything - Yes, anything! that aimed to teach a person how to use self-help. Self-help is, in one sense, synonymous with self-counseling, and refers to a method to free oneself from one's preconceived ideas and to see oneself and others from a new perspective (Watanabe, 1996). In Japan, such self-counseling methods and techniques have been introduced in reference books on REBT (e.g., Itoh, 1990; Kokubu, 1991; Okano, 2008).

Although REBT is familiar to its users because of its distinctive characteristics, two questions arise. One concerns how we can recognize rational beliefs based on the results of learning from irrational beliefs. The second is how a person can ascertain the limitations of disputing irrational beliefs. The former is related to the dualistic views of all things, and the latter is made possible by recognizing interrelations among all things. The philosophy that seems to cover these two questions is the Yin and Yang with the Five Elements, which was brought to Japan in the sixth century. In the nearly 2,000-year-old relationship between China and Japan, Yin and Yang have influenced Japanese people's worldview in the sense that they see that everything in the universe contains both Yin and Yang, and these must be balanced.

Furthermore, it seems that Yin and Yang perspectives are seen in their view of interpersonal communication. Regarding Chinese interpersonal communication, based on dialectical and dialogical interaction of Yin and Yang, Chen (2008, 2009a, 2009b) conceptualized communication as an interdetermining process in which communicators develop mutually dependent relationships through exchanging symbols. Such a mutual, interdependent, and non-manipulative human relationship that occasionally takes the extreme viewpoints of others into consideration seems to represent an aspect of Yin and Yang. Although Japanese people are found to be less verbally aggressive than Chinese people (Bresnahan et al., 2002), they have in common a mutually dependent interpersonal view. For example, in Hamaguchi's (1985) argument on "contextualism" (interpersonalism), he considered that Japanese human relationships consist of mutual dependence, mutual reliance, and regard for interpersonal relations as ends in themselves. Such an interpersonal view is, for example, supported by Uchida and Kitayama's (2001) survey, which shows that Japanese sympathetic feelings toward others were correlated with interdependence, but not with a person's self-esteem. Furthermore, in present-day Japanese verbal interaction, Maynard (1997) observed that most interactions in daily life are based on direct, frank, and assertive messages that are exchanged based on amae (take-it-for-granted dependence). While it is true that Japanese people tend to interact ambiguously with sensitivity to others, they assert their intentions frankly and accept others' frank and assertive messages in daily interactions (Miike, 2003). Thus, as is shown, the viewpoint that Yang can exist because of Yin and vice versa is not only rooted in their worldview but also in their interpersonal views.

For REBT to become more familiar and acceptable for people with an Eastern perspective in Japan, it is essential to modify its application by considering their own perspectives. Hence, this paper attempts to focus on the utility of the philosophy of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements by incorporating recognition of the two sides of a person's beliefs and the interrelations among all things in the universe in the ABC Model. The author hopes that this study can help to broaden the scope of ABC Theory from an East Asian perspective.

Overview of the ABC Theory Proposed by Albert Ellis

In the 1950s, Albert Ellis (1956, 1957) proposed REBT based on the theory and practice of a psychotherapeutic system used in interpersonal counseling. The fundamental premise of this therapy is that a person is not disturbed or hurt by unsatisfying or unfortunate situations, but by their way of perceiving those situations. This theory helps clients resolve emotional and behavioral problems by changing their irrational beliefs into more rational ones.

Ellis (1957) called the process in REBT in which clients correct their irrational beliefs the ABC model. "A" stands for "activating events," "B" for "belief," and "C" for "consequence." Once an undesirable event (A) happens, people feel that the negative emotional and behavioral consequences (C) are caused by the negative event (A) itself. However, Ellis pointed out that it is not the activating event (A) in itself but rather one's unrealistic way of interpreting such events (B), that is, one's irrational beliefs, which produces such emotional or behavioral consequences (C). For example, Palmer and Dryden (1995) indicated that when a person fails in an examination (A), the person might feel "I should have passed," or "I am a failure" (B). Consequently, the feeling of depression arises (C). This process is shown in Figure 1.

The model clarifies that the emotion of a person is produced not by the event in itself but by the person's own belief, i.e., their way of thinking. Irrational beliefs weaken a person's ability to withstand the effects of adverse events. Based on his studies, Ellis (2001) identified three types of irrational beliefs that cause problems when encountering adversity. The first is "musturbating," which is caused by demand-fulfilling desire. Under such conditions, a person feels he or she must be perfect and successful, and furthermore feels that others and conditions must be the way he or she wants them to be. The second is illogical overgeneralizing. Individuals evaluate their way of thinking as good when it seems to be helpful, but as bad when it seems to be harmful. They apply an evaluation to the whole self when their behavior is helpful or unhelpful. In such a condition, individuals might give generally applied ratings to themselves, confusing a part of their behavior with the whole of their behaviors. The third is "awfulizing." When individuals see a certain event as negative, they may be unable to see anything positive in the situation. Consequently, they tend to see such events as awful and terrible and thereby find them more frustrating or painful. As a result, a person tends to view frustrating or painful conditions as being entirely negative.

However, there are times when individuals cannot deal with their emotion only by recognizing their irrational beliefs. It may then be necessary to dispute such beliefs. As Palmer and Dryden (1995) argued, if a man feels that he should quit a company because of a failure and disputes with himself about other chances, he can learn the importance of thinking about his future from multiple points of view. As a result, he is much more likely to feel that he will have other possibilities soon and that his prospects are much brighter. To resolve further intrapersonal conflict, one then disputes such irrational beliefs in "B" by questioning those beliefs and attempting to challenge them. This stage is called "D" for "disputation." Finally, individuals may have a new effective way of thinking by substituting something rational instead of the irrational "B" that they once had. The emotion that results from the "D" is called "E" for "effect."

Reviewing the example by Palmer and Dryden (1995), once the person can recognize that the failure in the examination is not a failure in his/her whole life and can enjoy seeking other possibilities, his/her way of thinking may become more constructive. A series of such processes can be described in Figure 2.

Especially in the D stage, Okano (2008) suggested facing four criteria to overcome one's irrational beliefs. The first is whether the person's belief is flexible or entrenched. The second is whether it is logical or illogical. The third is whether it is reasonable in society in general. The fourth is whether it is meaningful to achieve one's goals in life in the long run. Okano further stated that it is occasionally useful to be eager to refute one's beliefs with emotion, and when one can recognize authentic rationality, sound emotions tend to arise. The following section demonstrates the usefulness of Yin and Yang theory with the Five Elements, when one reasonably modifies one's irrational beliefs following one's emotions.

The Application of Yin and Yang Perspective in Ellis' ABCDE Model Toward Self-Counseling as Intrapersonal Communication

Facing one's own irrational beliefs is a process of intrapersonal communication. According to Barker and Wiseman (1996), intrapersonal communication is "the creating, functioning, and evaluating of symbolic processes which operate primarily within oneself" (p.173). They further posited that our cognitive work such as "thinking," "mediating," and "reflecting" that occur independently are aspects of intrapersonal communication. As for its process, Watson and Hill (1993) pointed out that our self-view conditions and controls what goes on in our minds, and argued that our "self-view has emerged from a vast complex of past and present influences--on the view we perceive others holding about us, on our past achievements and failure, on memory-banks of good, bad, and neutral actions and impressions" (p.97). Thus, modifying one's irrational belief is a process in which individuals seek to look deeply inside their schemas and rewrite the negative aspects found therein.

Turning to interpersonal perspectives, while the Western viewpoint is that interpersonal relationships can be manipulated and controlled by the self's intention to achieve its goal, a non-Western perspective emphasizes a strong collectivity for the cohesion of people who are believed to be enmeshed in the immediacy of human relationships and concerns (e.g., Ishii, 1998; Rosenberger, 1992). In the field of communication studies, Western perspectives that put high values on individualism, independence, and speaker-centered and persuasion-oriented tendencies have been uncritically dominant (Ishii, 2001). In contrast with past trends, the contributions of Asian religious perspectives have recently been proposed to enrich the perspectives of human communication under which Euro-U.S. centered paradigms have been dominant (Ishii, 2006; Miike, 2003). Regarding REBT, Ellis (1962) considered ideas from Buddhism and Taoism in his theorizing. For this therapy to become more suitable in Japan where people think that "human relationships are given or naturally emerge and change" (Ishii, 1998, p.111), and occasionally caused by "en" (fate, chance), non-manipulative rather spontaneous perspectives could provide a new way of approaching REBT.

While it is true that individuals can solve a cognitive disturbance by realizing their irrational beliefs, two questions arise. The first is whether an irrational belief is always a problematic. Like the proverb "failure teaches success" suggests, an irrational belief is not necessarily an undesirable one. Rather, it sometimes helps people discover what was problematic about their beliefs. Individuals can realize their rational beliefs because of their irrational beliefs. This means that we cannot realize what rationality is without irrationality. The second concerns how we can recognize the effects and limitations of disputing our irrational beliefs.

Let us consider another commonly seen example of a businessperson who made a crucial mistake in his business in a company. He recognizes that he made a crucial failure in a company, and he feels that, "I should leave the company because I'm ashamed to look my colleagues in the face." The reason he feels this way can be attributed to his belief that "I must not, should not, make a mistake because it causes trouble to my colleagues" (Irrational B). If he spends a few days taking an absence from the company worrying about his failure, he might not be able to return to the company again. However, if he realizes that his own entrenched belief is irrational by recognizing that "to err is human" (Rational B), he may be able to return to the company. As this example shows, once he recognizes his irrational judgment, his feelings, as a negative consequence of his belief, become positive. The following section proposes "the ABCDE model in relation to Yin and Yang with the Five Elements" so that the ABCDE model can become more familiar to Easterners.

Yin and Yang for Belief Modification

Yin represents the passive, female, intuitive, receiving force, which is associated with earth; while Yang represents the strong, male, active, masculine force, which is associated with heaven. Additionally, the curvy line in the symbol means that there are no absolute separations between opposites, indicating that Yin and Yang are mutually dependent and cannot exist independently (see Figure 3). Furthermore, the dark eye in the white area and the white one in the dark area mean the opposing elements coexist and unite together forming a whole. Ji, Nisbett, and Su (2001) argued that "When yin reaches its extreme, it becomes yang; when yang reaches its extreme, it becomes yin. The pure yin is hidden in yang, and the pure yang is hidden in yin" (p. 450). Thus, the principle of Yin and Yang embodies not only change or paradox but also duality, harmony, and unity in diversity (Chen, 2002). Fang (2011) summarized the principles of Yin and Yang as follows:

1. Yin and Yang coexist in everything, and everything embraces Yin and Yang.

2. Yin and Yang give rise to, complement, and reinforce each other.

3. Yin and Yang exist within each other and interplay with each other to form a dynamic and paradoxical unity. (p. 10)

The Yin and Yang suggest that everything in the universe is essentially not "either/or" but "both/and" within a context and time (Fang, 2003).

Applying the perspective of Yin and Yang to the modification of belief, an irrational belief is not simply irrational. It can also be interpreted in that the degree to which he feels that leaving the company, his seriousness, reflects the degree of his overall seriousness towards his job. Such a sense of responsibility might reflect on his past conduct and consequently, lead to producing new innovations. Thus, like the proverb "failure teaches success" shows, Yin teaches Yang, and we can recognize Yang from Yin.

Additionally, as the sayings, such as "To take advantage of every situation" and "to take the rough with the smooth," show, learning what is rational from what is irrational helps us produce new insights and be more empathetic to other's feelings. This illustrates that we must not forcibly change our Yin by using Yang because this would mean denying what we think in itself. Rather, to accept Yin as Yin, and accepting one's own Yin helps us learn what authentic Yang is, and this recognition can be a learning process.

It is interesting that Ellis (1997, 2007) credited the anti-categorization belief of Taoism, and that it influenced the development of REBT. In our daily life, human beings have an ability to categorize things in a way that overrides our experience, and people attempt to fit what we experience into our preconceived notions, by categorizing how things are supposed to be. Ellis warned against such simple categorical judgments that lead one to see oneself as completely negative because no one can completely be what she or he is supposed to be. In this respect, Taoism suggests that even when we fail, life itself is an event in which we can continue to work to make something and improve with practice. Ellis' therapy teaches clients the importance of developing flexibility in thinking and seeing their problems from a new and broader angle. As is well-known, Taoism adopts the doctrine of Yin and Yang and sees all change as one opposite replacing the other. In this case, it can be interpreted that a new and broader angle seems to be Yang, which has arisen from an old and narrow perspective as Yin, and people can recognize this in the long run.

Disputation and Effect Based on the Five Elements

After understanding one's irrational and rational beliefs, if a person still has undesirable results, one disputes with oneself in terms of the effect (E). For example, in the case of the businessperson mentioned above, if he wishes to recover from his failure, he has a chance to dispute with himself. In the process, for example, if he can acquire higher knowledge and skills, or he feels that the teamwork in the company improves, he can successfully recognize that "everybody might have experienced failures, and I don't have to regard the failure so seriously. " In this way, it is easy to rewrite these secondary feelings compared with the first self-criticism based on an irrational belief.

Furthermore, when we consider our options, the theory of Five Elements should help us recognize how and what we can do and what we cannot and should not do. The theory of Five Elements (i.e., water, wood, fire, earth, and metal) explains how all substances cycle through various stages of transformation. In Chinese philosophy, the stages of Yin and Yang transformations are referred to as the five phases of transformation. These five elements follow a certain simple logic. Each element both gives birth to and nourishes something. For example, water nourishes wood. What we can learn from this, is that a relationship can be represented with the saying "hoist your sail when the wind is fair."

On the other hand, these elements also have a restraining influence. For example, water restraints fire. This relationship suggests sayings such as "he that fights and runs away may live to fight another day" or "don't bite off more than you can chew." Incorporating the above arguments, the relation between the ABCDE model and the Yin-Yang and the Five Elements can be shown in Figure 4.

In the first phase based on ABC Model, the Yin and Yang perspective is useful when we distinguish a rational belief and an irrational belief and learn Yin from Yang. When we cannot deal with our emotion only with the first phase, it is helpful to adopt the Five Elements into our way of thinking to have positive feelings arise in the second phase based on D and E. In this phase, it is useful to realize its limitations due to negative predictions and its usefulness from the positive predictions in disputing with oneself. Hence, one can predict what will happen, based on the inter-relations among the Five Elements, both in negative and positive ways.

Summary and Conclusion

This paper attempts to incorporate Yin and Yang with the Five Elements into REBT, specifically into the ABC model, and arrange it in a way that is more familiar to Easterners. First, the idea that our emotion is based on our belief and recognizing one's own irrational belief helps us to have a rational one was reviewed. In this process, by comparing Yin with irrational beliefs and Yang with rational ones, the author proposes that we cannot only recognize our rational beliefs but also learn from irrational beliefs. Second, when we cannot deal with a problem only by recognizing our own irrational beliefs, the next step is to dispute with oneself. In this process, to realize what we can do and what we cannot or should not do, the author points out that the interrelations among the Five Elements are useful. It is hoped that users of the CBT can both recognize its utilities and limitations through the use of the law of nature, that is, what we should utilize or abandon based on the philosophy of Yin and Yang with the Five Elements.

In this paper the author constructs a hypothetical model which can be applied to the process of self-counseling. Although the model has its limitations, the author hopes that it has potential to be understood cross-culturally. Interestingly, suggestions in dealing with our cognitive disputation based on Yin and Yang and the Five Elements in this study are seen in the "Serenity Prayer" by Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (June 21, 1892-June 1, 1971). Niebuhr is an American Protestant theologian and ethicist and is well-known for his efforts to relate the Christian faith to the realities of politics, diplomacy, and public policy. The prayer says that "God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other" (From Crouter, 2010, p. 74). Considering Niebuhr's background, it implies that the author's ABCDE model based on Yin and Yang with the Five Elements in this study might be able to find a small step of commonality in facing oneself between the East and the West.

Acknowledgments: This study was supported by Miyata Research Grant 2018 at Meikai University.


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Kazuya HARA

Meikai University, Japan

Correspondence to:

Kazuya HARA, Ph.D. Faculty of Languages and Cultures Meikai University Akemi 1, Urayasu Chiba 279-8550 Email:
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Date:Oct 1, 2018
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