Challenging irrational ideas (Rational-Emotive therapy)

 Our thoughts influence our feelings. If you think people won't like you, you feel disappointed and withdraw socially. If you think nothing will work out well for you, you feel sad or passive and won't try. If you think you must have help to do something, you may feel inadequate and be dependent. If you think you are stupid and incompetent, you may feel worthless and be indecisive and self-critical. No doubt there are connections between thoughts and feelings and/or actions.

 Rational-Emotional therapy is built on the belief that how we emotionally respond at any moment depends on our interpretations--our views, our beliefs, our thoughts--of the situation. In other words, the things we think and say to ourselves, not what actually happens to us, cause our positive or negative emotions. Thus, as Albert Ellis (1987) would say, "Humans largely disturb themselves... your own unreasonable, irrational ideas make you severely anxious, depressed, self-hating, enraged, and self-pitying about virtually anything--yes, virtually anything." This is a very old idea.

As a man thinketh, so is he.
-The Bible

Men are not worried by things, but by their ideas about things. When we meet difficulties, become anxious or troubled, let us not blame others, but rather ourselves, that is: our idea about things.
-Epictetus, about 60 AD

It is very obvious that we are not influenced by "facts" but by our interpretation of the facts.
-Alfred Adler

 If the theory is true that irrational ideas cause most of your intense, long-lasting, unwanted emotional reactions, then there is a simple solution: change your thinking! Actually that may not be as easy as it sounds but that is exactly what Rational-Emotive therapy tries to do. It identifies the patient's unreasonable thoughts and immediately confronts or challenges these problem-producing ideas so that the patient will think differently--see things in a different way--and, thus, feel differently. Thus, this therapy involves persuasion, arguments, logic, and education--essentially insisting that the person be rational and scientific. If you don't have a therapist, you can try to persuade yourself that certain thoughts are unreasonable.

 What kind of ideas are irrational and make us upset or "sick"? Ellis and Harper (1975) described ten common irrational ideas, such as "everyone should love and approve of me," "I must be competent; it would be awful to fail," "when bad things happen, I am unavoidably very unhappy and should be," "it is terrible when things don't go the way I want," and so on (see step one below). There are hundreds of such ideas which transform, for some people, life's ordinary disappointments into terrible, awful catastrophes. Preferences that are quite reasonable are made in our minds into absolutely unreasonable shoulds, musts, and demands which are very upsetting. Mole hills become mountains. We talk ourselves into emotional traumas; yet, the upset person thinks the external events, not his/her thoughts, are upsetting him/her. Ellis called this mental process "awfulizing" or "catastrophizing." It is described as a factor in depression in chapter 6.

 What is rational thinking? First, as Carl Rogers said, "the facts are friendly ." We must face the truth; that's rational. Secondly, if we view reality as a determinist (see next method), we will tell ourselves that "whatever happens is lawful, not awful." Everything has a cause(s). The connections (called laws) between causes and effects are inevitable, the nature of things. So, when something happens that you don't like, don't get all bent out of shape, just accept that the event had its necessary and sufficient causes (and try to change it the next time). Thirdly, Ellis urges us to constantly use the scientific methods of objective observation and experimentation, i.e. the systematic manipulation of variables to see what happens. For example, if you think no one would accept a date with you, Ellis would give you an assignment to ask out five appropriate, interesting people. If your belief (that no one will go out with you) proved to be correct with those five people, then Ellis would direct you to start manipulating variables, e.g. how can your appearance or approach be improved, how can you pick more receptive "dates" to approach, and so on, and observing the outcome. In short, we accept what is happening and what has happened as lawful, as the natural outcome of immutable but complex laws, and not as terrible, awful events that we or someone should have prevented. And, while we can't change the past, we can learn to use these "laws of psychology" to help ourselves and others in the future. What we can't change in the future, we can accept.

 To understand any strong, troublesome emotion, you need to see clearly three parts of your experience:

  1. The actual upsetting physical-social situation and event, what you and others did, and the outcomes. Example: boyfriend and you argued about what to do this evening, watch football or visit your family. He got his way.

  2. The thoughts, wishful images, and self-talk you had before, during, and after the event, but especially just before feeling bad. This includes what you had originally hoped would happen and how you now wish it had worked out. Examples: he doesn't even listen to my needs; I really wanted him to have a good time with my family so we can go more often; he always has to be in control; he is so hung up on sports, I hate them; he should let me have my way half the time; I don't want to stay home, but I can't visit my family alone; when he dismisses me, I'd rather just read a book and fall asleep.

  3. Your emotional reactions about or to the event and the outcomes. Examples: I feel frustrated when I try to communicate to him; I'm hurt and furious because my needs are dismissed; I resent his self-centerness; I'm scared my marriage is not going to last.

 But, without some instruction, we don't recognize that some of our thoughts (2) may be irrational or unreasonable. Therefore, my description of this method begins with a careful explanation of irrational thoughts, then more rational thinking is described. With these concepts in mind, it will be easier in step 3 for you to select either a troublesome emotion (3) or an upsetting situation (1), and then go looking for your irrational ideas and unfulfilled expectations that really produce your overly intense emotions.


 It is necessary to distinguish between reasonable and irrational emotions. Obviously, fears of reckless driving, an irate person, electrical wires, VD and AIDS, etc. are realistic and not irrational. It is also appropriate to temporarily feel disappointment, sadness, or regrets after a loss or a failure. One will temporarily feel irritation and frustration after someone has cheated or lied about him/her, even though one realizes that the person who did you wrong had his/her reasons. You would have preferred that things had worked out differently, but it is not reasonable to "cry and scream" that it shouldn't have happened or to "rant and rave" that you can't stand it. Intense reactions, when carried on excessively long, become irrational over-reactions. At least to some extent these extreme emotions are based on or augmented by irrational thoughts which can be eliminated.


STEP ONE: Identify your irrational ideas.

 Until recently it was thought that only 10 or 12 common irrational ideas caused most of human misery (Ellis & Harper, 1975). Now, it is thought that there are thousands of misery-causing false ideas (Ellis, 1987), a few of them are very obviously irrational but many are subtle and more convincing (but still wrong). As these ideas are described, think about your own thoughts, attitudes, and self-talk. To what extent do you think this way?

 It is necessary for me to describe several irrational thoughts because we differ very much in terms of how we think. You will not have all the harmful thoughts that I describe; you may have only two or three, but they could be enough to make you miserable. Unfortunately, you will have to skim all the ideas below to find the few that are giving you trouble. Here are the common, fairly obvious irrational ideas described by Albert Ellis which create unwanted emotions:

  1. Everyone should love and approve of me (if they don't, I feel awful and unlovable).

  2. I should always be able, successful, and "on top of things" (if I'm not, I'm an inadequate, incompetent, hopeless failure).

  3. People who are evil and bad should be punished severely (and I have the right to get very upset if they aren't stopped and made to "pay the price").

  4. When things do not go the way I wanted and planned, it is terrible and I am, of course, going to get very disturbed. I can't stand it!

  5. External events, such as other people, a screwed-up society, or bad luck, cause most of my unhappiness. Furthermore, I don't have any control over these external factors, so I can't do anything about my depression or other misery.

  6. When the situation is scary or going badly, I should and can't keep from worrying all the time.

  7. It is easier for me to overlook or avoid thinking about tense situations than to face the problems and take the responsibility for correcting the situation.

  8. I need someone--often a specific person--to be with and lean on (I can't do everything by myself).

  9. Things have been this way so long, I can't do anything about these problems now.

  10. When my close friends and relatives have serious problems it is only right and natural that I get very upset too.

  11. I don't like the way I'm feeling but I can't help it. I just have to accept it and go with my feelings.

  12. I know there is an answer to every problem. I should find it (if I don't, it will be awful).

 Note all the "things-should-be-different" ideas mentioned or implied in these statements, including one's own helplessness. Our desires or preferences become "musts" or demands. Much of this self-talk suggests an underlying cry that things should be different, almost like a child's whine that the situation is awful, "I hate it," and it must be changed. Perhaps the common ridiculous notion that "you can be anything you want to be" also contributes to these unreasonable expectations. No one can be anything they want to be! A rock star? A Olympic champion? President? The person loved by the next door neighbor? Sometimes "if you just try hard enough" is subtly added to "you can be anything..." to make it more believable (like the subtle ideas below) but then a person's modest efforts become the basis for a demand: "I worked so hard, it really ticks me off that I only got a 'C' or didn't get a raise."

 How many of these 12 irrational ideas are similar to your own self-statements? How many sound pretty reasonable to you? The more of these irrational ideas you believe, the more likely you are to be upset and have unreasonable feelings. However, just one irrational idea may be all you need to become distraught. Furthermore, Ellis (1987) has recently suggested that one reason why people keep on getting upset (even after reading Ellis's books and having Rational-Emotive therapy) is because they have rejected most of the obvious irrational ideas but retained some of the subtle ones:

  1. Of course, I can't totally please everyone all the time, but I must have approval of certain people because I have been rejected and hurt... because I was spoiled with lots of love as a child... because I really try hard to please... because I feel so upset when I'm not approved... because I only want a little approval... because I'm a special person... and so on.

  2. I know I can't be perfectly competent all the time in every area, but I must succeed on this project because I want to excel so badly... because I really try hard and deserve it... because I have done so well in the past (or failed so often)... because I am handicapped and feel so worthless when I fail... because I have special abilities... and so on.

  3. Oh sure, it is foolish to expect to be treated fairly in all ways by everyone all the time, but they must be fair to me in this case because I am considerate of others... because people have always treated me fairly (or unfairly) in the past... because I am at a disadvantage and can't take care of myself... because I'm furious and they have absolutely no reason to do this to me... and so on.

 You can see how a clearly irrational idea sounds more believable when embellished by these pseudo-psychological explanations. However, such statements are still crazy, unreasonable expectations or thoughts which can and do upset us. Ellis suggests that the tendencies to have these crazy ideas are inborn, i.e. obsessing about something we want badly evolves into absolute musts and demands. How does this happen? We forget the probabilities and risks involved in our irrational self-talk; we over-look our lack of ability and determination; we deny that our strong feelings and needs help convince us we are right (when we are wrong); we fail to see that our strong emotions, like anger, fears and weakness, are frequently reinforced (chapters 5, 6, 7 & 8); we sometimes think it is healthy or appropriate to feel strongly and "never forget;" we aren't aware of our defense mechanisms (chapter 5 and self-deception in methods #1 & #2); we may acquire emotional responses without words, e.g. via conditioning and modeling (chapter 5); we prefer to change the situation rather than our thinking (get a divorce rather than deal with our anger, flunk out of school rather than cope with our overwhelming need for fun); we escape but don't solve our problems by drinking, socializing, involvement with activities and cults, dieting, taking medication, etc.; we convince ourselves we can't really change (and, therefore, don't try very hard). Thus, irrational thinking becomes the easy way out: I can just insist that things should go my way. And scream about injustice when things don't go my way. That way, I don't have to take responsibility for controlling my life.

 Finally, Transactional Analysis and Cognitive therapy have described a number of other self-messages that are illogical and unhealthy (Butler, 1981):

  1. Driver messages: Be perfect, hurry up, try hard, please others, be strong, and so on, reflecting unrealistic demands that interfere with our natural preferences and inclinations (see chapter 9).

  2. Stopper messages: (ideas that "stop us in our tracks" or "shoot us down" and keep us from trying)

    • Catastrophizing -- "If I said something stupid, it would be terrible." "If he/she rejected me, it would be awful." (See Ellis's irrational ideas above).

    • Self-put-downs -- "I'm so dumb... boring... ugly... weak... selfish... demanding... bossy... irresponsible..." (see chapter 6).

    • Self-restricting statements: "I'll speak up providing no one's feelings will be hurt." "I'd give an opinion if I had all the facts." "I'd approach him/her if I could think of something witty to say."

    • Witch messages -- "Don't be yourself; they won't like you." "Don't be different... don't be like your father... like a sissy... like a pushy boss... like an egghead professor..."

  3. Illogical thinking: (see method #8)

    • False or unfounded conclusions -- "If she doesn't love me, no one will." "He smiled, I think he is turned on by my body." "He/she loves me so much, he/she will make the changes I want him/her to make." "I won't be able to find a job and support myself, it's hopeless." "I know they are making it hard for me, that makes me mad." Eric Berne realized that some people tend to respond again and again with the same emotional response, say self-criticism, pessimism, or anger. He called this reoccurring emotion the patient's "racket." The racket--an emotion based on faulty thinking--has become a basic part of your personality.

    • Misattribution -- often we blame our feelings on someone or something else. Examples: "You make me so mad." "This setting is depressing." "Depressed people get me down." "I did it because I was drinking." "I only hit you because you were trying to make me jealous." Often we blame the victim.

    • Overgeneralization, exaggeration, or either/or thinking -- anytime we use never, always, or everything, we are probably overgeneralizing. Also, many of us over-emphasize the importance of a blemish, a mistake, our looks, etc. Another problem is when vague words are used, like "success," "happiness," or "good." If terms like these aren't carefully defined, how do you know you have reached that condition? Then, some people use either/or reasoning: "If I'm not (successful) yet, I must be a failure." That is foolish; it would be better to think in terms of percentage--how successful have I been? How happy am I? How much progress have I made?

 This step is to introduce the idea of irrational thoughts that cause unwanted emotions. It is a giant leap from recognizing these irrational ideas to getting rid of them. In fact, Ellis says we never learn to think straight all the time. How many wrong ideas most of us retain is not known yet. Certainly, a better understanding of rational, adaptive thinking would help all of us. In the following steps, we will study ways to detect and correct your own unique, well hidden, wrong and disturbing ideas.

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