CHALLENGING IRRATIONAL IDEAS

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STEP TWO: Try to find more rational sentences to say to yourself.

 Like replacing bad habits with good ones, your irrational thoughts must be replaced with more rational ones. For each of the 12 obvious irrational ideas listed in step 1, here is a more reasonable way to look at the situation: (Note: You may have to refer back to the original irrational idea to understand these rational ideas.)

  1. It is not possible for everyone to love and approve of us; indeed, we can not be assured that any one particular person will continue to like us. What one person likes another hates. When we try too hard to please everyone, we lose our identity, we are not self-directed, secure or interesting. It is better to cultivate our own values, social skills, and compatible friendships, rather than worry about pleasing everyone.

  2. No one can be perfect. We all have weaknesses and faults. Perfectionism creates anxiety and guarantees failure (chapter 6). Perfectionistic needs may motivate us but they may take away the joy of living and alienate people if we demand they be perfect too. We (and others) can only expect us to do what we can (as of this time) and learn in the process.

  3. No matter how evil the act, there are reasons for it. If we put ourselves in the other person's situation and mental condition, we would see it from his/her point of view and understand. Even if the person were emotionally disturbed, it would be "understandable" (i.e. "lawful" from a deterministic point of view). Being tolerant of past behavior does not mean we will refuse to help the person change who has done wrong. Likewise, our own mean behavior should be understood by ourselves and others. When people feel mistreated, they can discuss the wrong done to them and decide how to make it right. That would be better than blaming each other and becoming madder and madder so both become losers.

     When is anger justified? Some say never. Some say only when all four of these things are true: You didn't get what you wanted, you were owed it, it was terrible you didn't get it, and someone else was clearly at fault. If any of the four can't be proven, confront your unreasonable anger. If you are sure they are all true, then be assertive (not aggressive) with the person at fault (Ellis, 1985b).

  4. The universe was not created for our pleasure. Children are commonly told, "You can't have everything you want." Many adults continue to have that "I want it all my way" attitude. The idea is silly, no matter who has it. There is nothing wrong, however, with saying, "I don't like the way that situation worked out. I'm going to do something to change it." If changes aren't possible, accept it and forget it. An ancient idea is to accept whatever is. A recent book urges to want what we have, to be grateful for it, and not to desire more and more (Miller, 1995).

  5. As Epictetus said, it is not external events but our views, our self-talk, our beliefs about those events that upset us. So, challenge your irrational ideas. You may be able to change external events in the future and you certainly can change your thinking. Thinking like a determinist helps (see next method). Remember no one can make you feel anyway; you are responsible for your own feelings.

  6. There is a great difference between dreadful ruminations about what awful things might happen and thinking how to prevent, minimize, or cope with real potential problems. The former is useless, depressing, exhausting, and may even be self-fulfilling. The latter is wise and reassuring. Keep in mind that many of our fears never come true. Desirable outcomes are due to the laws of behavior, not due to our useless "worry." Unwanted outcomes are also lawful, and not because we didn't "worry."

  7. As with procrastination (see chapter 4), avoidance of unpleasant tasks and denial of problems or responsibilities frequently yields immediate relief but, later on, results in serious problems. The life style that makes us most proud is not having an easy life but facing and solving tough problems.

  8. People are dependent on others, e.g. for food, work, love, etc., but no one needs to be dependent on one specific person. In fact, it is foolish to become so dependent that the loss of one special person would leave you helpless and devastated (see chapter 8).

  9. You can't change the past but you can learn from it and change yourself (and maybe even the circumstances). You can teach an old dog new tricks. Self-help is for everyone every moment.

  10. It is nice to be concerned, sympathetic, and helpful. It is not helpful and may be harmful to become overly distraught and highly worried about other people's problems. They are responsible, if they are able adults, for their feelings, for their wrong-doing, and for finding their own solutions. Often there is little you can do but be empathic (chapter 13). Avoid insisting on rescuing people who haven't asked you for help.

  11. This helpless, hopeless "I-can't-change" attitude is contradicted by this entire book and most of the therapeutic and self-help literature. There are many ways to change unwanted feelings (see chapters 5, 6, 7, 8 & 12). On the other hand, there is merit in "being able to flow with your feelings" in certain circumstances. Being unable to feel or express certain emotions is a serious handicap but correctable. Being dominated by one's emotions--a slave to your emotions--is also a serious but correctable problem. As long as our emotions are sometimes destructive and irrational, it is crazy to unthinkingly "follow our feelings." Only our thinking, reasoning brain can differentiate between joyous, facilitating feelings and harmful, misguided emotions.

  12. Wrong! There is no one perfect solution but there may be several good alternatives. Try one, see what happens (observe the laws at work), and try again if your first idea doesn't work. Perfectionism causes problems (chapter 6), including taking too much time, becoming too complicated, causing undue anxiety, and lowering our self-esteem.

 Instead of insisting that things must or should be different, instead of believing people and the world are awful, instead of demanding perfection, instead of feeling helpless, instead of denying reality, there are better attitudes (also healthy attitudes are discussed in chapter 14):

  1. Accept reality: Say to yourself, "It would have been better if ________ hadn't happened, but it's not awful, it was lawful." Or, "That's the way it is. I'll make the best of it."

  2. Learn from past failures how to improve the future: "It didn't happen even though I wanted it to. So, now I'll get down to work and plan how to make things work out better next time. Where's my psychology self-help book?"

  3. Accept responsibility for your feelings: "No one can make me feel any way. But, I can change how I feel. Okay, I can't be perfect, I'll just do my best and stop beating myself." "I" statements remind us that we alone are responsible for our feelings (see method #3 in chapter 13).

  4. Realize that worry is useless: "All this fretting isn't doing any good. I'll make a plan--maybe desensitization and role playing--and see if that works." "I've worried about this matter long enough; worry isn't doing any good. I'll work on some other problem I can do something about." "I've been in pain long enough; he/she isn't worth all this misery; I've got to get on with life."

  5. Tell yourself that it is better to face facts than live a lie: "I'm not going to handle this situation well unless I am realistic. I need to see my faults. I need to consider long-range goals as well as having fun today." Remember Laing's suggestion to check out your hunches about what others are feeling and thinking (see method #7 in chapter 13).

  6. Recognize the difference between a fact and an inference: The difference is well illustrated by the saying "unloaded guns kill." Unloaded is an inference when, in this case, the gun is, in fact, loaded. You might say, "Just because Bill didn't call me today doesn't mean he is mad." "No one seems to be noticing me but that doesn't mean I'm unattractive today." "I got a 'D' on my first English paper but that doesn't prove I'm hopeless as a writer." When you draw conclusions (especially ones that upset you), ask "What are the facts for and against this conclusion?"

  7. Challenge your illogical thinking: Question false conclusions --"I can't judge character by color of skin or by how he/she is dressed." "Just because I haven't overcome this jealousy yet doesn't mean I can't ever." "There is keen competition and probably several reasons why I didn't get admitted to graduate school; it isn't just that they are biased against Jews from New York... older females... young, inexperienced males like me... or that I always do poorly on tests... or that Dr. Smith gave me a lukewarm letter of reference..."

     Question your overgeneralizations --"I felt he never showed any interest in me, but he does ask about my classes and eats lunch with me." "It seemed like she was always complaining but I've started noticing that she hardly criticizes at all for an hour or two after I have done something for or with her." "I used to think women didn't know much about politics and international affairs but Louise, Kathy, and Paula are very knowledgeable and interesting." "Just because I haven't gotten a good job yet doesn't mean that finishing college and working as an aid in a nursing home has been a total waste of time." "Just because I have a pimple on my chin doesn't mean I'm ugly or totally unattractive in every way." (Method #8 deals with logical thinking.)

  8. Counter "driver" messages with "allower" messages: "I don't have to be perfect or always on top." "It's OK to be emotional, take my time, respect myself." See scripts in chapter 9.

  9. Counter self-put-down, "witch" messages which hold you back: "Why not approach that attractive person over there even if I find out she/he is going with someone or even if she/he eventually thinks I'm forward... odd... boring?" See method #1.

 Several books concentrate on controlling your self-defeating thoughts and upsetting feelings or beliefs. Some of the better ones are David Burns's (1980), Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, McKay & Fanning's (1991), Prisoners of Belief, and Lazarus, Lazarus, & Fay (1993), Don't Believe It! Many people like Wayne Dyer's (1976) best selling, Your Erroneous Zones, but mental health professionals think it encourages self-centerness and shallow thinking (Santrock, Minnett & Campbell, 1994). Many other books are cited at the end of this method.

 This is an important step--learning to think rationally and seeing the sources of your irrational ideas--but your emotional responses are not likely to immediately change. You may rationally see why you shouldn't be depressed, angry, panicky, etc. long before the gut responses fade away (as a result of the cognitive changes or, if necessary, other self-help methods in chapter 12, such as deconditioning).

STEP THREE: Identify the feelings and the circumstances in which you experience unwanted emotions. Write each upsetting situation on the top of a 3 X 5 card.

 The irrational ideas discussed in step 1 may have sounded familiar. If so, perhaps you can start observing and tracking your irrational self-talk, and in that way discover what emotions are generated by these thoughts. However, it is usually more practical to start by identifying the times and situations in which you have unwanted feelings --fears, worries, fatigue, guilt, pessimism, resentment, shyness, regrets, loneliness, jealousy, envy, passivity, conformity, sadness, etc. In the next step, we will go looking for the irrational ideas you might be telling yourself that could produce the unwanted emotions. In this step, however, we are simply identifying the emotions and situations we would like to change.

 The task is to ferret out irrational ideas but the surface symptoms--the emotions--are much easier to see than the underlying thoughts--the irrational ideas. Therefore, look for and write down on a 3 X 5 card each unwanted feeling and the situation, interactions, thoughts and/or fantasies associated with that feeling. Do this whenever you have exaggerated, prolonged, or possibly unjustified emotional reactions, whenever you are frustrated and think things "should" be different, whenever you respond differently than others do, whenever you have emotional responses you don't understand or don't like, whenever you feel pushed by your own internal pressures and so on.

 Obviously, different people respond differently to the same situation. Surely some of these emotional differences are due to how these people see the situation differently and how they talk to themselves about the situation. Do the ways you respond differently from others reveal some of your partially hidden ideas? What do you say to yourself when breaking up with someone? when failing to do as well as you would like? when starting a difficult new project? when being criticized? when you feel something is awful? Negative feelings reflect negative self-talk. Changes in feelings usually follow changes in views or ideas. Make a practice of noting when your emotions change and then (in the next step) looking for your internal judgments and self-talk in these situations. Your ideas may explain your feelings.

 When you feel the need to escape, e.g. "I want to get out of here" or "I need a drink," it is possible that your self-talk is creating this urge to act or this internal pressure. Maybe you are driving yourself too hard with "be perfect," "try harder," and "don't show your anger" self-instructions. Look for these thoughts. Likewise, when we avoid our work and procrastinate by eating, drinking, cleaning, watching TV, etc., we may be telling ourselves lies, such as "I can easily do it tomorrow," "I'll work after watching TV," "I won't do it right," "I can't learn all that stuff--it's useless anyway" or "They will probably make fun of my work." Who wouldn't try to avoid all those negative self-evaluations by escaping into some other activity? Who wouldn't use excuses if we didn't question their validity?

STEP FOUR: Explore the underlying rational and irrational ideas in each situation. Challenge your crazy ideas and decide on more rational ways of thinking. This is "cognitive restructuring."

 Take all your 3 X 5 cards with a brief description of the situation on the top and arrange them in order of severity. Beneath the description, draw a line down the middle of the card. The right side will be used later for more rational ways of looking at it. On the left, list the irrational ideas possibly causing this unwanted emotional reaction. A review of the common irrational ideas and the driver, self-critical, and illogical messages described in step 1 should help.

 In other words, whenever you have an unwanted emotion, go looking for the possible underlying thoughts. Examples:

 Don't expect it to always be easy to pin point the exact irrational ideas involved. First of all, you may have repeated a wrong idea so many times you believe it is totally right. Examples: "I am fat." "I can't express myself." "Women can't fix cars." "I must do better than my brother." "I'm not attractive." Butler (1981) says the question is not "Is my self-talk true and realistic?" (because you frequently can't answer that), but rather you should ask yourself, "Is my self-talk helping or hurting me?" Example: It is not helpful to tell yourself, "She dumped me for Joe because I'm inferior to him" but it could be helpful to say, "Thinking I'm inferior may or may not be true, but, for certain, it is hurting me. I need to think differently. Let's see. If I learned to be more attentive to others, more fun-loving, and less self-critical, girls would probably like me better."

 Butler also contends that we start to question and discard our irrational, negative ideas as we recognize more and more how these ideas are harming us. So, she asks her clients to consider the damage done in terms of (1) hurtful feelings, (2) troublesome behavior, (3) low self-esteem, (4) strained relationships, and (5) high stress or poor health. Obviously, repeatedly seeing the damage done by our own thoughts helps us see the importance of changing our thinking.

 While Butler seems to disagree, I suspect we can frequently see the errors in our thinking if we stop and ask ourselves, "What is the evidence for this belief?" We can recognize some of our subtle irrational ideas and then challenge them. We can hear our internal predictions of failure ("you can't do that"), our demands that other people be different ("they shouldn't neglect me"), and so on. We can learn to say "That is a silly, harmful way to think, so stop it!" Then we can think of more positive, constructive ways of thinking (see last and next step). Butler suggests writing down what you say (or think) to yourself before and while you are upset. Seeing the thoughts in writing also helps you see the irrationality.

 Cognitive therapists have developed several methods for challenging irrational ideas that mess up our lives (Mc Mullin, 1986). Here are some:

 Try to think of several interpretations of an upsetting event. Suppose someone comments that you are getting flabby around the middle. You are hurt, ashamed, and, at first, conclude that you are unattractive, maybe even gross looking. But you look for other ways of viewing the situation: (1) Maybe other people don't see me that way, (2) he has a weight problem himself and is projecting, (3) he is angry because he thought I had been flirting with his girlfriend, (4) a little fat doesn't matter very much to me, and (5) that comment may help me start a diet tomorrow. Some of these interpretations will serve you better than the first one. With practice we can see there are several ways of interpreting most situations, not just one.

 Similarly, one can often find less personally threatening explanations of a bad event. Example: a rejected lover can believe "She/he was afraid of sex" or "He/she wouldn't like anyone for long" just as easily as "I wasn't good looking enough" or "I'm boring." More objective, "clinical" explanations may be easier to take. "I don't have friends because I don't try" hurts less than "because I'm not a likable person."

 Suppose a friend one day seems cold and irritated. You think he/she is mad at you, probably because you had done something with another friend the night before or because you hadn't called him/her for a couple of days or maybe because she had heard some gossip about you. All of these thoughts are rather useless speculation. The facts are that you often do things with other friends and it is common for the two of you to not call for a couple of days. What gossip could he/she have heard, you haven't done anything unusual. Maybe he/she was just in a hurry; maybe he/she was mad at someone else. It could be a million things. Don't get carried away by your speculation. Ask him/her if you misread the situation or if you had done something to upset hem/her.

 Some people are catastrophizers, always making negative interpretations, making mole hills into mountains, minor setbacks into crushing defeat, tiny slights into total war, and so on. If you are one, try thinking of the best and the worst possible outcome in a situation you are concerned about. Guess which is most likely to happen. Then observe what actually happens and see if, in the course of time, you can become more accurate in estimating what the outcome will be in many situations.


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