Try to understand the origin, dynamics, and validity of your harmful thinking. Ask yourself questions like,
- "Where did this harmful idea come from?"
- "Is this belief true or false? What is the evidence?"
- "When do you remember first having this harmful belief?" "How did you feel?"
- "Why did you feel (inadequate... cocky... unloved) as an adolescent?"
- "Does feeling insecure have much to do with your continuing to live at home? ...staying with the same boy/girlfriend? ...staying in the same job?"
- "What attitudes do secure people have in this situation?"
- "What am I saying differently to myself when I'm not upset in similar situations?"
- "Why does this belief exist?" (Mc Mullin (1986) says some irrational ideas help us feel safe, e.g. "most people are stupid" helps us feel smart, "you are a nerd if you don't drink" helps establish rapport with our drinking buddies, "it's my fault" helps us believe we are a good, responsible person, and so on.)
Another interesting strategy to understanding negative thinking is to imagine, for the moment, that your dire thoughts are true. Then, ask yourself, "If that were true, what would that mean to you? Why would that upset you?" Flanagan (1990) gives this example: a student in counseling was worried because his professor had criticized him and probably thinks he is a poor student. The therapist always asks the above question, "If that were true, why would that upset you?" Student: "It would mean I am a bad student, he is an expert." Therapist repeats questions. Student: "It would mean I was a failure." Therapist: same questions. Student: "It means I have to leave school." Therapist: same questions. Student: "Everyone would know I failed." Therapist: same question. Student: "It would mean I was a total failure. There would be nothing for me to do." Thus, the student's reactions to these questions imply the underlying assumptions that are so upsetting: (1) any criticism of me is right, (2) my worth is determined by success in school, (3) one person criticizes me and the world falls apart and I'm useless, (4) others will not accept my weaknesses--I must be perfect, (5) everyone must respect me, (6) if I fail in school, I will fail at everything. With this kind of thinking, it is no wonder we make mountains out of mole hills.
A similar way to discover the impossible demands you may be imposing on yourself is to ask "Why?" repeatedly (Flanagan, 1990). Example: suppose you wanted to but couldn't turn down a friend's request for a favor. Why? "Because I felt uncomfortable saying no." Why? "Because I should be helpful." Why? "Because we should all try to accommodate others." Why? "Because everyone should be happy." Why? "Because being sad wastes time and that's wrong." Why? "Because you should be accomplishing something." Why? "Because I feel guilty wasting time and my mood gets down." Why? "Well, I should be productive and in a good mood all the time." Notice all the "shoulds" in this line of reasoning that ends with a ridiculous statement.
If you can understand the ramifications of your thoughts and the true underlying problems, it will help a lot when you are developing arguments against your irrational ideas.
As with self-instructions and stress-inoculation (method #2 in chapter 11 and method #7 in chapter 12), you can prepare and practice in advance arguments designed to counter fears, self-putdowns, anger, impossible goals, and so on. Sometimes, it is even helpful to get mad at the stupid idea that is causing you trouble. Examples: There are so many beautiful and interesting people to meet, it is really foolish to let my shyness lead to all this frustration and loneliness. It is stupid to think that the only way to be happy is to be very successful... beautiful... a real man... a perfect lover and parent... because there is so much more to a full life (and, besides, these demanding goals create many problems).
By recording in a journal how well each argument works in real situations, you can find out which ideas or views help you most to avoid upsetting thoughts. Use what works.
Instead of arguing against a pessimistic attitude, one can focus on thinking rationally and replacing negative words with positive words. For instance, we can think of ourselves as having learned to be the way we are, instead of labeling ourselves as "sick," "weak," "crazy," or "mentally ill." It requires continuous conscious effort and daily practice to make these changes. Other examples of re-labeling or reframing a negative trait (see method #1 in chapter 14):
Negative words or outlook Positive words or outlook Wishy-washy Open minded, flexible Loud mouth, egotistical Expresses honest opinions Sloppy, lazy Casual, carefree, relaxed Socially shy, scared to talk I have an opportunity to meet people, have fun, and exchange ideas Treated unfairly A chance to stand up for my rights Made a mistake A chance to learn something. Remember, Babe Ruth struck out a record 1330 times while hitting 714 home runs.
Beyond the question of accuracy of your views, you can also question the accuracy of your assumed implications of those views. Examples: Suppose you asked someone out and he/she turned you down. There are several possible reasons for being rejected that do not have negative implications for you, e.g. he/she is interested in someone else at the moment. But let's just suppose for a moment that he/she did actually think you were a creep. You should still ask yourself, "So what?" Does he/she know much about you? No, so why give any weight to his/her superficial impression? Does that impression make you a creep? Of course not. Does that impression imply that no one will ever want to go out with you? No. Suppose you are not able to make "A's" and "B's" in chemistry and physiology. Ask yourself, "So what?" Does that mean you won't become an MD? Maybe. Does it mean that your life will be meaningless? No. In short, ask yourself, "Is this situation really so awful?" Look 10 years ahead. Compare this "awful" situation with a serious problem, such as a relative or loved one dying, losing your sight, etc. Ask yourself, "Am I making too much out of this?"
The most effective technique may be to find a basic value you really believe in that counters the harmful irrational belief. Examples:
Harmful belief Contradicting value I always fail. I can't control the outcome, only how hard I try. (Inspiring stories of success through hard work might help overcome a defeatist attitude.) They won't like me, if I am different. My religion tells me what is right and wrong, so I'd rather be liked by God and Jesus or Mohammed than by these critical friends. He left me for a young, pretty woman. It's terrible. I'm a caring, interesting, intelligent person, too bad he was hung up on looks. (Reading about gratifying careers and/or second marriages might help this person turn from the past to the future.) I want lots of "things." Being a loving person with a gratifying family life and close friends is much more important than working 10 to 12 hours a day so I can buy things.
Finally, keep in mind that the upsetting irrational ideas may no longer be conscious or may not even exist at all. For example, it seems possible that irrational ideas originally produced the unwanted emotions, but in the process of being repeated over and over in association with a specific situation, these ideas may have become abbreviated or even omitted altogether from the chain reaction of situation-ideas-emotions. In this case, the situation may elicit (condition?) the emotion directly. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to guess at what the original irrational ideas might have been and then develop a more rational outlook and plan (this is an unproven method, in contrast to desensitization). For example, one may have become shy by using self-talk like "they won't like me" or "I'm not attractive." Shyness might be gradually overcome by supportive self-talk, "I can find interesting things to talk about" and "Being a caring person will make up for my weaknesses."
The crux of this method is the recognizing, questioning, challenging, and changing each irrational idea. The new thinking is based on facts. You are your-own-scientist, checking out your own ideas. It is an unending process; rational people must constantly monitor their beliefs about the past and expectations about the future, repeatedly asking, "What is the evidence?"
After you have identified the irrational ideas underlying several of the emotions and situations described on your 3 X 5 cards, you will probably find the same kind of thinking errors showing up in several situations. Are you unduly self-condemning? Are you overly critical of others or the world? Are you perfectionistic and pushing yourself too hard? Are you bitching about the way things turn out (the laws of nature)? Are you a specialist at exaggerating the awfulness? This is valuable information about your way of thinking because it will guide you to finding more rational (factual) and constructive (encouraging) ways of thinking.
Write some supportive, rational self-talk on the right side of the 3 X 5 cards. Your arguments against your own irrational thoughts can be a few words, e.g. "Ridiculous!" or "Where's the proof?," a sentence, e.g. "People will be more impressed with how much fun I have playing ping-pong than with how well I can slam," or a complex philosophy, e.g. "My goal in life is to be a good psychologist, that is inconsistent sometimes with having fun, being popular, agreeing with important people, etc."
Refer to step 2 for rational ideas if you need to, but you must understand and believe your own self-talk that counters hurtful ideas. Your ideas and views need to be expressed in your own words; they should encourage you to face the facts, accept yourself, and be gentle with yourself and others. Method #1 will help you deal with self-critical thoughts. If you give yourself a lot of upsetting "Be Perfect" or "Hurry Up" or "Try Harder" or "Don't Be Emotional" messages, develop some "Allower" messages: It's okay to make mistakes, to take my time, to act on my feelings, to assert myself, to be average, etc. Give yourself "unconditional positive regard" by replacing the impossible "shoulds" and critical judgments with (a) recognition of your specific accomplishments and (b) the development of a workable self-improvement plan. Examples: if you get 95% on a test, don't fret about the 5% you missed, praise yourself for the 95% you knew. If you feel terrible about breaking your diet, work out a better plan that is easier to follow and allows for mistakes.
It is not easy for an emotional self-agitator to become a self-calmer. It takes work, hours and hours of work. If you can not think of rational, self-supportive views for certain situations, talk with a friend or a counselor. Accumulate a list of the arguments and ideas that effectively reduce your negative emotions. Keep on improving the challenges to your irrational ideas; it is a life-long task.
STEP FIVE: Imagine being in the upsetting situations. Talk rationally to yourself, letting the rational ideas override the irrational ideas and emotions. Continue until you feel better.
Start with a mildly disturbing situation or feeling. Say to yourself, "I know where those feelings are coming from and these emotions are too intense! I'm making too much out of this. It makes more sense to look at it this way (fill in the rational ideas from the 3 X 5 card)." It may seem strange at first to have this intellectual argument between your irrational ideas and your rational ideas, but keep trying. The unwanted emotional response will fade away and, as that happens, your belief in the rational ideas will be strengthened. Move on to imagining situations that evoke stronger emotions. Learn to change your intense, "awful" emotional reactions to more reasonable reactions: overwhelming depression becomes sadness or regrets, rage becomes irritation or a wish that things had been different, and so on.
This procedure, called Rational-Emotive Imagery, has some similarity with self-instructions in chapter 11, desensitization in chapter 12, constructive fantasy in chapter 13, this chapter's method #1 about the internal self-critic, and also method #9 in this chapter about positive, coping attitudes.
This step provides practice at attacking irrational ideas and reducing the unwanted emotions. It is preparation for real life in which you can start telling yourself rational things as an irrational emotion begins.
STEP SIX: Anticipate emotional responses. Attack every irrational idea as it occurs. Insist on behavioral changes too. Accept what you can't change.
This method is to be applied every minute of every day; otherwise, the irrational ideas will return and gather strength. Just like the therapist does, whenever you start to feel upset, ask yourself, "What crazy idea am I telling myself now?" Insist that you think factually and rationally. You must also behave more rationally! Albert Ellis gives "homework assignments." For example, you may realize your fear of flying is irrational. That isn't enough. You have to fly--several times. You must start doing the things that have been upsetting you--getting turned down for a date, speaking up at meetings, going out without make up, getting a "C," standing up for your rights, etc.
Staying rational is a life-long preoccupation. There are many obstacles: negative views are very resistive to change; the old "do's and don't's" are very powerful; the belief that "I will be okay if I can only reach some lofty goal" is hard to shake; the idea that "I can't change" is an enormous barrier; if new thoughts are tried out, the internal perfectionist may say, "You are messing up this new self-talk; you'll never learn; besides, it won't help much anyway." You have to keep slugging away at irrational ideas month after month. Positive self-talk has to become automatic. Logical reasoning is hard work. Many people give up before the job is done.
Just understanding the basic idea may reduce certain irrational emotions rather quickly. Working through the above steps, however, will take several hours plus time each day to counteract the unwanted emotions as they occur and to do "homework" that contradicts the irrational ideas. Actually, what happens is that eventually your point of view and style of thinking changes; this change requires conscious questioning of one's reasoning many times each day. As stated above, being rational requires constant vigilance every time the brain works. If you have some particularly harmful irrational ideas, it may take a few minutes of forceful arguments against those ideas occasionally for a year or more in order to change your thinking (McMullin, 1986).
The first objection to this method is that several people insist that it is rational to want everyone to love and approve of you or to want to always be successful or to want evil to always be punished. Ellis would say, "If you want to be unhappy, go ahead believing these ridiculous ideas." Think about it this way: it would be nice if everyone were always considerate, competent, successful, and loved, but to actually expect or, more precisely, demand that these ideal conditions exist all the time is foolish. It is possible to have high aspirations and still accept failure and shortcomings when they inevitably occur.
Other problems with this method are, as discussed above, that the irrational ideas are hard to detect and reject in some cases. They may not actually exist. In addition, some strong emotions are reasonable and unavoidable, but in time the continuation of the emotion becomes irrational. Suppose you have been deceived by an unfaithful lover, it is hard to tell yourself, while experiencing intense pain, that this kind of self-serving deception is a fairly common and even rational and understandable behavior from the deceiver's viewpoint. Such logical reasoning doesn't make the pain go away. Your pain (or grief or anger) isn't unreasonable at this point; it is an inevitable emotional reaction to the loss and hurt. When does the pain-grief-anger become unreasonable--after one month? two months? three months? six months? after one year? after three years? (I say two months is enough suffering!)
Dr. R. L. Wessler (1992) of Pace University has recently accused Ellis's form of Rational-Emotive therapy of dogmatically imposing a view of the world on the patient without much consideration of why the patient sees the situation as he/she does. For instance, when a client in other forms of Cognitive Therapy says he/she couldn't pass a college course, the therapist is likely to simply suggest the client check out that expectation in reality. The Cognitive Therapist wouldn't instantly and bluntly call that expectation of failure an "irrational," crazy idea. (In this instance, the client might be right.) But when a client of a Rational-Emotional therapist says "I'd die if I didn't make all A's," the follower of Ellis would immediately challenge that idea as irrational (and actual death does seem improbable). The RET therapist's focus isn't on the patient's background that results in thinking that getting all A's is crucial; the focus is on getting the patient to see that the expectation of all A's in all circumstances is an unreasonable demand. It certainly is a dogmatic and dynamic approach for the RET therapist to say that it is unreasonable to insist that someone must love you or that you must get an "A." But is the client actually irrational, wrong, or stupid, when he/she insists that the world must be different than it is? I think so (see next method).
The final problem is that many of us are not willing or able to do the extensive work necessary to clear up our irrational thinking. It is easy to say that professional help may be needed, but realistically if we won't clean up our own thinking, are we likely to do the work and pay for a therapist as well? So, what does this lack of motivation say about the effectiveness of self-change?
Whatever is is right?
Can we easily question our own thoughts? Often not. Rational-Emotive and Cognitive Therapies are professional techniques usually utilized by well trained professional therapists. However, Rational-Emotional professionals have written up their methods hundreds of times as self-help techniques. The problem is that in their practice the professional therapists can be quite directive and assertive, even bluntly and repeatedly confronting and challenging the patients irrational ideas. The Rational Emotional therapist may tell a specific patient that his/her specific thought is an irrational idea, is the kind of thinking that causes depression or anger, etc. The Cognitive therapists are a bit gentler but just as specific and say now, how can we test the validity of that idea, or lets collect some data to see how you feel after you have such thoughts. In books these authors present arguments and cases that illustrate the harmfulness of certain general ideas but in bibliotherapy they cant zero in repeatedly on the readers specific ideas that seem to be causing unwanted emotions. Instead, they can suggest ways to question your own reasoning and ways to look at the situation differently. But if you dont diligently think about those questions over and over, your thinking and beliefs may change very little.
For example, it is suggested that you ask yourself questions similar to these: (1) Do my thoughts or beliefs help me or cause me problems over time? (2) Do my beliefs fit with known facts and reality? (3) Is this specific belief logicaldoes it make sense? For example, you might want very badly to succeed, but does having that need mean you must succeed? No. Rational ideas should be helpful, realistic, and make sense. If your ideas (beliefs) arent rational, then one should find ones that are.
A recent book, written by a person who claims to have had no knowledge about Rational-Emotive or Cognitive therapy, provides some techniques that challenge the kind of ideas that frequently lead to unpleasant, disturbing emotions (Byron Katie, 2002). Most of her case illustrations of applying these methods (questions to ask yourself) come from a workshop or lecture circuit where she does public interviews in which she rather assertively challenges the interviewees beliefs and ideas, much like some therapists do. So, it is not known how effectively text-based self-questioning corrects our trouble-causing irrational thinking. Maybe it is necessary to have an authority challenging our way of thinking. Anyway, here is Katies approach:
1. Describe in detail the situation or aspects of a relationship that bothers you. Include such things asWho angers or disappoints you? What dont you like about the other person? How do you want them to change to be different? What do you need or want from them? What do you especially dislike about them? What do you want to never experience with them again? Be negative and judgmental. In other words, how are you telling yourself that things should or must be different?
2. Once it is clear what you think about the situation and what you want to be different, then ask these questions challenging the validity of your demands your shoulds or musts: Is my understanding of the situation true? How can you be absolutely sure your beliefs and views of the situation are true or the only way it can be understood? Example: Suppose your spouse or your boss seems to not understand you as well as you think he/she should, so you ask yourself Is it true he/she should understand me better? Dont just have a knee-jerk reaction think deeply about it. Are you certain you have communicated well or completely to him/her? Is it certain that it is in his/her best interests to understand me perfectly? Is there some important payoff to them when they dont understand you?
3. When you think things should be different but the changes just dont occur, how do you feel? What emotions do those unfulfilled thoughts or wishes trigger in you? Anger? Revenge? Tension? Self-criticism? Hopelessness or do you become determined to change the other person? Does your train of thoughts increase stress or bring calm into your life?
4. Picture in your mind what your life would be like if you didnt have these thoughts about how these changes really must happen. What if you were with this person and didnt have the thought that he/she should be or MUST be more understanding or different? Would things be better or worse? Would you be a different person?
As you can see, these questions are aiming at the same points as Rational-Emotional therapists, namely, you are responsible for you own upset feelings because feelings result from your thinking, especially your shoulds and musts. Therefore, you need to start questioning your demands that things be different from what they are, i.e. that the world should have unfolded and must unfold the way you want it to be. This is irrational thinking, the world obeys its laws, not your wishes. If you change your thinking, you will focus on less demanding and more realistic expectationsthen you will be less upset with yourself, with others, and with how life unfolds.
Katie has another mental exercise that can be helpful; she calls it the turnaround. It is quite similar to the Gestalt technique of Go Find the Opposite. What you do after seriously considering the questions above, is to ask yourself to consider carefully if the truth lies in other directions different from your (upsetting) thinking or beliefs. Examples: instead of believing Julie doesnt understand me; she is mad at me and she shouldnt be, perhaps you might gain some insight by asking Was I first mad at her? or Am I angry with myself because I dont understand myself? Or because I havent made myself clear to her? Or because I cant understand why Julie feels the way she does? Other questions: Could it be that she actually shouldnt be understanding of me? Do I really have to have her understand me? Am I less understanding of her than I could be? There are many turnarounds to ask. Often a little truth is found in each turnaround question. The goal is to accept whatever is going to happen, however the world unfolds, even the things you dread.
Turnarounds can be revealing, disclosing facets of your inner self and your feelings that are usually hidden. These are valuable insights. Examples: if you are thinking “she ignores me,” then turn this around to think seriously about: “she likes me” or “she wants me to be more independent” or “I ignore her” or “I ignore myself” or “I am very needy and want her attention badly” or “ I resent her relating with someone else” and so on. If you are thinking “John shouldn’t work…drink…complain…watch TV…withdraw… so much,” then ask yourself or say “John should …do these things…,” or “I like when John…does these things,” or “I shouldn’t… do these things,” or “I like to…do these things,” or “I am very critical when I do…these things,” or “My mother used to bitch about these things,” or “John does these things to get away from me,” or “John does these things instead of doing more upsetting things,” etc. This is an exercise in flexible, diverse thinking.
My experience has been that many people have a difficult time correcting their own thinking. It is no surprise that we tend to believe what we think; we do that even when we have Alzheimers and know our thinking is frequently confused and in error. So, challenging the validity of our own thinking or beliefs which arouse unwanted emotions is a difficult task. Nevertheless, as you can see from the recent pages, many techniques have been proposed for correcting our untrue or irrational thinking. Many of these techniques are presented as easy to use and sure bets to straighten out your disturbing thoughts. Unfortunately, very few (maybe none) of these self-help methods have been carefully researched as a self-help technique. Hundreds or thousands of studies are needed to objectively evaluate the methods being sold in self-help books. We are too focused on trying to make money to do the research (see Rosen, Glasgow & Moore in Chapter 1). If you have made significant changes in your thinking resulting in a reduction of unpleasant, unwanted emotions, please write me by going to Self-Change Stories on the Table of Contents page.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
Many therapists cite case after case to support this method. Certainly, Cognitive Therapy has been shown to be effective with many depressed persons. There is relatively little objective, long-term research support for cognitive approaches provided by typical therapists, however. Perhaps this is because the method is much more complex than desensitization. Perhaps because it is hard to know for sure that the research subject's thinking has really changed. Perhaps because results are delayed--it takes time to change the thinking which modifies the emotions which then result in visible changes in behavior. Perhaps because there are several "cognitive" approaches, all taking a different attack on irrationality and perceptual bias.
A study or two have found RET to be as effective as desensitization in dealing with fears; another study was inconclusive. As a self-help method (as distinguished from a therapy technique), there is very little evidence of its effectiveness. Ellis (1987) himself has observed that the effectiveness of books, including his own, "is still very limited." Some of the reasons are discussed above. On the other hand, there is a consensus among clinicians that cognitive therapy, which includes RET, is fairly effective with a variety of problems. But, it seems quite possible to me that others (e.g. a therapist) can detect our faulty thinking more adroitly than we can ourselves using written guidelines. We need extensive research.
The advantages of this method are its (1) potential speed and directness, (2) conceptual simplicity, and (3) applicability to almost every emotion. There are no known dangers when attacking your own irrational ideas, but one might expect an argumentative, abrasive Rational-Emotional therapist to occasionally produce excessive stress and a "casualty."
Note--beyond the general references cited above, there are Rational-Emotive or Cognitive books that specialize in depression, anger, procrastination, relationships and many other areas. See the specific chapters of interest. Also there has been a new wave of books addressing harmful specific beliefs and ideas, such as pessimism (McKay & Fanning, 1991; Lazarus, Lazarus & Fay, 1993; McGinnis, 1990; Seligman, 1991).
These are the better books using some of the RET and cognitive therapy ideas: Burns, D. (1980); Butler, P. E. (1981); Dyer, W. (1976); Ellis, A. (1985b, 1987), Ellis, A. & Harper, R. A. (1975a); Freeman, A. & DeWolf, R. (1989) for overcoming regrets; Flanagan, C. M. (1990); Hauck, P. A. (1973, 1974, 1975); McMullin, R. E. (1986). The most recent good references are Young & Klosko (1993), Sills, J. (1993), McKay & Dinkmeyer (1994), Padesky & Greenberger (1995) and Greenberger & Padesky (1995). Miller (1995) takes a little different approach, he urges us to be happy with what we have.