| Tool #4: Recognizing Irrational Thinking
|Long ago, Dr. Albert Ellis identified four basic types of irrational beliefs that human beings are prone to.
By irrational, we mean that by thinking those ways they make their lives worse instead of better. They
generate a dsyfunctional amout of emotion and then often say and do things because of it, or to deal
with it, that makes their lives worse.
The four types of irrational beliefs he identified were:
Demandiness Awfulizing Can't Stand It-itis Label and Damning
I like to teach people five simple rules.
Rule #1 You have the right to want whatever you want
That's true even if it's not good for us or something others might not agree with. That's our right as human
beings. However, according to Dr. Ellis, human beings have a tendency to:
1) Start to think they NEED something they simply WANT
2) Treat their simple PREFERENCES as NECESSITIES
3) DEMAND what they simply DESIRE
We need to be judicious about how we use words like need, have to and can't. For example, many people
have heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which includes a level for "love and belonging". His model is
often taught to young people in schools. However, would it be healthy for your daughter to belief she
needs a young boy's love like she needs air, water and food. Would that put her in the best mental and
emotional place to act in her own best interest. Or, would it put her at a disadvantage in some way in
dealing with young boys.
Rule #2 explains why these tendencies become so important in everyday life:
Rule #2 The bigger the difference between your expectations and reality, the
more emotion you'll generate
For example, if you simply want, prefer or desire something and don't get it, you'll be frustrated,
disappointed or annoyed. However, if you start to think you need it, it's a necessity and you HAVE to or
MUST have it, and start to demand it, and then don't get it, you'll generate anger.
The feeling you end up with depends on whether you make demands of others, yourself or life. If you
make demands of others and they don't get met, you'll generate anger. Your basic demand is that
"Everyone must do what I want, and be the way I want them to be". Dr. Ellis called anger a temper tantrum
because someone sounds like a 2 or 3 year old when they take that philosophical position.
If you make demands of yourself before an event, like a test, game or interview, you'll generate anxiety. If
you make demands of yourself after an event, you generate shame and guilt. Your basic demand is that "I
must be perfect and do everything perfectly all the time".
When people make demands of themselves or others they often use the verbs "should" and "shouldn't" to
construct their thoughts and sentences. That's why we jokingly say they're "shoulding" on themselves or
"shoulding" on others when they do. And, it's not good to "should" on yourself or others.
If you're alone, and tell yourself that you should be with someone and you're not, that you should have
more friends, or a boyfriend or girlfriend and don't, or any number of others such things, you can end up
feeling lonely. Loneliness doesn't come from being alone. It's what you think about being alone.
If you make demands of life, and they're not met, you can end up feeling depressed, anxious or bored.
Your basic demand is that "Life shouldn't and can't be the way it is. It should or has to be easier, more
comfortable and pleasant, or more fun and exciting than it is". Or, with anxiety, "Everything has to turn out
the way I want it to"
Irrational demands often come in the form of a question. For example, "How DARE they do that?" or "How
COULD they do something like that?" You're basically saying they shouldn't, CAN'T or MUST NOT do
something, or implying that they should, HAVE TO, or MUST do something else instead.
Rule #3 When people go from simply wanting, preferring or desiring
somethin to thinking they need it, it's a necessity and demanding
it, it can make otherwise smart people do stupid things.
The reason is simple. If you were suffocating and needed air, what would you be willing to do to get it?
Anything. Now suppose someone not only wanted someone's love, but started thinking they needed it.
What would they be willing to do to get it, or keep it? Same thing. Anything. And that's what can make
otherwise smart people do stupid things.
Rule #4 Behavior intended to satisfy a perceived need will win out over behavior
intended to satisfy a rational preference
For example, someone might WANT to quit smoking (a rational preference) but they think they NEED to
have a cigarette, and CAN'T go a whole day without one (perceived need). What are their chances of
There are three ways to look at something that happens. To not care. To think it's unpleasant,
inconvenient or uncomfortable. Or, to think it's really AWFUL as in the end of the world, life's not worth
living anymore type AWFUL.
There's an old saying that accurately describes what we do when we AWFULIZE. We "make mountains
out of molehills". Paradoxically, the easier life becomes, the more likely we are to AWFULIZE,
exaggerate how bad something is, and "make a mountain out of a molehill".
Rule #5 We have a right to like or dislike whatever we want to.
The mistake people make is to start telling themselves they CAN'T STAND something they simply
don't like. If we truly couldn't stand something, we'd die or go crazy. Obviously, if everyone died or
went crazy when they said they couldn't stand something they simply didn't like, we'd have streets
and hallways littered with dead bodies or crazy people. When we say we can't stand something,
we're exaggerating and lying to ourselves and that part of our brain that generates emotion. That part
of the brain is blind, deaf and dumb to the outside world, and takes the word of the upper portions of
our brains. The truth is, we CAN stand what happens, we just don't like it, and that's okay.
The reason Dr. Ellis used the suffix -ITIS is that by continually telling ourselves that we CAN'T STAND
something we simply don't like, we INFLAME ourselves unnecessarily.
LFT, or Low Frustration Tolerance, which is the reason why people don't do so many things that might
be good for them, is largely a product of saying "I can't stand doing that". It's also a product of
demanding that whatever you do be easy, fun or something you agree with, like or see the point to.
Last, it's a product of saying that doing something you don't like, agree with or see the point to, or that
you perceive as uncomfortable, inconvenient, or unpleasant would be awful. Dr Ellis called this type
of thinking "Whining"
Remember Rule #5.
Rule #5 We have a right to like or dislike whatever we want to.
We have the right to dislike what someone else says or does, but we often make the mistake of
blatantly overgeneralizing from their behavior to making judgments about them as a person. We
condemn the DOER instead of simply condemning the DEED. Label and Damning someone or
yourself is like calling an apple BAD because it has a bruise, despite the fact that 95% of the apple is
still perfectly edible. It's calling someone stupid because they did a stupid thing. Doing one, or even
multiple stupid things, does not logically make someone a stupid person. Otherwise smart people
can do stupid things.
We can label and damn others, or ourselves. Label and damning others makes it hard to find common
ground and to resolve conflicts. Racism and prejudice is basically Label and Damning. Label and
Damning ourselves causes us to generate needless, and often counterproductive shame that blocks
needed and helpful change.