One way to solidify gains in therapy is to recognize and overcome irrational thoughts. Every day we run into stresses in our lives. The degree to which stress causes us to feel tense and anxious depends on our beliefs. The theory is that thoughts precede emotions. We become anxious and tense not as much by the past as by our presently convincing ourselves of things that are not true.
Almost all of us have been trained to believe things that are just not true. We can call these “irrational beliefs.” Irrational beliefs cause us emotional misery today not because we were trained in the past to think that way, but because we are continuing to convince ourselves daily that these beliefs are true. For instance, we may convince ourselves that we must be competent and achieving. While it may be demonstrably true that it is advantageous and rewarding to be competent and achieving, it does not follow that it must be so. No, it does not follow. Think it through. “Must” implies necessity. And necessity means that something cannot be otherwise. Is competence a required quality? Is every single human being you know competent? Of course they are not. In fact, do you know any single individual who is competent at everything? The answer is still “no.” So, competence in human beings is not necessary, because it can be otherwise. And therefore unless you are something other than a human being, you are irrational if you hold yourself up to a standard of total competence.
The same is true for being liked, admired and respected. While you can demonstrate that it is an advantage to be liked, admired and respected, it does not follow that it must be so. And therefore unless you are something other than a human being, you are irrational if you hold yourself up to a standard of being universally liked and respected.
So, in order to be rational and to be less tense, less anxious, and less subject to impaired health, do we have to abandon our hopes and dreams? Do we have to set lower goals for ourselves? Do we have to forsake our ideals? No, no, and no. All we have to do is change our requirements to preferences.
This is rational:
“I strongly prefer to be competent and achieving. I will put effort into it and will be disappointed if I do not achieve competence.”
This is irrational:
“Because I prefer to be competent and achieving, I therefore should and must be. I will be an unworthy person if I do not achieve.”
If you go into situations, in which your competence is at issue, believing irrationally as described above, you will be causing yourself increased tension, increased anxiety, and therefore increased chances of impaired health. And you will experience that to serve a belief that you cannot demonstrate to be true.
Why is it irrational for you to believe that you must be competent?
Because there is no law of nature and no law of human kind that requires your competence. Because many incompetent people obviously exist, and their continued existence demonstrates that competence is not a requirement of nature. Because many other people are not competent, and it would be irrational of you to believe that a higher standard applies to you than that which applies to them. Because the belief that you must be competent is an absolutist belief, and there do not appear to be any absolutes in nature.
How can you strive for competence and not strain yourself with tension and anxiety?
Convince yourself that competence is preferable and advantageous, but not necessary. Learn the Yerkes-Dodson law, which states that moderate arousal results in the highest performance. Convince yourself that if you fall short of competence, it will be merely disappointing, but not awful or catastrophic. Convince yourself that your worth as a human being does not depend on your competence. Convince yourself that if you require yourself to be competent, the best you can hope for is that competence will bring you a sense of relief. But if you know competence is not necessary, but manage to achieve it, your competence may bring you joy.
Competence is not the only issue about which people typically think irrationally, increasing their tension and anxiety. We wake up every morning with a whole set of premises with which we understand and interpret our world. Most of them are quite useful. But if we awaken every morning with the premise that we must be competent, then very time our competence is at issue we will have increased tension. If we awaken every morning with the premise that life must be convenient, then we will have added tension every time we face an auto repair, every time we are caught at a red light, every time anyone treats us without courtesy, every time an item we want is not available, every time we are caught in the rain, etc. etc. etc. But if we teach ourselves to awaken every morning with the expectation that life’s inconveniences are part of everyday living and are not awful, then those same events may not raise our level of tension and anxiety, and may not raise our chances of impaired health.
Typical Irrational Beliefs
The following list of 14 irrational beliefs is adapted from a list of 10 irrational beliefs found in A New Guide to Rational Living, by Albert Ellis and Robert Harper (1975).
Since competence is a desirable trait, it is therefore necessary that I be competent in every situation. If I am incompetent in any one instance, it is positive proof that I am not a desirable and worthwhile person.
It is nice to be liked, admired, and respected. Therefore I must have approval from all persons I think are significant.
Personal dignity absolutely depends on always appearing to be in control. To be in any way incapacitated or dependent while observed by others would surely make it impossible for those others to ever again view me as a dignified person. My life as a person of dignity would be forever destroyed by any observed loss of control.
If I am seriously frustrated, treated unfairly or rejected, I cannot merely view it as unfortunate and painful. I must view it as horrible and catastrophic.
It is an absolute necessity that fairness and justice prevail in all situations. To be faced with an unrightable wrong is unspeakably frustrating and miserable.
People and events should turn out better than they do. If I am faced with something that does not turn out as well as I want it to, then I have no choice but to feel miserable.
Convenience and comfort are preferable to inconvenience and discomfort. If I am subjected to inconvenience or discomfort, then things are not as they should be and I have to feel miserable about it.
If I am awaiting a future decision, test, diagnosis, or any other potentially stressful event, I must stay on guard. I cannot distract myself with anything pleasurable or interesting, but must preoccupy myself with what is to come and must make myself anxious about it.
My past remains all-important. If something once strongly influenced my life, it must go on controlling my feelings and behavior today. There can be no remedy.
It is impossible to feel physical pain without feeling emotional misery.
There is a right way and a wrong way to live. If I do not do what is right, then I must feel a pervasive and inescapable sense of wrongness.
Once I establish a workable routine, that routine must be maintained.
My role in this world is indispensable. For me to be unable to fulfill my role would bring about horrible, unspeakable consequences.
I always know in advance when a situation is so bad that nothing can make it better.
Changing our irrational beliefs to rational, coping beliefs can have an extremely powerful positive influence on our emotions. But achieving a change in your habitual thinking patterns will require diligence. You will be provided with a cognitive worksheet. The worksheets are set up in an A-B-C format. Now and then, sit down and write down some stressful events in the “A” column. Then write down your uncomfortable emotional responses in the “C” column. Next, carefully consider the “B” column – the column in which you will identify the irrational thoughts or premise that led you to have the uncomfortable emotional response. Your irrational belief or premise will be a variation of one of the 14 irrational beliefs listed on the previous page. Write it down.
Last, go through the mental exercise of convincing yourself of how the irrational belief you listed in column “B” is truly an irrational, dysfunctional, and undesirable belief. Use the handout entitled Learn to Defeat Your Irrational Thoughts to help you to truly understand and solidify your ability to avoid irrational thinking. Train yourself to believe a more rational, coping, reasonable thought. A persistent effort on your part to overcome your irrational thoughts will reduce your emotional discomfort. It will reduce your tension and anxiety. It will reduce the likelihood of undesirable coronary events. Good luck!
Michael R. Slavit, Ph.D., ABPP, is Board Certified in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. This column is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified professional.