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Understanding Irrational Thinking
by John Turton, Counsellor

Irrational is to say that the thinking does not match the reality, or what is actually 
 there, compared to what is perceived or interpreted in a person's thinking.

(You may find it helpful to read "Irrational Beliefs vs. Rational Beliefs" before reading further.)

To describe a belief as irrational is to say that:

  1. It DISTORTS REALITY (It is a misinterpretation of what is happening).
  2. It involves some illogical ways of evaluating yourself, others, and the world around you:
  3. It blocks you from achieving your goals.
  4. It creates extreme emotions that persist, and which distress and immobilise.
  5. It leads to behaviours that harm yourself, others, and your life in general.

The three levels of thinking
Every individual has a set of general 'rules' - usually subconscious - that determines how they react to life. When an event triggers off a train of thought, what someone consciously thinks depends on the general rules they subconsciously apply to the event.

Let's say that a person holds the rule: "To be worthwhile, I must succeed at everything I do." If they happen to fail an examination, this event - coupled with the underlying rule - will lead them to the conclusion: "I'm not worthwhile." Identifying underlying, general rules involves going beyond the surface INFERENCES to the client's EVALUATIONS or PERSONAL MEANINGS. (continued below)

 1. Inferences (the things we "infer")
In everyday life, events and circumstances trigger off two levels of thinking: inferring and evaluating. 

First, we make guesses or INFERENCES about what is 'going on' - what we think has happened, is happening, or will be happening. Inferences are statements of 'fact' (or at least what we think are the facts. They can be true or false). Inferences that are irrational usually consist of the following 'distortions of reality':

  1. Black and white thinking Seeing things in extremes, with no middle ground - good or bad, perfect versus useless, success or failure, right against wrong, moral versus immoral, and so on.
    Also known as ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING.
  2. Filtering: Seeing all that is wrong with oneself or the world, while ignoring any positives.
  3. Over-generalisation Building up one thing about oneself or one's circumstances and ending up thinking that it represents the whole situation. For example: "Everything's going wrong", "Because of
    this mistake, I'm a total failure". Or, similarly, believing that some thing which has happened once or twice is happening all the time, or that it will be a never-ending pattern: "I'll always be a failure", "No-one will ever want to love me", and the like.
  4. Mind-reading Making guesses about what other people are thinking, such as: "She ignored me on purpose", or "He's mad at me".
  5. Fortune-telling Treating beliefs about the future as though they were actual realities rather than mere predictions, or example: "I'll be depressed forever", "Things can only get worse".
  6. Emotional reasoning Thinking that because we feel a certain way, this is how it really is: "I feel like a failure, so I must be one", "If I'm angry, you must have done something to make me so", and the like.
  7. Personalising Assuming that something is directly connected with oneself, but without evidence: "Everyone is looking at me", "It must have been me that made her feel bad", and so on.

2. Evaluations                                                         
As well as making inferences about things that happen, we go beyond the 'facts' to EVALUATE (give a value or qualify) them in terms of what they MEAN TO US. Evaluations/meanings are sometimes conscious, though often are beneath awareness. Irrational evaluations consist of one or more of the following three types:

  1. Catastrophising There are two main forms of catastrophising. 'AWFULISING' is exaggerating the consequences of past, present or future events; seeing something as: awful; terrible; horrible; the worst that could happen. It often leads to 'CAN'T-STAND-IT-ITIS' - the idea that one can't bear (put up with; withstand; overcome) some circumstance or event. Both types serve the purpose of making people feel worse about their problems.
  2. Demanding (musts and shoulds) Also known as 'MUSTURBATING', demanding refers to the way people use unconditional shoulds and absolutistic musts - believing that certain things must or must not happen, and that certain conditions (for example success, love, or approval) are absolute necessities. Demanding implies that certain 'LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE' exist and must be adhered to. Demands can be directed either toward oneself or others. This is probably the 'core' of irrational thinking: if we kept all our wants and rule-for-living as preferences, they would cause us little trouble.
  3. People-rating (putting a label or value on others) People-rating refers to the process of evaluating one's entire self (or someone else's). In other words, trying to determine the total value of a person or judging their worth. It represents an overgeneralization. The person evaluates a specific trait, behaviour or action according to some standard of desirability or worth. Then they apply the evaluation to their total person - eg. "I did a bad thing, therefore I am a bad person." People-rating can lead to reactions like self-downing, depression, defensiveness, grandiosity, hostility, or overconcern with approval and disapproval.

3. Rules [for LIVING]
Rules, as we saw earlier, are the underlying beliefs that guide how we react to life. What SPECIFIC EVENTS mean to someone (how they evaluate them) depends on the underlying (subconscious or automatic thinking). [Editor's note: In summary the list below is the Irrational Beliefs we tend to hold, and by holding them they create the emotional uproars in our lives.]  

Dr. Albert Ellis proposed that a small number of core beliefs underlie most unhelpful emotions and behaviours. Here is a list of such 'RULES FOR LIVING'

  1. I need love and approval from those significant to me - and I must avoid disapproval from any source.
  2. To be worthwhile as a person I must achieve, succeed at whatever I do, and make no mistakes.
  3. People should always do the right thing. When they behave obnoxiously, unfairly or selfishly, they must be
    blamed and punished.
  4. Things must be the way I want them to be, otherwise life will be intolerable.
  5. My unhappiness is caused by things that are outside my control, so there is little I can do to feel any better.
  6. I must worry about things that could be dangerous, unpleasant or frightening, otherwise they might happen.
  7. I can be happier by avoiding life's difficulties, unpleasantness, and responsibilities.
  8. Everyone needs to depend on someone stronger than themselves.
  9. Events in my past are the cause of my problems - and they continue to influence my feelings and behaviours now.
  10. I should become upset when other people have problems, and feel unhappy when they're sad.
  11. I shouldn't have to feel discomfort and pain - I can't stand them and must avoid them at all costs.
  12. Every problem should have an ideal solution - and it's intolerable when one can't be found.

Go here to read the 12 Irrational Beliefs and learn how to easily dispute them.

Bear in mind, that these rules here all represent absolutes held in the thinking, that cannot be sustained or fulfilled. They are a mismatch with reality and what can be delivered to them by reality. This is why when these rules, or inner thinking and beliefs are challenged by reality (what is actual rather than desired or perceived) the person who holds those beliefs, if left un-disputed, will become disturbed emotionally, and in their behaviour.

John Turton, Counsellor



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