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Stress Mastery : Looking at the World Differently - Dealing with Irrational Beliefs

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Another powerful way humans create stress for themselves is by doing what Albert Ellis (1975) called catastrophizing, which happens when you give yourself messages that a situation is too awful or overwhelming to bear, or that the worst is about to happen. These messages, also termed self-talk by Ellis or automatic thoughts by Aaron Beck (1970), refer to running commentary that goes on in your head during the course of the day. Most of it is mundane and benign, but problems arise when your perceptions are influenced by automatic thoughts that reflect irrational beliefs. Many studies have documented the link between irrational beliefs and anxiety (Bonner & Rich, 1991), but not all irrational beliefs cause stress. Those that do typically fall into two general categories: (1) beliefs that the world, someone, or something should be different; and (2) beliefs that your perceptions reflect reality rather than your subjective impressions of reality. Many times these irrational beliefs operate on a subconscious level, yet guide your emotional reactions nonetheless. Self-talk tends to be circular in nature, often creating a vicious cycle that can heighten your stress level (Bourne, 1990). Figure 1 illustrates this cycle. It begins with events in the environment that have no positive or negative value until you are there to interpret them or ascribe meaning to them. Next, we have your sensory impressions of the event (that is, your perceptions and sensory input). This is followed by your cognitions and interpretations of your perception of events (that is, your self-talk about the event), which may include irrational ideas or self-statements. The next step is the reaction of your emotional and physical system, not so much to the events themselves, but to your interpretations (self-talk) about the events. These physical and emotional reactions then feed back into your self-talk. For example, if you are feeling disappointed or depressed because of how you have interpreted an event, this sadness will then further influence your self-talk, predisposing you to further negative cognitions—and the cycle goes on. Negative thoughts create unhappiness, and depression stimulates further pessimistic thinking.
Figure 1. The Irrational Self-Talk Cycle


At the root of all irrational thinking is the assumption that things are done to you, rather than recognizing that events happen in the world (McKay et al., 1981). You experience those events (A), engage in self-talk about those events (B), and then experience an emotion (C) resulting from your self-talk. A does not cause C; rather it is B that causes C. If your self-talk is irrational and unrealistic, you create negative emotions.

The two common forms of irrational self-talk are statements that catastrophize or revolve around absolutes. Catastrophic thinking involves expecting the worst and/or giving nightmarish interpretations of your experience. Thus, a momentary chest pain becomes a heart attack; your boss's bad mood means you are going to get fired; your spouse is going out of town on a business trip and you assume you will be miserable if you are alone. The emotions that follow such expectations are very unpleasant, but you are responding to your own description of the world. Irrational self-statements involving absolutes typically include words such as should, must, ought, always, and never. Here you assume that if things are not a certain way, or if you do not conform to some standard, it is disastrous. Any deviation from that particular value or standard must be bad.

Cognitive Restructuring

A potent strategy for refuting irrational beliefs and changing your self-talk involves the use of cognitive restructuring techniques (Ellis & Harper, 1961). The first step in this process is to attempt to identify the irrational belief that is underlying your reaction. Once you have uncovered this belief, you may immediately notice the absurdity of it. Common irrational beliefs include the following:

  1. Everyone needs to like you. It is awful if someone dislikes you.

  2. You must be competent and perfect in all that you undertake.

  3. Mistakes are sure proof that you are a failure.

  4. You should never hurt anyone or refuse a request or favor.

  5. It is horrible if things don't turn out the way you want.

  6. You are helpless and have no control over your feelings or experiences.

  7. You will be rejected if you don't go to great lengths to please others.

  8. There is a perfect love and a perfect relationship.

  9. You shouldn't have to feel pain. Life should always be fair.

  10. Your worth as a human being depends on how much you achieve and produce.

The next step is to examine and challenge the irrational belief with your rational mind. Notice how so many of the irrational beliefs above revolve around a should, or a must, or the idea that it is catastrophic if something doesn't turn out in a particular way. Challenging irrationalities can be facilitated by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Is there any reason to think that this belief is true?

  2. Is there evidence that this belief might not be true?

  3. If I reject this belief, what is the worst that could happen to me?

  4. If I reject this belief, what good things might happen as a result?

The third step is to substitute a new, rational belief in place of the old, irrational idea. Initially this may seem artificial, a bit phony. But replacing the negative thoughts that led to painful emotional responses with more positive and rational alternatives is a good start, even if you don't completely believe them at first. In time you will start to believe your rational thoughts, particularly after you experience improvements in your situation reflecting the change in you. This principle applies to cognitions as well as overt behavior. The changes in your thinking patterns will become natural and comfortable after a while. With practice, it will get easier and easier to reframe reality and to view things from a more positive viewpoint. Cognitive restructuring does not imply that you should repress your thoughts. It is a process of acknowledging those thoughts and feelings that increase your stress level, then examining and challenging them, and finally replacing them with more rational thoughts when appropriate. For example, the following rational statements can be substituted for each of the preceding irrational thoughts. These are not the only options. We invite you to create your own rational alternatives if these choices do not fit for you. Notice that these rational statements use elements of reframing. Oftentimes, the process of thinking rationally involves the process of reframing, of learning to view a situation from a different, more rational perspective.

  1. It is impossible to be well liked by everyone. No one achieves that. It certainly isn't the end of the world if ____________ (insert the name of the person in question) doesn't like me. And, who knows, next month the situation could be totally different.

  2. It is impossible to be good at everything. Besides, if I did succeed at being extremely competent in everything I did, many people would no doubt resent me.

  3. Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes can be learning experiences that lead to eventual success. Failure is just another word, not an enduring part of my character.

  4. ____________ will surely survive if I don't do things his or her way.

  5. It is unfortunate if things don't turn out the way I would like, but it is hardly the end of the world and I can handle it. By this time next year I will no doubt be completely indifferent to this whole situation.

  6. I always have a choice over how I respond to situations.

  7. If I don't go out of my way to please someone there is a chance I might get rejected, but it certainly is not guaranteed. And if I need to go to great lengths to please someone in order for that person to like me, then that individual is not someone that I care to have as a friend. I want to be liked and appreciated for who I am, not for what I can do for someone.

  8. There are no perfect relationships. I will focus on making this a healthy, honest, enjoyable relationship and learn to accept the inevitable disappointments and imperfections.

  9. Life isn't always fair. Feeling pain is part of being human. If I never experienced sadness or despair, I would not know what it means to be happy and content.

  10. My worth as a human being is much more dependent on my capacity to be fully alive and to feel everything it means to be human, the good with the bad. My worth depends more on how I am in relation to the people who are important to me.

David Goodman, in his book Emotional Well-Being through Rational Behavior Training (1974), offers six guidelines for rational thinking. You may find these rules to be quite useful for guiding you to think rationally and challenge your irrational beliefs.

  1. It does not do anything to me. That is, the situation does not make you anxious or afraid. The things you say to yourself are what produce the negative emotions you may feel at any given moment. In the same vein, no one can make you feel anything. How you feel is always your choice. Other people may provide provocation, but ultimately you always choose how you feel in response.

  2. Everything is exactly the way it should be. The conditions for things or people to be otherwise do not exist. To say that things should be different is tantamount to believing in magic. Things are the way they are because of a long series of causal events. To say that things should be different is to throw out causality.

  3. All humans are fallible creatures. This is an inescapable truth. If you have not set reasonable quotas of failure for yourself and others, you increase the prospects for your disappointment and unhappiness.

  4. It takes two to have a conflict. Before pointing your finger in blame, consider the 30 percent rule: Any party to a conflict is contributing at least 30 percent of the fuel to keep an argument going.

  5. The original cause is lost in antiquity. It is a waste of your time to try to discover who did what first. It is often impossible to find the original cause of chronic painful emotions, as such dilemmas are usually extremely complicated and often the product of multiple interactions. The best strategy is to decide to change your behavior now.

  6. We feel the way we think. To again quote Covey, “The way you see the problem is the problem.” What you say to yourself determines your feelings.

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