Handling Irrational Beliefs from Tools for Personal Growth (1999-2010), by James J. Messina, Ph.D.
I. What are irrational beliefs?
Irrational beliefs are:
- Messages about life we send to ourselves that keep us from growing emotionally.
- Scripts we have in our head about how we believe life “should” be for us and for others.
- Negative sets of habitual responses we hold to when faced with stressful events or situations, that no longer work to keep distress at bay.
- Ideas, feelings, beliefs, ways of thinking, attitudes, opinions, biases, prejudices, or values with which we were raised. We have become accustomed to using them when faced with problems in our current life, even when they are not productive in helping us reach a positive, growth-enhancing solution.
- Negative or pessimistic ways of looking at necessary life experiences such as loss, conflict, risk taking, rejection, or accepting change.
- Overly optimistic or idealistic ways of looking at necessary life experiences such as loss, conflict, risk taking, rejection, or accepting change (toxic positivity).
- Ways of thinking about ourselves that are out of context with the real facts, resulting in our either under-valuing or over-valuing ourselves.
- Lifelong messages sent to us either formally or informally by: society, culture, community, race, ethnic reference group, neighborhood, church, social networks, family, relatives, peer group, school, work, or parents. Microaggressions/macroaggressions like this can cause us to feel badly about ourselves, and develop ways of thinking that are not useful and are even harmful.
- Conclusions about life that we have developed over time, living with irrational beliefs passed down to us by important others (e.g., irrational beliefs about perfection in academics, irrational beliefs about mental health, irrational and overly negative beliefs about self passed down by family members).
- Standards by which we were reared and from which we learned how to act, what to believe, and how to express or experience feelings. When followed, however, these standards do not result in a satisfactory resolution of our current problems.
- Outmoded, unproductive, unrealistic expectations exacted on ourselves and/or others, guaranteed to be unattainable and to result in continuing negative self-concepts.
II. What are some examples of irrational beliefs?
- I do not deserve positive attention from others.
- I should never burden others with my problems or fears.
- I am trash.
- I am uncreative, nonproductive, ineffective, and untalented.
- I am worthless.
- I am the worst example on earth of a person.
- I am powerless to solve my problems.
- I have so many problems, I might as well give up right now.
- I am so dumb about things, I can never solve anything as complex as this.
- I am the ugliest, most unattractive, unappealing, fat slob in the world.
Irrational beliefs (negative) about others:
- No one cares about anyone else.
- All men (or women) are dishonest and are never to be trusted.
- Successful relationships are impossible; you have no control over how they turn out.
- People are out to get whatever they can from you; you always end up being used.
- People are so opinionated; they are never willing to listen to other’s points of view.
- You are bound to get hurt in a relationship; it makes no difference how you try to change it.
- There is a loser in every fight, so avoid fights at all costs.
- All people are out for #1; you need to know you’ll always be #2, no matter what.
- It’s not who you are but what you do that makes you attractive to another person.
- What counts in life is others’ opinions of you.
- There is a need to be on guard in dealing with others to insure that you don’t get hurt.
Irrational beliefs on other topics:
- There is only one way of doing things.
- A family that plays (prays) together always stays together.
- There are always two choices: right or wrong; black or white; win or lose; pass or fail; grow or stagnate.
- Once you are married and have children, you are finally a “normal human.”
- A disabled person is imperfect, to be pitied, and to be dropped along the path of life.
- Admitting to a mistake or to failure is a sign of weakness.
- The showing of any kind of emotion is wrong, a sign of weakness, and not allowable.
- Asking for help from someone else is a way of admitting your weakness; it denies the reality that only you can solve your problems.
How can we recognize irrational beliefs?
Irrational beliefs can be present if we:
- Find a continuing series of events where every move we make to resolve a problem results in more or greater problems.
- Have been suffering silently (or not so silently) with a problem for a long time, yet have not taken steps to get help to address the problem.
- Have decided on a creative problem solving solution, yet find ourselves incapable of implementing the solution.
- Have chosen a problem solving course of action to pursue and find that we are unhappy with this course of action; yet we choose to avoid looking for alternatives.
- Are afraid of pursuing a certain course of action because of the guilt we will feel if we do it.
- Find we are constantly obsessed with a problem yet take no steps to resolve it.
- Find we are immobilized in the face of our problems.
- Find that the only way to deal with problems is to avoid them, deny them, procrastinate about them, ignore them, run away from them, turn our back on them.
- Find that we can argue both sides of our problem, becoming unable to make a decision.
What are the benefits of refuting our irrational beliefs?
By refuting our irrational beliefs we are able to:
- Unblock our emotions and feelings about ourselves and our problems.
- Become productive, realistic problem solvers.
- Gain greater credibility with ourselves and others.
- Change the way our brain works by introducing new neural pathways as problems are solved and new possibilities are explored. Brain change during this process has been shown again and again.
- Put our problem into a realistic perspective as to its importance, magnitude, and probability of being solved.
- Separate our feelings from the content of the problem.
- Live richer, more authentic lives.
- View our lives in a healthier perspective, with greater meaning and direction.
- Gain our sense of humor in the presence of our problems and in their resolution.
- Recognize our self-worth and self-goodness and separate it from the errors and mistakes we have made in our lives.
- Forgive ourselves and others for mistakes made.
- Give ourselves and others kindness, tenderness, and understanding during times of great stress.
Steps to take in refuting an irrational belief
Step 1: Is your thinking and problem solving ability being blocked by an irrational belief?
Consider a specific problem as you answer the following questions:
- Am I going in circles in trying to solve this problem?
- Is there something inside of me that is preventing or keeping me from taking the necessary actions in this matter?
- Am I bothered by the thoughts of what I or others “should do, act like, think, or feel’’ in this situation?
- Do I find myself saying how this situation “should be,” having a hard time facing it the way it really is?
- Do I use fantasy or magical thinking in looking at this problem? Am I always hoping that by some miracle it will go away?
- Am I burdened by the fear of what others think of me as I work on this problem?
- Do I know what the solution is, but become paralyzed in its implementation?
- Do I find myself using a lot of “yes but’s’’ in discussing this problem?
- Do I find it easier to procrastinate, avoid, divert my attention, ignore, or run away from this problem?
- Is this problem causing much distress and discomfort for me and/or others, and yet I remain stumped in trying to resolve it?
Step 2: If you have answered yes to any or all of the questions in Step 1, you are probably facing a problem or situation in which a blocking irrational belief is clouding your thinking.
The next thing to do is to try to identify the blocking irrational belief. Answer the following questions in your journal:
- Is the blocking belief something I have believed in all my life?
- Is the blocking belief coming from the teachings of my parents, church, family, peers, work, society, culture, community, race, ethnic reference group, or social network?
- Is the blocking belief something that always recurs when I am trying to solve problems similar to this one?
- Is the blocking belief something that has helped me solve problems successfully in the past?
- Is the blocking belief one that tends to make me dishonest with myself about this problem?
- Is the blocking belief an immobilizing concept that sparks fear of guilt or fear of rejection in my mind as I face this problem?
- Is the blocking belief something that can be stated in a sentence or two?
- Is the blocking belief a consistent statement as I face this problem, or does it tend to change as variables of this problem become more clear to me?
- Is the blocking belief a tangible statement of belief or is it simply a feeling or intuition?
- Can I state the blocking belief? If so, write it in your journal: My blocking belief is:
Step 3: Once you have identified the blocking belief in Step 2, test its rationality.
Answer the following questions about the belief, yes or no.
- Is there any basis in reality to support this belief as always being true?
- Does this belief encourage personal growth, emotional maturity, independence of thinking and action, and stable mental health?
- Is this belief one which, if ascribed to, will help you overcome this or future problems in your life?
- Is this belief one which, if ascribed to, will result in behavior that is self defeating for you?
- Does this belief protect you and your rights as a person?
- Does this belief assist you in connecting honestly and openly with others so that healthy, growth engendering interpersonal relationships result?
- Does this belief assist you in being a creative, rational problem solver who is able to identify a series of alternatives from which you can choose your own personal priority solutions?
- Does this belief stifle your thinking and problem solving ability to the point of immobilization?
- When you tell others of this belief do they support you because that is the way everyone in your family, peer group, work, church, or community thinks?
- Is this belief an absolute? Is it a black or white, yes or no, win or lose, no options in the middle type of belief?
Healthy answers are: 1-no 2-yes 3-yes 4-no 5-yes 6-yes 7-yes 8-no 9-no 10-no
If you are unable to give healthy answers to one or more question in Step 2, then your blocking belief is most likely irrational.
Step 4: Once you have determined that the blocking belief is irrational, you are ready to refute this irrational belief.
Respond to the following questions in your journal:
- How do I consistently feel when I think of this belief?
- Is there anything in reality to support this belief as being true?
- What in reality supports the lack of absolute truth in this belief?
- Does the truth of this belief exist only in the way I talk, act, or feel about this problem?
- What is the worst thing that could happen to me if I do not hold on to this belief?
- What positive things might happen to me if I do not hold on to this belief?
- What would be an appropriate, realistic belief I could substitute for this irrational belief?
- How would I feel if I substituted this new belief for my blocking belief?
- How will I grow and how will my rights and the rights of others be protected by this substitute belief?
- What is keeping me from accepting this alternate belief?
Once you have answered these questions, substitute a rational belief and act on it.
My substitute rational healthy belief is:
Step 5: If you still have trouble solving problems, return to Step 1 and begin again.
More importantly, if you are finding yourself struggling as you move through these steps, please come to the Counseling Center. Counseling Center staff are trained specifically to help with irrational beliefs, and provide support as you learn how to retrain your brain and move through this type of thinking.