The human animal, unlike the lessor creatures roaming this earth, has exceptional and vast powers of cognition. We have the unique ability to think and to dream, to remember and imagine, to analyse and synthesize, and to ponder and reflect. It`s what puts us at the top of the evolutionary chain of command and what allows us to do great things in the world. As always in life though, things are never simple. Our great powers of cognition are not always set on a positive dial. The same powers that can make us do beautiful, amazing, creative things, can lead us to irrational beliefs about ourselves or others, making our lives much more difficult than need be.
Where there is thought, there is feeling, and where there is feeling, there is emotion. One is never far from the other, whichever way you look at it. It is a commonly accepted fact that when we think positive thoughts, we will engender positive feelings within ourselves. Simply put, thinking about good things makes us feel good. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When we focus on something we perceive as bad or negative in some way, the repercussion is a bad state of mind.
Albert Ellis, an American psychologist popular in the 50`s and 60`s founded the theory of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He believed that we make ourselves quite miserable simply by the way we choose to think about things. He theorized that some of us have a tendency to overgeneralize, and to “awfulize” and “catastrophize” in such a way as to send our emotions and feelings into a downward negative spiral. It seems we may misread situations, giving them a much more negative bent then is realistic or logical. We see nothing but the worst, most awful, completely bad, devoid of any pleasure, situation. This type of cognition is often irrational and leads to self-defeating consequences. We think, without real rational basis, that something is bad, therefore it is bad, therefore we feel bad.
Ellis also noted that many people have very high expectations of themselves to the point where it becomes irrational. Some of us believe that if we cannot do certain things perfectly well at all times and under all conditions, then we must be deficient in a global way. We overgeneralize by making parts of our behavior equal to the whole of our behavior. People who are perfectionists often feel this way. They constantly strive to achieve unrealistically high goals and suffer greatly, and needlessly, when they are unable to meet them. The belief that one must be good at everything is an irrational one.
Another irrational belief is that we must have control over everything that happens to us, or around us. If things turn out differently than the way we WANT them to, or the way we expect them to, then the situation may rise to the level of a catastrophe in our minds. Ellis coined this “catastrophysing”. We are unable or unwilling to let go of our expectations, and as a result, we suffer. It is simply not rational to think that other people, and/or conditions must always be the way we want them to be simply because we wish it.
Here are some of Ellis` irrational beliefs :
- the idea that we must be loved and approved of by everyone for everything that we do;
- the idea that we must be absolutely competent in all possible respects;
- the idea that it is terrible, horrible and catastrophic when things are not exactly the way we want them to be;
- that unhappiness is externally caused and we have little or no ability to control this;
- that it is easier to avoid than to face certain life difficulties and self-responsibilities;
- that we should be dependent on others and that we need someone stronger than ourselves on whom to rely;
- that the past is all-important and that because something once strongly affected us, it should always have that effect;
- that we should be very upset over other people`s problems;
- that human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction.
These are all beliefs that Ellis felt are irrational because in his view, there is no real logical basis for them.
The positive thing, and there is always a positive if you look for it, is that with some effort, we can turn around our thinking and work on taking a more optimistic rather than pessimistic view of life in general. Then we could try to let go of all of the conditions we put on life, on ourselves and on others. In other words, we could give ourselves a break, loosen up, and chill-out.
By becoming conscious of our negative self-talk, we can begin to see the illogic of our thinking and try to adopt a more rational view-point. In doing so, we can learn to value ourselves, accept our weaknesses, and face our fears.