4 Irrational Beliefs That May Be Holding You Back From Happiness—And How Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Can Help

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When you wake up in the morning, you can’t be sure of what the day will bring. Even with the best-laid plans and routines, much of what happens when you step outside is out of your control. This fact can kick off a spiral of negative thinking, as you face challenges throughout the day, and make you forget that you do have some say in what happens to you because you can control your reactions to what happens.

But when irrational beliefs and thought patterns take hold and obscure this, they can disrupt your life and hold you back from happiness. But by challengingthe irrational beliefs disrupting your life and creating action steps to minimize them, you can defang them, which is the principle behind rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that operates from the idea that you’re in control of your actions.

Experts In This Article

What is rational emotive behavior therapy?

REBT was invented by psychologist Albert Ellis, PhD, in the 1950s. “The idea is that you’re trying to get somebody to walk away from an irrational belief and replace it with a less inflammatory belief,” says REBT trained-therapist Antoinette Bonafede, LMSW.

"The idea is that you’re trying to get somebody to walk away from an irrational belief and replace it with a less inflammatory belief."—Antoinette Bonafede, LMSW

The REBT approach accounts for the fact you don't know what's going to happen to you, but is based on the premise that you can control how you respond and how you choose to reason and work through what happens. “The goal is not to never feel angry, or anxious, or sad—it’s to be able to correctly place that feeling so you can respond in a way that best represents how you’re feeling and make it as clear as possible so you can be better understood,” Bonafede says.

How irrational beliefs hinder happiness

Irrational beliefs can hold you back from happiness by not allowing you to see the reality and nuance of a situation. Irrational beliefs also fuel the idea that you don't play a role in what happens to you—that fear of the unknown and perceived lack of control can be deeply unsettling. According to Bonafede, irrational beliefs can make someone feel as if their emotion is happening outside of them, and that they have no say in the outcome.

In turn, these irrational beliefs can fuel more irrational beliefs. When irrational beliefs turn into obsessive thoughts and rumination, they can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. When not properly contextualized, these beliefs can eventually overshadow your goals and keep you from doing what you need to do to live your life in the way you want.

How REBT helps manage irrational beliefs and thoughts

To help clients reorient their irrational beliefs into actions supportive of their goals, therapists who practice REBT follow the ABCDE model of treatment. When she helps clients with irrational thoughts, Bonafede approaches their concerns using this model, which is a step-by-step process to defang the irrational thought. Here are the steps that Bonafede takes when she sees someone about an irrational belief:

A (activating event): Some event, person, or thing triggers an irrational belief. At this step in the process, Bonafede says she works to uncover what exactly caused the irrational belief in the first place. For example, maybe it was a poor review at work from a manager, or a major fight with a loved one.

B (belief forms): At this stage, Bonafede works to decipher which type of common irrational thought pattern (outlined below) the activating event triggers. In the example of a poor review at work, this person may slip into self-deprecating behavior, and think everything they’ve done up to this point in their career has been inconsequential or that they’re not intelligent enough to be good at their job.

C (consequences): This phase is about unpacking the consequences, whether positive or negative, associated with the belief. In this phase, Bonafede says she also examines "what those beliefs then drive them to do." For example, the recipient of the poor review may think that they will be fired and unable to find another job in their field; because of this, perhaps they've decided to stop trying at work entirely, or to lash out at their manager or coworkers in retaliation.

D (dispute idea with evidence): At this point in the process, Bonafede says she disputes the belief to help clients understand why it’s irrational. For example, she says she may ask what evidence they have for the consequence, or ask them how this belief serves them or helps them achieve their goals. During this stage, she says she also works to explore whether the facts that form the belief are accurate.

Back to the poor work review example: A therapist could ask if this person has received critical feedback from their manager before, or if they have been disciplined at work. They may also help their client to see that one less than stellar review doesn’t necessarily mean they’re horrible at their job, or destined to fail in their field.

E (effective behavior): This last stage of the model is about finding a way to turn this irrational belief into a more proportional one. “This is where we work to replace extreme, polarizing, or absolute ideas and statements with more situationally appropriate feelings,” says Bonafede. One way of framing the poor work review could be that person deciding to learn from the feedback they received, and then changing their work habits to be more in line with their manager's expectations of them.

4 types of irrational beliefs, and how REBT addresses them

Both Bonafede and family and relationship therapist Beth Lewis, LPC, whose approach is deeply rooted in REBT, encounter all sorts of situations in their practices, but these four types of irrational beliefs are particularly common, they say. Read on for what they are, and how a therapist practicing REBT would potentially address each.

1. Demandingness

This irrational belief is when someone believes they have to do something to achieve the outcome they want. Associated with the words "must" and "should," demandingness is signified by rigid absolutes and may involve someone setting strict rules for themselves.

This can also manifest as a perceived lack of choice. In this case, "our behaviors become a function of pleasing somebody else as opposed of how we're feeling in these moments," says Bonafede. For example, an irrational thought rooted in demandingness can go something like this: “I want to be a parent, so I must find a partner by the time I turn 30.” Or, “I've been invited to five parties this week, and if I don't go to them I'll be a bad friend.”

How REBT helps: Lewis says this is often rooted in some sort of defensive need, often for safety and security provided by something or someone external, so she'd unpack this by helping someone see that they can impact their ability to feel safe and in command. "We have to shift it to look within instead of looking outside of ourselves to seek comfort and safety," she says.

2. Awfulizing/Catastrophizing

According to Bonafede, awfulizing is all about the worst case scenario. "This is something we cannot imagine getting past, and it really keeps us stuck," she says. Think: “My partner broke up with me, and now I won't have an opportunity to be a parent ever and my life is over.”

How REBT helps: Bonafede points out that people are pretty resilient, and that this resiliency helps overcome adversity. To help someone experiencing awfulizing, she says it's key to provide perspective.

3. Self-deprecating

This type of irrational belief involves tearing yourself down. "This is taking one adverse situation and having it become an overall failure," says Bonafede. For example: Your partner breaks up with you, and now whenever anyone asks about your love life, you respond by saying you’re just not good at relationships or aren’t “dating material.” 

How REBT helps: Perspective really helps here, too, says Bonafede. To help someone who is dealing with self-deprecating beliefs, it's key to help them realize that one action is likely not the overall story.

4. Low frustration tolerance

This irrational belief, says Bonafede, is characterized by someone being unable to put up with stressful, upsetting, or frustrating situations. This often involves an outsized reaction to something that you can't stand or get over, and it may result in thinking you can't get over the specific adversity you face at all, or that you can't overcome it without some negative outcome.

According to Lewis, this particular irrational belief pattern often has a lot to do with projecting the traits and aspects you don't like about yourself onto others. For example: You become extremely angry and throw a tantrum when their computer crashes and they are unable to complete a task.

How REBT helps: The goal here, says Bonafede, is to help someone increase their ability to deal with what's frustrating them. This can be done by helping someone gain some perspective and by working on coping techniques. To defang this particular kind of irrational belief, Lewis says she would also emphasize turning the focus away from this external force and back to the person experiencing low frustration tolerance.

"I would circle back to what that person believes about themselves to be true, and does the person, behavior, or action they are seeing and ranking as frustrating or intolerable, mirror something they know about themself that they don't like?" says Lewis. For example, maybe the object of someone's frustrations is deeply stubborn, and the frustration with them is actually a reflection of the person’s inner feelings about their own stubbornness (perhaps an aspect of their shadow self, parts of their personality they don’t like).

Recognizing and addressing the four irrational beliefs that can hinder happiness is crucial for personal growth and well-being. By applying rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), individuals can challenge and replace these beliefs with rational and empowering thoughts, leading to healthier emotional responses and improved overall happiness. REBT provides practical techniques and strategies to dispute irrational beliefs, cultivate self-acceptance, and develop resilience, ultimately enabling individuals to lead more fulfilling and content lives.

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