How To Change Unhelpful Thinking

Please Note These Articles are meant for information purposes only and are not a substitute for Medical or Psychological treatment.

Do you believe that upsetting events in your life are responsible for your negative feelings? If so, you’re not alone; this is a popular idea, but not strictly true. Adverse events do not cause our upsetting emotions, but our beliefs about those events do.

Let me explain: We all experience the frustration of waiting for a late train from time to time. If you look at the commuters on the platform, you may notice some of them getting very worked up. A few may be pacing up and down the platform as though this will magically make the train arrive. Others remain calm, taking their time to listen to their iPods or read their newspapers.

This is an example of people reacting to the same event in opposite ways, with different emotions and behaviours. The passengers who become upset are reacting to the delay in a way that is sure to cause them distress.  Most people would assume that their anger is due to the late train, and to a large extent, this makes sense – after all, who likes to be kept waiting? However, this fails to explain why other passengers faced with exactly the same situation remain calm.

To understand the differences in the passenger’s attitudes and reactions, we need to look at a model of emotional upset first described by the American psychologist Dr Albert Ellis, the pioneer of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. He calls this the A.B.C. model. ‘A’ is the activating event, meaning any potentially stressful situation. ‘B’ stands for beliefs – in other words, a person’s thoughts and attitudes about ‘A’, and ‘C’ stands for the consequence, i.e. a person’s feelings and actions.

The theory behind the A.B.C. model is simple: Feelings are caused more by our thoughts about events than by the events themselves. According to the model, it is not being kept waiting for a train that is responsible for the passengers’ different feelings, but the way they are thinking about the situation.

A commuter remaining calm is probably thinking: “This is a nuisance but not the end of the world.”
“There is not a lot I can do, so I shall have to grin and bear it.”
“I might as well relax and make the best of things.”

A commuter getting angry is likely to be thinking: “This train must arrive immediately. This is terrible. I can’t stand being late for work.”

In the A.B.C. format, the angry commuters situation looks like this: A. Event: Commuter waiting for a late train.

B. Beliefs: “This train must arrive immediately.”
“This is terrible.”
“I can’t stand being late for work.”

C. Consequence: Anger. Body feeling tense – pacing up and down the platform.

The above beliefs are an example of what Dr Ellis has called irrational thinking and would lead anyone who thinks in this way to become angry. Many people would question the idea that these beliefs are irrational. Given the circumstances, wouldn’t anyone who is delayed for work think in this way? This is a good question, and in order to answer it, we need to take a close look at the make-up of irrational thinking.

What Makes Thinking Irrational?

The characteristics of irrational beliefs are:

  • They are unrealistic
  • They are rigid
  • They blow events way out of proportion
  • They lead to unhealthy feelings that cause distress

When we hold an irrational belief, we are demanding that events and circumstances be different from the way they actually are by using words such as ‘must’ and ‘should’.

“I must do well.”
“You should treat me well.”
“Life must go the way I demand.”

It is not the words in themselves, but the attitude behind the words that causes the problem. By making such inflexible demands, we set ourselves up for distress, if – as inevitably happens – life doesn’t go quite the way we’d planned.

Many of us also exaggerate the severity of events by using words such as ‘awful’, ‘terrible’ and ‘I can’t stand it.’ Whenever we think in this unhelpful way, we will experience emotional pain such as anger, anxiety, guilt depression and feelings of inferiority – all emotions that lead to distress.

In the late train example, the angry commuter is holding the rigid belief, “This train must arrive immediately.” In reality, will demanding that the train arrive immediately make it arrive? Secondly, the commuter is exaggerating the badness of the event by describing it as awful. It is certainly annoying if your train fails to arrive on time, but can it truly be described as awful? Finally, why can’t he stand being late for work? In reality, people can stand almost anything.

How To Change Irrational Thinking

To change unhealthy feelings and actions, we need to challenge the way we think by adding ‘D’ to our A.B.C. model. ‘D’ stands for disputing and involves vigorously questioning the validity of our irrational beliefs.

We can do this by asking a number of questions: What is the evidence for my must/should?
E.g. why must the train arrive immediately?
Why is it terrible?
Why is it awful?
Why can’t I stand it

The following example illustrates how to challenge irrational beliefs.

Clair is a secretary who recently lost her job at an advertising company. When she came to see me for counselling, she was feeling depressed and felt it was not worth looking for new employment.

Clair was thinking: 

“I should not have lost my job. I can’t stand it. I am totally incompetent and will never get another job like that one again.”

A. Event: Clair loses her job.

B. Beliefs: “I should not have lost my job.”
“I can’t bear it!”
“I am totally useless.”
“Another job like that will never come along again.”

C. Consequence: Feeling depressed and unable to look for a new job.

After Clair talked the situation though with me, she was able to see that her depression had more to do with her irrational thinking than the job loss itself. In particular, she was doing a first-class job at running herself down. Once she was aware of this, Clair was ready to challenge her irrational beliefs.

Here’s how she did it:

D. Why should I have kept my job? 
“Although I would strongly prefer to still be in my job, there is no law that states I should not have lost it.”

D. Why can’t I stand losing my job? 
“In reality, I can stand losing my job. I have faced difficult situations before and coped. I can cope with this challenge too.”

D. What evidence exists that I am totally incompetent? 
“No evidence exists for this idea. I made a number of mistakes while in the job, but that doesn’t prove that I am totally flawed – just human. I have done well in past jobs and I can do well again.”

D. What evidence exists that I will never get another job?
“There is no evidence; I am a competent woman with a lot of skills and work experience to offer. I have found other jobs before and I can do so again.”

Rational Beliefs

The characteristics of rational beliefs are:

  • They are realistic
  • They are flexible
  • They do not blow events out of proportion
  • They lead to healthy, appropriate feelings

Challenging irrational beliefs helps us form rational beliefs and change the way we feel about an event. By disputing her ideas about the job loss, Clair was able to change her demand that she should not have lost her job into a healthy preference for not losing it. Being unemployed was a setback, but by reminding herself that she had a lot of skills to offer, Clair was able to see that the situation was not awful. She had been in similar situations before and she could find another job again.

Clair was now ready to add ‘E’ – which stands for Effective new thinking – to the A.B.C. model. ‘E’ looked like this: “Although I would have strongly preferred not to have lost my job, I did. I have experienced difficult situations before and managed. I can get through this, too. I succeeded in past jobs and will do so again.”

After changing her thinking, Clair felt sad but no longer depressed. To feel sadness after a job loss is healthy. It would be unrealistic to expect her to feel over the moon given the circumstances. Depression, on the other hand, is an unhealthy emotion and is often an indication that a person is thinking in an irrational way.

The Speech That Never Was

Katie is a successful 28-year-old physiotherapist working in a large practice in London. Liked by her patients and co-workers, Katie has recently been promoted. However, when it comes to socialising, Katie is very shy. She is often asked out to parties by her flatmates and co-workers but, more often than not, declines. Instead, she spends most weekday evenings watching television and at the weekends goes home to her family in Somerset.

Katie told me about an incident that occurred at a party a number of years ago. It was a good friend’s graduation party and Katie had been asked to make a small speech to congratulate her. Being shy, Katie had always avoided these kinds of situations, however small the crowd. But during her time at university, Deborah had become a friend she relied on and backing out of the speech didn’t seem like an option. Katie had written down everything she wanted to say and had rehearsed it about 10 times.

When the time came for Katie to give the speech, her heart started to pound. She opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t seem to focus on the words she had written down. She felt herself going bright red, her hands started shaking and her heart was racing. The next thing Katie realised was that she had run out of the room. Katie told me that everyone was very worried and extremely kind to her, but as far as she was concerned, one of her worst nightmares had become a reality.

Since that party, Katie has felt like a total failure; she is still friends with Deborah but rarely goes out to socialise with her.

Katie believed that she had to give a perfect speech and that if she didn’t, then she wouldn’t be able to cope. The unrealistic belief Kate held was:
“I must give a perfect speech – if I don’t, it’ll be awful and I won’t be able to stand it.”

She also believed that her friends wouldn’t accept her if the speech wasn’t flawless. Katie was terrified of what others might think or even say about her if her speech wasn’t good enough. The demand Katie placed on others was: 
“People must think well of my performance; if they don’t that proves I am worthless.”

Let’s join Katie in the middle of her therapy session with me:

Katie: “I can now see that the belief that I must give a perfect speech led to my anxiety.”

Michael: “That’s correct; when we hold dogmatic, inflexible beliefs, we can quickly develop negative emotions. The problem was, your idea was not based on reality. You were asking for a guarantee that you wouldn’t make any mistakes, yet who can guarantee that? It would have been far better to keep your beliefs flexible with a rational idea such as, ‘I would really like to give a perfect speech, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t”

Katie: “Oh, I couldn’t possibly have done that – I wouldn’t want my friends thinking I was worthless.”

Michael: “Who thinks that you are worthless, you or your friends? Have they told you that you are worthless?”

Katie: “No, they haven’t.”

Michael: “Perhaps you believe you’re worthless and that you must prove to others and to yourself that you are not. That is why you demanded that you MUST give a perfect speech. A lot of people think they have to prove they are not worthless instead of starting out with the belief that they are okay. Someone thinking rationally may have thought, ‘Well, I messed that up; what can I do to rectify the situation?” rather than irrationally thinking, ‘I messed that one up; that proves I am useless.’”

Katie: “OK, I see that but how could I have stopped myself messing up in the first place?”

Michael: “By giving up your irrational belief! When you demand that you absolutely must give a perfect speech, with no mistakes at all, you put yourself under so much pressure that you virtually guarantee that mistakes will occur. A belief is rational when you accept that you’re human and allow for the possibility of errors. That way you take a lot of the pressure off yourself and paradoxically you are more likely to make a far more relaxed, genuine speech and to enjoy it, too.”

I taught Katie how to use a self-help form to identify, challenge and then change her irrational thinking.

Self-Help Form

Get a sheet of paper and a pen and at the top of the page write:

A. The event
Describe the situation – try to be specific.

B. Irrational beliefs
Identify and write down your irrational beliefs about the event. Remember, irrational beliefs are rigid and contain words such as ‘should’ and ‘must’, e.g., things must go the way I demand. They exaggerate the badness of an event, turning a nuisance into a horror, e.g. it’s awful/terrible/I can’t stand it.

C. Consequences.
Write down how you felt and acted in relation to the event.

D. Disputing
Vigorously question the validity of your irrational beliefs by asking the questions outlined in Clair’s example.

E. Effective new thinking
Write down your new rational beliefs.

F. New feelings and actions
Write down how you now feel and act.

Here is how Katie used a self-help form:

  • The event

Giving a speech to congratulate my friend on her graduation.

  • Irrational beliefs

I must give a perfect speech—if I don’t, it’ll be awful and I won’t be able to stand it.

  • Consequences

High anxiety; running out of the room.

  • Disputing

Why must I give a perfect speech? I would highly prefer to give a perfect speech, however there is no law that states I must.

What evidence exists that I wouldn’t be able to stand it if the speech went wrong? None—in fact, I have had many things go wrong in my life. I felt very uncomfortable but I am still alive and kicking.

What evidence exists that my friends would think any less of me if my speech wasn’t perfect, say for instance, I slipped up on a few words? No evidence exists for this idea. I have said things that I considered stupid in the past and not been rejected.

Even if some of my friends did reject me, would that really be the end of the world? No, I would strongly prefer not to be rejected – then again, I wouldn’t want to remain friends with people that were so shallow.

  • Effective new thinking

I would strongly prefer to give a perfect speech, but I don’t have to. If it’s less than perfect, it won’t be the end of the world. If my friends reject me that would be upsetting but I wouldn’t want to remain friends with such shallow people.

  • New feelings and actions

Feeling apprehensive, but not anxious and worthless.  Believe I can talk to my friends about my anxiety in a constructive way.

This Is Not Just Positive Thinking

You may be familiar with the many books that are available on how to think positively. Positive thinking is a very good idea. In fact, there is now a significant amount of research showing that optimism is an important component of psychological health. However, there is a big difference between rational optimism and the “everything in the garden is rosy” brand of positive thinking.  It can be self-defeating and potentially damaging to chant  “every day in every way I’m getting better and better” while overlooking real problems and issues that need to be addressed. Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy avoids this potentially damaging form of Pollyanna thinking. Instead of offering positive platitudes, it gets right to the heart of your faulty thinking, helping you to challenge and change unhelpful thoughts with positive but rational thoughts. This changes the way you feel and helps you achieve your goals.

Negative Emotions Can Be Healthy

There are two types of negative emotions, unhealthy negative emotions and healthy negative emotions. Earlier in the chapter, we saw how when Clair lost her job she felt depressed and lacked the motivation to look for another job. Depression is an unhealthy negative emotion and is usually the result of irrational thinking. After Clair challenged her negative beliefs about losing her job, she felt appropriately sad and decided to look for another job.

Sadness is a healthy negative emotion because it is appropriate to feel sad after an unexpected job loss. When filling out your own self-help form, don’t make the mistake of trying to feel good about a negative situation.

Instead, aim to change your feelings appropriately. Here are some other examples of unhealthy negative emotions and healthy negative alternatives:

Unhealthy                                           Healthy

Anxiety                                                   Concern

Damming anger                                     Anger or annoyance

Shame                                                    Regret

Guilt                                                        Remorse

Jealousy                                                 Concern

Hurt                                                        Disappointment

You may be thinking, “Is it really that easy? Do I only have to identify and change my irrational thinking to make such a big difference in how I feel?” The process of filling in a self-help form is indeed quite easy. With some practise, you will soon get the hang of it. Changing the way you feel will take a little longer and, to quote Dr Ellis, requires “work and practise.” You may have to go over your new thinking several times a day, like Katie did. Take into account that, when under stress, most people have difficulty thinking rationally. You have probably been thinking in irrational ways for a long time. However, by putting in the effort, you will soon find yourself getting less upset.

Major Points

  • Adverse events do not cause our upsetting emotions, but our beliefs about those events do.
  • When we hold an irrational belief, we are demanding that events and circumstances be different from the way they actually are.
  • Irrational beliefs are unrealistic, rigid and blow events way out of proportion. They lead to unhealthy feelings that cause distress.
  • Challenging irrational beliefs helps us form rational beliefs and change the way we feel about an event.
  • Rational beliefs are realistic, flexible and do not blow events out of proportion. They lead to healthy, appropriate feelings.

Changing the way you think and feel takes work and practise; however, the change in the way you react and behave makes it worthwhile.

Article © 2010-2011 Michael Cohen

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