Ten Irrational Ideas

There are certain types of irrational beliefs or attitudes (Ellis said) that are heard repeatedly from clients in therapy. Ellis and Harper listed 10 irrational ideas in A New Guide to Rational Living (1975). Rational-emotive behavior therapy consists largely of identifying, disputing, and rephrasing these irrational ideas and others like them. Once they are rephrased in a way that more accurately depicts reality, it becomes easier to analyze them, see if they are reasonable, or suggest alternative ways of appraising a situation.

What is "irrational idea #1" according to Ellis?

Ellis and Harper (1975) labeled as Irrational Idea #1 the "idea that you must—yes, must—have love or approval from all the people you find significant." Most people enjoy affection and approval, and it is good to have it, but you do not die without it. People can harm themselves by pursuing the impossible ideal of having everybody love them.

How does irrational idea #1 relate to a point made by Rogers?

Related to irrational idea #1 is the compulsion to live up to the standards of others. As Carl Rogers pointed out, people who come to therapy are often trying to live up to standards or roles imposed upon them by others. They are dominated by Musts, Shoulds, and Oughts. A client might say, "I really must go home this weekend; Mom and Dad say I don't appreciate the help they are giving me. But I always have a miserable time..." Ellis might say, "Why must you? What would happen if you did what you wanted to do, one weekend, instead of automatically putting your own interests aside?" If the client replied something like, "They would never forgive me," Ellis would examine that statement and point out that it is not literally true. People will forgive you, particularly if you are honest about needing to do something different from what they want.

Irrational Idea #2 is "I must not fail" or, as Ellis and Harper put it, the idea that you must prove thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving. This idea is irrational because, in truth, nobody is good at everything, and sometimes people do fail.

What is musterbating?

Ellis noticed that clients often use the word "must." They use it in connection with their own behavior ("I must do this...") or in connection with the behavior of others ("My husband must love me at all times....") Ellis calls this musterbating—saying somebody "must" do something, simply because it is expected or demanded by somebody else.

Ellis reacted to a client who feels his wife must come back to him in this way:

Your statement, "I must not get rejected by my mate, and therefore I find it awful that he or she has left me," actually means, "Because I want very much to have my mate love me, he or she must." Well, what sense does that make? Do you—really—control your mate's (or anyone else's) feelings? Do you—truly!—rate as King of Kings or the Mother of the Universe? Lots of luck! (Ellis and Harper, 1975, p.79)

Musterbating is also relevant to irrational idea #2, "I must not fail." Success is desirable, but some people paralyze themselves because they are afraid of failing. After all, if you "must not fail," and if you try there is some possibility of failing, then you must not try! In reality, people have to accept the possibility of failure in order to try for success. The irony is that accepting the possibility of defeat, but not getting upset about it, raises the probability of succeeding, because it frees one to act.

What is damning?

Irrational Idea #3 is damning. Harper and Ellis describe this as the idea that when people act obnoxiously and unfairly, you should blame and damn them, and see them as bad, wicked, or rotten individuals. Some people apply this to themselves, giving themselves up as hopeless. Others turn the blame on someone else. Either way, it is not very constructive.

For example, a man whose wife is leaving him might (if allowed) spend the entire therapy hour detailing her crimes and inadequacies, how he believes she lied and cheated, led a loose life, and on and on. Ellis would point out that the man is indulging in damning. Like other irrational beliefs, damning expresses emotion. The man is conveying the fact that he feels angry and betrayed. Ellis would challenge the belief that all the blame can be put on one person when a relationship goes sour. He might redirect the man's thinking to adaptive responses, adjustments, and ways of learning from the experience.

Irrational idea #4 is awfulizing: the idea that you have to view things as awful, terrible, and horrible when things go wrong.

What is "awfulizing"? What common remark makes Ellis react strongly?

"I can't stand it" is a common remark heard in therapy. Ellis disputed this assertion when he heard it, or when he heard somebody say they could not "bear" something. People use these statements to express emotion; they do not mean them literally. Ellis forced his clients to confront the fact that such statements cannot be taken literally. They do not suggest a constructive course of action. If taken seriously, they can paralyze you. Repeating to yourself "I can't stand it" is like self-hypnosis. Pretty soon you can't stand it. Better to say to yourself, "This bothers the heck out of me, but I guess I can survive it."

How does Ellis feel about the attitude that you control your own destiny?

Irrational idea #5 is the idea that emotional misery comes from external pressures and that you have little ability to control or change your feelings. The rational alternative, recommended by Ellis, is control your destiny by taking responsibility for how you interpret and react to events.

Irrational Idea #6 is that if something seems dangerous or fearsome, you must preoccupy yourself with it and make yourself anxious about it. Ellis believes that when one evaluates a future event as catastrophic, one becomes anxious. Ellis's solution is to re-evaluate the situation in a more realistic manner.

What is catastrophizing?

Ellis calls a preoccupation with bad events catastrophizing. For example, a student doing poorly in a course might become emotionally upset about this "catastrophe" until the student is unable to study. Ellis is likely to point out that this unpleasant event, if it occurs, will not be the end of the world. True, the student would prefer to do well in the course, but life will go on. Perhaps the student can learn from the experience.

Catastrophizing is oriented toward the future but has the same negative effect as awfulizing, which is oriented toward the present situation. Both are forms of self-talk that create bad feelings such as anxiety. Both distract attention from more rational thought processes and actions (such as a studying) that might address the underlying cause of a problem.

Irrational Idea #7 is the notion that avoiding life's difficulties is more rewarding than undertaking new challenges. Ellis was impatient with clients who seem to get satisfaction from avoiding difficult situations. In essence, he agreed with Maslow's advice to students who wanted to self-actualize: pick the "growth alternative" rather than the "safety alternative" when faced with a fork in the road of life.

Irrational Idea #8 is that your past remains all-important and that because something once strongly influenced your life, it has to keep determining your feelings and behavior today.

This irrational idea made the list as a reaction to Freudian theory, which placed such importance on events early in life. It was also a reaction to clients who insisted on dwelling on past sorrows and traumas, rather than solving problems in their present-day life. Ellis writes:

What is Ellis's reaction to people who feel they are trapped by traumatic events in their past?

Often, in the course of one of my typical working days, I see about twenty individual and another twenty group therapy clients; and most of them, to one degree or another, believe that they have to behave in a certain disturbed way because of previous conditioning or early influences...

...To which I normally respond:

"Rubbish! Whatever early conditioning, or pernicious influences you experienced during childhood, their effects don't linger on, today, just because of these original conditions—but because you still carry them on, because you still believe the nonsense with which you originally got indoctrinated. Now when will you dispute your own often-repeated beliefs and therefore un-condition yourself?" And the battle of therapeutic de-indoctrination continues merrily apace, until (usually) I win or (sometimes, alas) the client flees from me... (Ellis and Harper, 1975, p.169)

Irrational Idea #9 is that people and things should turn out better than they do and that you must view it as awful and horrible if you do not find good solutions to life's grim realities. "Let's face it," Ellis writes, "Reality often stinks. People don't act the way we would like them to act. This doesn't seem to be the best of all possible worlds.... But you still don't have to feel desperately unhappy."

Finally there is Irrational Idea #10, which Ellis and Harper say "millions of civilized people believe in heartily." This is that you can achieve maximum human happiness by inertia and inaction or by passively and uncommittedly "enjoying yourself."

To the contrary, Ellis and Harper assert, people are most happy when involved in some activity that draws them outside of themselves. (This relates to idea #7 as well.) Ellis writes:

What does Ellis recommend, to increase happiness?

...The three main forms of vital absorption comprise: (a) loving, or feeling absorbed in other people; (b) creating, or getting absorbed in things; and (c) philosophizing, or remaining absorbed in ideas. Feeling inert, passive, or inhibited normally keeps you from getting absorbed in any of these three ways—and hence from truly living. Living essentially means doing, acting, loving, creating, thinking. You negate it by prolonged goofing, loafing, or lazing. (Ellis and Harper, 1975, p.187)

These ideas are very reminiscent of Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving (1956). Ellis comments favorably on Fromm's little book, which we will examine in Chapter 16 (Sex, Friendship, and Love).

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