Irrational Introduction

Common types of irrational beliefs include[1]:

  • musterbation and the ‘tyranny of the shoulds’[2] – musts are one of the biggest threats to your happiness and include:
    • I must perform well” – the rational response is, I can do my best and no more. Perfection is rarely possible or even required.
    • “I have to impress my boss” – the opinion of your boss is beyond your control. Worrying over things outside of your control does not achieve anything. Concern over an outcome is valid and focuses attention and effort.
    • You must treat me fairly and considerately or you are a rotten person” – this is a non-sequitur, there may be many reasons for another person’s behaviour. And again, the behaviour and thoughts of other people are beyond your control – so it is irrational to make your happiness conditional upon things over which you have no control.
  • awfulizingawfulizing or catastrophisation – viewing small setbacks as disasters and looking forwards with overwhelming pessimism. Such thinking has its roots in a ‘must’. For instance, “I must pass this exam” leads to “And if I don’t pass, I won’t get into the college I want to and I will never have a good job.” A rational person would know that increased stress reduces performance and that many happy, successful people never even took an exam.
  • magnification – building mountains from mole hills. Indigestion is transformed into an indication of a stomach ulcer or a headache becomes a symptom of a brain tumour. In rare cases, the concern may be justified but there is nothing to be gained from worrying. Take action.
  • personalization – constantly checking yourself against other people. Why, out of all the people in the world, are those particular people appropriate benchmarks for you? Are the criteria that you are using valid? Does being ‘second-best’ really affect your happiness? What if you didn’t know your ‘position’, would that change your happiness level? Being happy is not a zero-sum[3] competitive sport. (See later chapter, Define Success.)
  • centre of the world – “Mr X is unhappy, I must have done something to upset him.” The truth is usually that Mr X has many things going on in his life and that you are, at most, a contributory cause to his current state.
  • jumping to conclusions – “She didn’t return my call so she mustn’t like me.” Could be that she doesn’t have her phone with her? Two people look at you and then turn to each other and start talking, so, of course, they must be talking about you. As a rational person I know that there are many possible interpretations and that my view of the world is always skewed – for a start, I am at the centre of it!
  • generalisation – the creation of rules from insufficient evidence or absolute evaluation as in: “You always do that” or “You never ask me”.

Irrational thinking threatens your happiness because it leads you to:

  • place impossible demands on yourself
  • depend on the thoughts and actions of others
  • misinterpret situations
  • have knee-jerk (over-)reactions
  • place unreasonable conditions on your success and happiness

[1] Some of these labels were given by David D Burns – see his book: The Feeling Good Handbook.

[2] A term coined by Karen Horney

[3] In game theory, a zero-sum game is one in which a participant’s gain must be balanced by a loss by another participant. Thus total gains less total losses equals zero.