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How to Dispute Irrational Beliefs

Albert Ellis is known as the grandfather of Cognitive Behavior Therapy. He combined humanistic, philosophical, and behavioral therapy to form Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) in 1955. A main assumption of REBT is that people contribute to their psychological problems by the way they interpret events. Further, our emotions stem mainly from our beliefs, evaluations, interpretations, and reactions to life situations. REBT assumes that cognitions (thoughts), emotions, and behaviors interact significantly and have a reciprocal cause-and-effect relationship. Additionally, REBT postulates that people are born with a potential for both rational and irrational thinking.

According to Ellis, we have an inborn tendency toward growth and actualization, yet we often sabotage our movement toward growth due to self-defeating patterns we have learned. We originally learn irrational beliefs from significant others during childhood, and we actively reinforce these self-defeating beliefs by repetition, and by behaving as if they are useful. But it is not useful to blame ourselves and others; instead, it is important that we learn how to accept ourselves despite our imperfections. Therefore, a major goal of REBT is to achieve unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional other acceptance; the more one is able to accept him or herself, the more likely he is to accept others.

The therapeutic process involves identifying irrational beliefs, and replacing such beliefs with more rational and effective ways of thinking. Changing one’s thinking results in changing one’s emotional reactions to situations. Ellis succinctly puts it this way, “You mainly feel the way you think.” Some examples of irrational beliefs that lead to self-defeat include: I must have the approval of all the people in my life, or else I am worthless. I must perform all tasks perfectly, or else I am a failure. It is better to avoid life’s difficulties than to try and end up looking foolish.

The A-B-C framework and method of disputing irrational beliefs is central to REBT theory and practice.

A = an event, behavior, or attitude
B = belief about the event
C = emotional & behavioral consequence or reaction (can be healthy or unhealthy)
D = disputing irrational or self-defeating beliefs
E = effective philosophy of replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones
F = a new set of healthy feelings

A (the activating event) does not cause C (the emotional consequence); rather, B (the person’s belief about the event) largely causes C. D is the application of methods to challenge irrational beliefs by detecting, debating, and discriminating irrational (self-defeating) beliefs from rational (self-helping) beliefs. E is the new and effective belief system that consists of replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones. In doing this, F (a new set of healthy feelings) is created.ABC Framework 11

In summary, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy entails the following steps: (1) acknowledge that we are largely responsible for our own emotional problems, (2) accept that we have the ability to change these disturbances significantly, (3) recognize that our emotional problems often stem from irrational beliefs, (4) accurately perceive these beliefs, (5) see the value of disputing such self-defeating beliefs, (6) accept that we need to counteract our dysfunctional beliefs/feelings/behaviors, and (7) practice these methods to improve current and future circumstances.

Corey, Gerald. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Belmont. Thomas Learning, Inc. 2005.

Ten Rules for Confidence

[from The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt, by Russ Harris]

Rule 1: The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.
The concept of confidence is defined as “an act of trust or reliance” (trusting and relying on one’s abilities and competencies), rather than viewing confidence as “having a feeling of absolute certainty or assurance.” This is a better approach, because if you wait for the feelings of confidence to come before taking any sort of action, then there’s a chance you might end up waiting forever. That’s not very effective. Harris offers four steps to follow in order to become more confident in any action: (1) Practice the skills, (2) Apply them effectively, (3) Assess the results, and (4) Modify as needed.

Rule 2: Genuine confidence is not the absence of fear; it is a transformed relationship with fear.
People believe many myths about fear, such as: fear is a sign of weakness; fear is the enemy; fear holds you back; confidence is the absence of fear. But the truth is that when anyone steps out of their comfort zone, takes a risk, or faces a challenge, they will experience fear. That’s not a sign of weakness; it’s the natural human response. Fear doesn’t have to be viewed as an enemy, or something to hold you back, rather, it can be used as a motivating source of energy to be used for your benefit. It is not true that confident people don’t feel anxious or afraid, but perhaps they have figured out how to handle it and channel it effectively.

Rule 3: Negative thoughts are normal. Don’t fight them; defuse them.
Dealing with negative thoughts can be annoying, but the fact that we have them is actually a good thing! It’s a sign that our brains are working: trying to anticipate what could hurt us or harm us, trying to predict what might go wrong, etc. If your mind has negative or anxious thoughts, congratulations – you have a normal brain. Negative thoughts are not inherently problematic, they only become so if we get all caught up in them, give them all our attention, treat them as the gospel truth, allow them to control us, or get into a fight with them. The goal is defusion: separate from your thoughts and realize that they are simply words.

Rule 4: Self-acceptance trumps self-esteem.
Having high self-esteem means evaluating oneself positively. The trouble is that it gets hard to do this when one is not successful, or when one makes mistakes. On the other hand, self-acceptance means accepting oneself in spite of deficiencies. It involves letting go of all self-judgments. It doesn’t mean that we stop paying attention to the way we behave, and the impact of our actions; it simply means that we let go of blanket self-judgments. When we make a mistake, we reflect on it and assess our actions. Harris puts it well when he poses: “If beating ourselves for every mistake we make was productive, wouldn’t we all be perfect by now?”

Rule 5: Hold your values lightly, but pursue them vigorously.
Values are one’s guiding principles of behavior, according to what is important to them in life. Harris likens values to a compass: they give us direction, guide our journey, and help us stay on track. (Goals are what we want to achieve along the way). Examples of values include: adventure, authenticity, connection, contribution, courage, creativity, flexibility, honesty, humor, intimacy, open-mindedness, respect, self-awareness, spirituality, and trust. One reason to hold your values lightly is the tendency for them to turn into inflexible requirements, such as, “I must be adventurous at all times.” Remember, the goal is to live by guiding values, not rigid rules.

Rule 6: True success is living by your values.
This means using one’s values to set goals, and to sustain movement toward set goals. You don’t have to wait until you achieve a goal in order be successful; you can be successful right now through living by your values. Maybe a goal of yours is to become a doctor because you hold the value of helping others. It will take you several years to actually become a doctor, but you can do many things to help people along the way.

Rule 7: Don’t obsess about the outcome; get passionate about the process.
Process is the way you go about doing something, whereas outcome is the result of what you’ve done. The idea here is not to give up on your goal(s), but to shift the emphasis to engaging fully in the process, and embracing it as an opportunity for learning, rather than obsessing about the outcome.

Rule 8: Don’t fight your fear: allow it, befriend it, and channel it.
Russ Harris Speaks of using “The ABC of Fear-Whispering” for dealing with fear (A=allow, B=befriend, C=channel). Trying to fight against or avoid an emotion oftentimes just makes the unpleasant emotion stronger. So, instead of fighting your experience of fear, try simply allowing it to be. Harris encourages befriending one’s fear: building a positive relationship with it. You don’t necessarily have to like it, but haven’t you ever been friendly to a person whom you don’t necessarily like? It’s kind of like that. Also, fear is worth befriending if it helps you live by your values, achieve your goals, perform at your peak, and live a richer, more meaningful life. Fear is kind of like nervous energy, but it can be less scary if you frame it as feeling “excited” or “pumped” instead. Think to yourself, “How can I make good use of this energy? What can I channel it into?” Use your fear to your benefit. And remember, you can have fear and confidence at the same time. If you recall Rule 2: Genuine confidence is not the absence of fear, it is a transformed relationship with fear.

Rule 9: Failure hurts – but if you’re willing to learn, it’s a wonderful teacher.
In the words of John Dewey (American philosopher): “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” Just like fear, failure is a fact of life. It’s also a natural part of learning; we reflect on what didn’t work, and think about what might work better next time. It is productive to acknowledge what went “wrong,” while also appreciating what went well. It provides good feedback from which to learn!

Rule 10: The key to peak performance is total engagement in the task.
Peak performance requires practice, defusing from reasons not to do it, making room for discomfort or fear, and fully engaging in the process. The key to peak performance is having focused attention on the task at hand. This requires mindfulness: defusing from unhelpful thoughts, such as, what you look like, what others are thinking, judging your performance, thinking about past or future events, etc. While you can’t eliminate unhelpful thoughts or feelings, you can make space for them while remaining focused and engaged in what you are doing in the present moment. It is in this state of mindful, focused action that we perform at our best.

“It’s Good Enough!”

The struggle of perfectionism is real. It’s alluring to think we can be perfect, quite tempting to think that we can be superhuman, that we can be exempt from making mistakes, However, this notion couldn’t be further from the truth!

There is no such thing as perfect. It doesn’t exist. Because it doesn’t actually exist, we all come up with different ideas of what we think perfect is…which makes it an OPINION.

Perfection is objective, ambiguous, illusory, and therefore unattainable. It’s simply a nonsensical pursuit.

However, if you find yourself in the perfectionist camp, here are some questions which may help to ask yourself in the midst of a perfection struggle:

  • Will there be catastrophic consequences if this isn’t perfect?
  • Will it be the end of the world?
  • Will it result in serious injury or death?
  • Will it matter five years from now?

If the answer is no, then say to yourself: “IT’S GOOD ENOUGH.” I know, this sounds ludicrous to you. Nothing, to the perfectionist, is ever good enough. But in reality, if you have answered “no” to the above questions, and if you have given it a good effort, then it is good enough.

Here are some examples to help you tell the difference:

If you are performing surgery on someone, then it’s fairly crucial to get it as close to perfect as possible. The reason why is that it could potentially be the difference between life and death.

On the other hand, if you’re styling your hair and displeased with how it looks…that’s too bad. However, there probably will not be any catastrophic consequences for not getting it just right. Also, your hair can’t really be “perfect” anyway, because there are so many differing opinions of what perfect hair is…because, if you recall, that’s exactly what “perfect” is: an opinion. Rather, lots of different opinions.