Irrational Ideas commonly found in Emotionally Disturbed People by John Powell
All the passages below are taken from John Powell’s book “Fully Human Fully Alive,” published in 1976.
The cognitive approach to human growth and the fullness of life, the development of the misconception hypothesis, and the system of Rational Emotive Therapy is today associated mostly with Albert Ellis (Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy, 1962; and with R. Harper, A Guide to Rational Living 1968). Ellis theorizes that a human being is uniquely rational and irrational. All emotional and psychological problems arc traceable to irrational or illogical thinking and ideas. This irrational thinking and the consequent distortion of ideas come mostly from learning experiences in early life, though such experiences are not limited exclusively to childhood. Echoing the ancient Roman philosopher Epictetus (AD. 50), Ellis maintains that people are not emotionally and psychologically disturbed by events or things but by the views they take of those events or things. For example, being small or sick or bald are not problems in themselves which necessarily result in emotional or psychological disturbance. However, if I distort the significance of these conditions or exaggerate their importance, then I will have painful problems. Consequently, Ellis sees all hope for happiness and a full life in the reorganization of one’s thinking.
Though it has not been his main interest to evolve a theory of personality development, Ellis does say that the learning experiences of early childhood have the most profound effect on a person’s rational/irrational thinking and behavior. The perpetuation of distorted ideas acquired in childhood is the main source of unhappiness in later life. Since our thoughts or ideas cause our emotions, emotional balance is possible only through the adjustment of one’s thinking. It is the faulty interpretation of a situation that leads to emotional and psychological disturbance. Only by disputing the irrational, unrealistic thinking can one be brought to emotional harmony and adjusted behavior.
Ellis rather decisively lists eleven irrational ideas that are most commonly found in emotionally and psychologically disturbed people. The first seven are said to figure most prominently in the development of anxiety. The final four tend rather to produce hostility. I have taken some liberty with the exact choice and order of words used by Ellis. However, the words are almost verbatim, and each idea is substantially that of Ellis. After each of these most common misconceptions I have given a short indication of the distortion found in the idea and a similar indication of a more rational view of the same matter.
1. I must be loved and approved by everyone in my community, especially by those who are most important to me. Any unattainable goal, which leaves one with only the possibility of failure, is an irrational goal. No one will ever be loved and approved universally. The more effort one makes to attain such a goal, the more anxious, frustrated, and self-destructive one will become. A rational orientation in this matter would certainly include the very human desire to be approved and loved. However, I can’t get and don’t need to have the love and approval of everyone to have a happy and full life. When I am disapproved of, I will examine the validity of the criticism implied in the disapproval to see if the problem is mine or my critic’s. If it is mine, I will try to change. If it is my critic’s, it is up to him or her to change.
2. I must be perfectly competent, adequate, and successful in achieving before I can think of myself as worthwhile. Another impossible goal is contained in this distortion. It can lead only to constant overexertion in feverish activity, a constant fear of failure, and an inferiority complex. Such compulsive need and striving usually result in psychosomatic sickness and a feeling that I have lost rational control of my life. I have a ring in my nose. More rationally oriented people want to do well for their own sakes and satisfaction, not in order to he better than others. Rational people also want to enjoy what they undertake, to be led by interest rather than driven by an obsession for success.
3. I have no control over my own happiness. My happiness is completely in the control of external circumstances. This distortion is, of course, a lie which I am tempted to tell myself in order to avoid challenge and responsibility. It is sometimes easier to be a martyr—to roll over and play dead—than to reexamine my situation and do whatever I can. The rational person knows that happiness is not determined by outside forces and events. It is rather a matter of attitudes, and these cannot be coerced by outside forces, which at most can be physically afflicting. Happiness or unhappiness is ultimately derived from the way events are perceived, evaluated, and internally verbalized. Happiness does, in fact, come from within, as the sages have been saying for centuries.
4. My past experiences and the events of my life have determined my present life and behavior. The influence of the past cannot be eradicated. It is true that we are creatures of habit and that relearning is difficult. The distortion is to believe that it is impossible. This kind of passive acceptance or determinism is often used to avoid the challenge of change. Rational people know the importance of the past and its influences, but they know that they can change by reevaluating those influences, reinterpreting events, and reassessing the perceptions of their original vision. Rational people always remain bigger than their problems.
5. There is one right and perfect solution to each of my problems. If this is not found, it will be devastating for me. It is obviously not true that there is one perfect solution for each problem in life. Furthermore, failure to solve a problem with a perfect solution is not catastrophic. We can learn from and grow because of failure. The anxious attitude implied in this misconception will probably produce such anxiety that problem-solving efficiency will be considerably reduced. A rational person knows that there are options and alternatives in the solution to all problems. It is also true that some problems are insoluble. We must live with them and learn the art of acceptance. When a problem-solving decision is upon them, rational people will consider all the options of the moment and choose the solution that seems most feasible.
6. Dangerous or fearsome things are causes for great concern. I must be prepared for the worst by constantly dwelling on and agonizing over these possible calamities. The deception involved in this irrational thinking is that worry and anxious anticipation somehow help. In fact, they tend to prevent objective evaluation of the possible danger and will diminish the possibility of effective reaction should the calamity occur. Such anxiety and anticipation may even induce the feared situation. Fear tends to make that which we fear come true. Such worry also tends to exaggerate unpleasant events out of all proportion. Every day becomes doomsday. Rational people know that worry does not help, so they invest their energies in an evaluation of the situation and a decision about what can be done to prevent possible tragedy. Rational people do not presume that tragedy will occur. In the case of crippling fears, they will prudently and gradually dispel them by acting against them.
7. I should be dependent on others and must have someone stronger than myself on whom I can rely. This distortion is a gross exaggeration of dependency. It leads a life of “being cared for” in place of independence, self-determination, and self-expression. This kind of dependency has a tendency to escalate; I become more and more dependent. And the more dependent I become, the more I am at the mercy of the person on whom I am leaning. Rational individuals want to be their own persons, to make their own decisions, to take their own responsibility. Of Course, rational people are willing to ask for and accept help when they need it, but they will turn over their lives to no one. They are willing to take risks. If they are wrong or fail, it is not the end of the world.
8. If my life does not work out the way I had planned, it will be really terrible. When things go badly for me, it is a catastrophe. This is a clearly irrational attitude because things very rarely go exactly as planned. This attitude invites frustration as a normal state. Getting upset does not help, but will make the situation worse. Furthermore, this attitude makes the perfect achievement of one’s plans a condition for satisfaction and happiness. This is a good formula for frustration and ulcers. Rational people will try to work at the successful implementation of their plans, but will improvise when things do not turn out. They will develop a tolerance for frustration and learn to enjoy the possibilities for growing, learning, and adjusting in situations of reversal. They stay on top of the situation instead of letting the situation bury them.
9. It is easier to avoid certain difficulties and responsibilities than to face them. The irrationality of this idea is that it neglects the fact that avoiding a task or responsibility is often more painful and fatiguing than doing what is required without procrastination. Avoidance always leads to further problems and eventually to loss of self-confidence and self-respect. Rational people spend their energy doing what they can rather than devising escapes. If they fail, they study the causes of the failure and try not to fall into the same traps. Such people know that there is much more pleasure and satisfaction in taking on difficulties and responsibilities than in avoiding them.
10. Some people are bad, wicked, villainous. They should be blamed and punished. This distorted idea presumes that we have the ability to judge the responsibility, the conscience, and the knowledge of another. What may appear as evil can be the result of insanity or ignorance. Rational people know they cannot judge persons but only issues. They have no X-ray eyes to see the intention, conscience, or knowledge of another. They confine themselves to an assessment of what is done rather than attempt a judgment of the doer of the deed.
11. One should be very upset over the problems and disturbances of other people. The irrationality of this attitude resides in its self-destructiveness and over-eagerness to make the problems of others one’s own. This is not to deny a healthy empathy for those who are Suffering. However, the only way I am going to be of any help to others is by retaining my own balance and peace of mind. Rational people make a judgment of the situation of their neighbors and try to do whatever they can to help those in need. If nothing can be done, they do not surrender their personal peace to an impossible situation.
Ellis catalogs these eleven major misconceptions into three categories. They are a rough equivalent of the five categories described previously in this book: self, others, life, world, God. Ellis calls these three categories of distortion the “three whines,” in each of which something is “awfulized.” They are the irrational attitudes that give people trouble.
1. Poor Me! (Awfulizes one’s own self.) “Because it would be highly preferable if I were outstandingly competent, I absolutely should and must be; it is awful when I am not, and I am therefore a worthless individual.”
2. Poor Stupid Other People! (Awfulizes what others are doing to me.) “Because it is highly desirable that others treat me considerately and fairly, they absolutely should and must, and they are rotten people who deserve to be utterly damned when they do not.”
3. Poor Stupid Life and Universe! (Awfulizes what the world is doing to me and my life situation.) “Because it is preferable that I experience pleasure rather than pain, the world absolutely should arrange this, and life is horrible and I can’t bear it when the world doesn’t.”
“The No Cop-out Therapy,”
Psychology Today, 1973
I have combed through the writings of many authors on this subject of distortions in human thinking. The misconceptions they list are almost always contained in one of the eleven listed by Ellis. Anthropologist Margaret Mead, for example, believes that it is a uniquely American distortion to set impossibly high moral standards that can result only in failure and guilt feelings. Psychiatrist Karen Horney thinks that the “idealized self-image” (the illusory self) as opposed to and in conflict with a realistic self-evaluation is at the bottom of much human misery. Psychologist Victor Raimy adds “the special persons complex,” usually found in the favorite child of a coddling mother or someone who has received much public attention and praise, and “phrenophobia,” the misconception that one is on the verge of insanity. However, I feel that these and other more specific distortions can he found in the general categories of Ellis.
I would like to conclude this chapter with a list of specific distortions or misconceptions that I have found to be at the root of most neurotic suffering in myself and in others. The list is by no means exhaustive. We are all, as Ellis says, uniquely rational and irrational. My distortions are as uniquely mine as my fingerprints. Still, we are all somewhat alike. There is a human unity in our diversity. Consequently, some of these listed misconceptions may look or sound a bit familiar. A study and discussion of these misconceptions might prove personally profitable. It will be a time to practice flexibility and the openness of being questioned by life. I trust that the meaning of and distortion in each of the following will be reasonably clear.
1. I have received so much that I have no right to have any faults.
2. I have only myself to blame.
3. I cannot be angry at anyone but myself.
4. My physical dimensions are the measure of my virility or femininity.
5. Nobody could really love me.
6. I don’t deserve to he happy.
7. Loving yourself or admitting your talents is egotistical and conceited.
8. What really matters is ME! I am a special person.
9. Self forgiveness is self-indulgence.
10. I am it born loser.
11. Laughing at yourself is stupid and self-demeaning.
12. I have to bury forever many of my memories; they would make me too angry or sad.
13. If I begin reflecting on my past, it will be like opening a Pandora’s box; it is better to leave well enough alone.
14. If I ever begin to release my emotions, I know I will lose control.
15. Keep your mouth shut, and you won’t get into trouble.
16. People make me mad or afraid.
17. Stupidity makes me angry.
18. Hurting the feelings of others should always be avoided.
19. My thoughts and feelings would really shock you.
20. Keeping the peace is the most important thing in a relationship.
21. You can’t say what you really think and feel.
22. You can’t really trust anyone.
23. My parents were ideal in every way.
24. I know that if people get to know the real me, they will not like me.
25. I must playa role in order to be accepted by others.
26. I have to be the center of attention or I don’t enjoy myself.
27. Because I play roles in front of people to impress them, I am phoney and therefore no good at all.
28. My parents are to blame for me.
29. Marriage is only a piece of paper.
30. Love does not last.
31. Do your thing, Baby! You’re the only one that counts.
32. You can always tell a hypocrite.
33. You have to give in—to compromise yourself—in order to get along with people.
34. If someone comes to me with a problem, I must do more than just listen and discuss the problem.
35. Love is all sweetness and light; when a person has found love, it is the end of all struggle and suffering.
36. What will the neighbors say? We have to look good.
37. Perfect love is the only kind of real love.
38. I do not need others.
39. I know what is best for you.
40. Love is doing whatever the beloved wants.
41. If you want something done, you have to do it yourself.
42. I know your whole trouble.
43. I’ll get even if it’s the last thing I do.
44. You can’t praise others too much; it will go to their heads.
45. Love is blind.
46. I have to please others in order to satisfy their expectations of me.
47. No commitment can be for life.
48. This is the way I am and always will be.
49. I just can’t decide.
50. It’s no use trying.
51. I just don’t have the will power; I can’t.
52. It’s easier just to give in.
53. Where there’s a will there’s a way. You can do anything you really want to do.
54. I have to prove myself.
55. Life is one “damn thing” after another.
56. I must win them all. I must be Hertz, not Avis.
57. A true ideal should always be just out of reach.
58. Life is easier if you don’t stop to think about it.
59. Good people do not suffer. Virtue always triumphs in the end.
60. Those were the good old days.
61. You only go around once. Grab all you can for yourself.
62. We are for time, not time for us. We must keep moving and producing to justify our existence.
63. You cannot set your sights too high.
64. Whatever you do, you should do it perfectly.
65. Never give up.
66. A thing is either black or white. To make distinctions is always confusing.
67. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
68. The world owes me a living.
69. I can’t waste time taking a walk, reading a book, or puttering in a garden.
70. Every problem is solvable.
71. The world belongs to the young. Ah, to be young again!
72. Failure is failure and all failure is final.
73. I’m too old to start now.
74. Who needs God?
75. Prayer is for the weak. [91-103]