Rational thinking

My therapeutic orientation was existential and I was trained in a humanistic psychology program, but as I told both clients and colleagues, if I had a Gospel to preach in my clinical practice it was the Gospel of Rational Thinking. It’s a learnable skill and I wish it was a standard part of the public school curriculum; but the corporate state wants the public education system to turn out conditioned consumers, not independent thinkers. Independent thinkers are as hard to herd as cats. I’ve practiced and taught rational thinking for decades. Being able to spot my irrational thoughts before acting on  them has kept me from making innumerable mistakes and spared me a lot of unnecessary pain over the years. (I actually met Dr. Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, at a professional conference. I’ll tell you more about him in a later post.) Rational thinking is an important component of cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapies, whether irrational thoughts are labeled as thinking errors or as irrational self-talk. The wisdom of rational thinking correlates to the teachings of buddhism and to the Serenity Prayer. It’s a learning program that teaches people how to think rationally, without telling you what to think. It’s the opposite of  – and the antidote to – indoctrination.

We all engage in self-talk, our constant mental monologue, judging and labeling and making choices throughout our waking hours. Some self-talk is innocuous, but other self-talk carries a lot of weight and guides our subsequent behavior. Some of it is rational, but some is irrational – for all of us, even psychologists. In my experience most people can’t always tell the difference between their rational and irrational thoughts, and sometimes suffer painful or destructive consequences from their irrational thinking. Rational self-talk helps us to feel the way we want to feel and accomplish what we want to accomplish. Irrational self-talk leads to avoidable negative emotional states (anxiety, depression, anger) and undermines our ability to function at our best.

Many irrational thoughts are characterized by the words “always” and “never,” “should/shouldn’t” and “must.” Some examples: “I should always make a good impression on people.” “Things never go my way.” “I’ll never succeed in life.” “I shouldn’t ever let down my guard around people. They always take advantage of you.” “Life should be fair.” “I must get this promotion!” When people think irrationally, they set themselves up for disappointment, or worse, when things don’t go as they’d hoped.

At times we all wish the world was fair. But it isn’t, and thinking that it “should be” doesn’t help anyone. You might not always succeed at things you really want to succeed at, but that doesn’t make you a “failure” or a “loser.” If we tell ourselves that we’ll “never” get over a loss, we’re programming ourselves to suffer endlessly. If we expect to “always” perform optimally in interpersonal situations, we’re not allowing for the fact that we’re all flawed human beings. To err is human, and to expect perfection, or to always succeed at everything we do, is to court disappointment. Great expectations can lead to great disappointment, and moderate expectations to moderate disappointment. But if you engage in an enterprise because you feel it’s the right thing to do, with no specific expectations pinned to the outcome, you can’t be disappointed.

Here are some categories of typical irrational thoughts: Catastrophizing is imagining that worst-case scenarios are likely outcomes. Minimization is wearing blinders that don’t let you see your own strengths, or the positive potentials in a situation. Grandiosity is feeling superior, having an exaggerated sense of self-importance or ability. Personalization is when someone thinks “It’s all about me.” Thinking you’re the center of the universe. Magical thinking is characterized by acting ritualistically, as if a ritual behavior will bring about a desired outcome. Leaps in logic have to do with jumping to conclusions not based on evidence. Mindreading means attributing motives for a person’s behavior without evidence. “I know why he did that!” All-or-nothing thinking is the inability to see any shades of gray between poles of black and white. Paranoia is characterized by unjustified suspiciousness and feelings of persecution.

I’ll be writing more about mindfulness over time but, suffice it to say for now, one kind of mindfulness is paying close attention to your self-talk and where it takes you, emotionally and behaviorally. With practice, you can learn to immediately distinguish your irrational thoughts from your rational thoughts. In cognitive therapy, when you identify an irrational thought, you learn to frame a challenge to that thought. An example: “I may have lost out on that promotion, but that doesn’t mean I’m a loser.”

I used to teach clients a method called a “4-Step Check” to help them learn to spot and counter their irrational thoughts. After an upsetting event, you analyze it in writing. (1) Event. Describe what happened. (2) How I felt. This might include multiple emotions. (3) What I did.  What would a videocam have recorded? (4) What was/were my irrational thought(s). With enough practice writing 4-Step Checks, spotting irrational thoughts eventually becomes automatic, and you don’t have to do them on paper anymore.

Here’s an example of a 4-Step Check by Charles, an alcoholic in early recovery: (1) Jim, my new AA sponsor, promised to pick me up at 7:30 sharp for an 8:00 meeting across town that he knew was important for me. When he hadn’t shown up by 7:45, I hailed a cab. (2) I felt desperate and alone in the world. I got angrier every minute Jim was late. (3) I kept looking at my watch, sometimes several times a minute.  I paced back and forth on the sidewalk, cursing. I kicked a dog. (4) I should never have asked Jim to be my sponsor. He’s doesn’t really care what happens to me. He’s a selfish, unreliable bastard! You just can’t rely on anyone. I should just go to a bar instead of paying for a taxi to get to the meeting.

As it turned out, Jim showed up late to the meeting and afterwards apologized sincerely, explaining why his tardiness had been unavoidable. So Jim did his 4-Step and was able to spot his irrational thoughts and how they were related to his emotions of the moment. You may have noticed that Charles’ initial irrational thoughts were specifically related to Jim’s failure to show up when he said he would. But then he starts to generalize, telling himself that people aren’t reliable and that working on recovery is useless – a rationalization for relapse. This is an example of how an irrational thought can lead to a progressively irrational train of thoughts, going from specific to generalized irrational thinking. None of these thoughts can help Charles to feel the way he’d like to feel or to help him achieve his goals.

Any irrational self-talk statement can be challenged by asking, “How do I know that to be true? What is my proof?” In my decades as a therapist I urged many clients to “become a student of your own thinking.” Every day holds new opportunities to learn about yourself, if you pay attention. In time you start to see the patterns of your own irrational self-talk, and you internalize the 4-Step Check. Spotting irrational thoughts becomes a learned reflex and voila!, you’re a rational thinker. In my next post I’ll get into “trains of thought” that take people to places they don’t need to go.


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