Irrational Beliefs in Psychology

cognitive distortions

What are Irrational Beliefs?

If you have attended to any therapy session, you probably had heard about “irrational beliefs”. In this post, you will learn about what are irrational beliefs mean in psychology, learn to identify them and change them.

Something bad happened. You criticized yourself harder than you should. It broke your self-esteem and now when you face another problem, you think you are incompetent. You criticize yourself again and become more vulnerable, and this causes worse performance.

You see, this is an endless loop. Your thinking makes you perform worse and then it causes more negative thinking.

Did you ever wonder why people suffer from depression are in this cycle for so long? From an outsider, thinking that changing this chain of thoughts is easy. You might have heard that people say individuals who have depression “Just think positive things”, but is that really helpful? It is easy for a neutral party to assess the mental state of a depressed person and to say “No, you are not bad at everything you do”, but when you are the one experiencing these irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions, you will see that you have no accurate judgment of events, people and the world.

How to Change Irrational Beliefs

Understanding that these “automatic thinking” of twisted criticism and judgments is the first step. You can help yourself by identifying your cognitive distortions and try to help people by showing theirs to them. -Try not to be a know-it-all though.-

Cognitive distortions are used in cognitive behavioral therapy to help you and your therapist to understand your thinking patterns. Cognitive distortions are mental thinkings that are twisted. They are what we call “automatic thinking” which you do without realizing. These irrational beliefs go through our filter of perception only in a negative way. They cause negative feelings and emotions and they also impair our thinking and self-esteem. Because of these twisted thinkings, we think things are true when they are not. They also reinforce problematic behavior and block change. These kinds of thinking are seen often in people with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. They also make the recovery harder because they promote negative thinking. These mental blocks should be eliminated to promote healthy thinking and healthy living.

History and Psychology Behind Them

Cognitive distortions are first mentioned by Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy. Later, David D. Burns mentioned them in his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Burns built on Beck’s ideas and came up with a list. The book is very good and it was such a pioneer when it first came out. Please click here if you want to check the book out. It is one of the best self-help books out there. I read it when I was depressed,  I was looking for even tiniest hopes to feel better. It is a no-bs approach and involves assessments, homeworks etc.

List of Cognitive Distortions

Splitting (All-or-Nothing thinking, Black-and-White Thinking)

The history of the splitting theory goes way back to Freud and her daughter, the daughter of the psychoanalysis, Anna Freud. It is a self-defense mechanism for us to preserve our ego strength when faced with difficult situations.

It is basically thinking in extremes. There are no shades of grey, only black and white. You either do good or bad, you are either worthy or garbage. You do things perfectly or do nothing at all.

This kind of thinking is seen frequently in people with borderline personality disorder. In a matter of hours, their perception of themselves changes from one extreme to other.

Overgeneralizing

Thinking that one example is applicable for every situation. Even if you don’t have enough evidence, you apply the little information you have to other situations and reach an inaccurate judgment. This cause emotional pain by destroying self-esteem and block further progress. If you fail a test, you are unsuccessful at everything. One relationship failed and now you think every relationship will fail. You didn’t get that job so now no company will want you.

Jumping to conclusions

Jumping to conclusions involves two faulty cognitions: Fortune-telling and mind reading. Mind reading is when you think what others feel and think. We jump to “negative” conclusions about others’ thinking even if we don’t know and they didn’t say anything. Fortune-telling is the anticipation of a negative outcome even if we don’t know anything about the future. No matter what you do, the event’s outcome will be devastating and negative and you feel you have no control over it.​

Magnification and minimization

Magnification is when you exaggerate the negative outcomes and failures, and minimization is when you undermine the weight of a positive event, success, opportunity and strengths. The key point here is you do it together. Say you got a C from an essay, and the professor says what to improve and what to keep in the essay. Even though C is not a bad grade, you magnify the bad outcomes and think the paper is worthless all the while thinking the good parts of the paper are not that good.

Catastrophizing

It is when you exaggerate the future consequences of an event. When the outcome will be negative, thinking that you won’t be able to survive it and suffer a great deal of pain is the catastrophizing cognitive distortion. One example would be thinking that failing a class will result in failing the school completely. If you don’t get the promotion, you will never be able to make the ends meet and therefore be poor/homeless.

Personalization

It is when you personalize the good and the bad outcome of events even if you don’t have control over it. You take everything personally and believe that every single thing others do is a reaction to you. You assume that you are responsible for every other person’s actions and these actions are a response to you.

A mother thinking she is a bad mom because her child is failing at school is an example of this. Another example is assuming that your friend doesn’t like you because she left your party early where in reality the reason why she left might be several other things.

Blaming

It is the process of holding other people responsible for the negative events in your life and outcomes of those. It is the opposite of personalization. You think that your marriage is failing, and all the blame is on your spouse. Or maybe you think that you didn’t get the promotion because your boss is bad at decision-making. You think that you are unhappy because others around you make you unhappy.

Always Being Right

You can’t be wrong, under any circumstances. You actively seek ways to find a way to prove you are correct.

Fallacy of Change

It is thinking that a change from the current situation would be always good. It is the thinking of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”. You assume that life will be better when you get married/get a job/start a relationship/graduate/retire and so on. The fact is, you have no idea what will happen in the future and you jump to conclusions. It will make you take rash decisions that you might regret later.

Fallacy of Fairness

You think that life is either fair or unfair, and what happens to you is based on that thinking. This kind of thinking almost always comes with “if..then..” reasoning. This thinking is wrong because it is based on assumptions, not real facts. It also makes you look at the world in the same way you learned before and blocks changes. What you see is what should happen, you think. If my father loved me, he would pay for my school. If my spouse loved me, he would help with the chores. My friends have more money and bigger houses, so they must be happier.

Emotional Reasoning

It is when you believe something is a fact just because you “feel” that way. You judge things in a negative way and assume it is the correct way of thinking. An example would be: “I feel unloved therefore I know that nobody loves me”.

Mental Filtering

You focus only on the bad things and don’t notice or care the good things.  

Labeling and Mislabeling

You label and mislabel yourself and others in the events of negative situations. It is like overgeneralizing but involves a personal label/tag. You fail the test so you are a loser. You don’t make 6 figures so you are poor/worthless. Your nose is crooked so you are ugly. Your husband didn’t show you enough attention that day, so he must be unemotional/unsympathetic.

Making “Must” or “Should” Statements

Albert Ellis, the father of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, called these “musturbations”. It can be described as thinking the world “should be” how we think it should be. It is when we want different outcomes than what we have. This kind of thinking undermines the situational factors and creates unfulfillment. An example would be “I should’ve studied more for that exam”. “I shouldn’t have divorced because now everybody thinks I am an outcast”. “I must get married because everyone around me is”.

What you need to do about those irrational beliefs / cognitive distortions:

First, you need to identify your thinking patterns and irrational beliefs. Make a list of which ones you use the most. Then challenge yourself. When you have an irrational belief, challenge it by making it rational. Writing helps very much, so it is preferable that you keep a diary that is specifically about your beliefs, thought and each of these irrational beliefs listed above. Take notes of which ones impair your judgment the most, which ones make you feel worthless and causes low self-esteem, which ones affect your relationship with others.

Be attentive in this exercise as it can only be done by you. Nobody else knows your beliefs. Read more about CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and if you can, go see a therapist. Seeing a therapist helps so much when your beliefs directly affect your daily functioning. I know some people who are having anxiety attacks because they are catastrophizing. I know some people who left their spouses without thinking because of the fallacy of change.

You do this exercise to practice reframing. It is simply putting things into a new perspective. Mentally healthy people do this often in light of the new outcomes and information. Replacing negative thinking and irrational beliefs with positive ones is the goal here. Identifying and finding the cognitive distortions are not enough.​

Check out this article from verywellmind.com about reframing and how it works.

In order for this exercise to work, you need to replace your old beliefs with new ones which promotes your mental health. For this, you need to write new beliefs to your diary. You can also benefit from positive self-talk. It might sound crazy to some, but I suggest you to talk to yourself in a positive way whenever you can.

If you stuck with your negative thinking, than you might be lacking and could benefit from this exercise. Start doing it and see how things improve.​

I have a mantra that I believe whole-heartedly. “Practice, not perfection”. You don’t have to do everything in the best possible way. This advice is also acceptable for this exercise. Take one step at a time and slowly identify and eliminate your irrational beliefs.

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