In college, I was a psychology major. I didn’t do anything directly with this education, although it provided a strong foundation for my financial philosophy while I was writing about personal finance. Over the past two years, however, I’ve begun to read (and re-read) certain popular psychological manuals from the past fifty years. Though pop psychology gets a bum rap, there’s plenty of wisdom to be had from these books.

For instance, I recently stumbled upon some ideas from A Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis and Robert Harper. According to the authors, therapists hear certain irrational beliefs and attitudes repeatedly from their clients. Among the most common are these:

  1. I must be loved by everyone or I am not lovable. I myself have fallen into this trap. I used to want to please everyone. If anyone disliked me, I felt unworthy. But nobody can please everybody, and it’s a fool’s game to try.
  2. I must do everything well or I am not competent. I know many people who fall into this trap. From childhood, we’re taught to equate success with self-worth. As adults, many people become afraid to try new things because they don’t want to fail. Or they find ways to only do the things at which they know they’ll succeed. You can’t be good at everything, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
  3. I must condemn others if they don’t treat me well. (And the inverse: If I don’t treat people well, I’m a bad person.) People make mistakes. This doesn’t make them bad people. It’s how we respond to our mistakes that define who we are.
  4. I must damn life if things don’t go my way. In his book Flow, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi writes: “The primary reason it is so difficult to achieve happiness centers on the fact that, contrary to the myths mankind has developed to reassure itself, the universe was not created to answer our needs.” Just because you experience misfortune doesn’t mean you should give up or get angry.
  5. I have no control over my feelings and behaviors; my emotions are controlled by the people and events around me. You are the boss of you. You choose more or less the kinds of things that happen to you. What’s more, you’re totally in control of how you respond to life.
  6. Because something is fearful or risky, I must be constantly concerned about it. I have a friend who is reluctant to attend crowded events because something bad might happen. It’s true, she might get stabbed or her purse might be stolen. Or worse. But the odds of these things occurring are very slim. Should she really sacrifice her life because something bad might happen?
  7. I must avoid responsibility and difficulty in order to be comfortable and content; I can achieve happiness through passive inaction. In reality, inertia makes you fat and unhappy. You’re more likely to achieve wealth and happiness by pursuing purpose, by taking on meaningful challenges.
  8. I must depend on others because I cannot run my life alone. Again, you are the boss of you. Nobody cares more about you than yourself. You can — and should — take charge of your own health and happiness.
  9. I am controlled by my past; anything that once affected me must continue to affect me. My mother is a slave to this irrational belief. Even at age 65, she allows her self-worth to be defined by things her mother said fifty years ago. The past is the past. It only has power if you allow it to.
  10. I must be affected by other people’s problems. You know those folks who seem to experience constant drama in their lives? From my experience, most of this drama comes because they allow other people’s problems to become their own.
  11. There’s a right way to do things; if things aren’t done correctly, I must suffer. I know a couple of people who hold this irrational belief on a personal level, believing others are stupid for not doing things the way they would. But many more people suffer from this at a political level, becoming upset because others are not as conservative (or liberal) as they are.

As Ellis and Harper say, these are irrational beliefs. When you fall into these traps, your life becomes less than it could be. In order to be the best person you can be, you should actively work to shake off these modes of thought. And be honest about it. Look at the things that bother you about life. What is causing you the most trouble right now? Could it be the result of one of these irrational thought processes?

We’ll discuss many of these irrational beliefs (and how to overcome them) in the months ahead as we explore how to be happy and how to forge a life filled with freedom.

7 Replies to “Eleven Common Irrational Beliefs”

  1. These are great beliefs. I personally try to live and practice those beliefs every day. Like you, I have a mother who is a bit down on herself, and doesn’t believe she can control her own life or happiness. I need to send her this book. Maybe she’ll read it.

  2. I think you could do a better post on irrationality by defining “rational” and saying why rationality is a good thing.

    Rational means, essentially, “based in logic and reason”. And while, yes, the things on this list are irrational, that isn’t what makes them destructive. Liking Enya isn’t really rational, but it’s not a “trap” nor is it going to make your life “less than it could be”. Heck, a majority of the people in the world define their entire world view on a set of irrational beliefs. Making this a list of destructive beliefs instead is still useful, but it has different connotations.

    Not that I’m against rationality, in fact it’s sort of my guiding principle in life. I’d actually be totally onboard with an evidence-based approach to personal or financial improvement, but if you start making everything science based, you push away certain groups of people.

  3. Nice, JD! Something I’ve noticed is that people often like to draw parallels of cause and effect between two things that aren’t even related. If something bad happens, the mind immediately starts to search for a reason that event occurred. Things get settled on such as fate, luck, blame, and our imaginations immediately begin constructing a story linking the one to the other. It seems a few minutes later it’s very firmly cemented and a person has decided on the exact hows and whys something played out the way it did. …When it’s often all just random nonsense. It ranges from getting laid off and blaming immigration to winning the lottery and thanking God. It took almost a year of self-training to learn to stop telling myself fairytales regarding events.

  4. Greg says:

    I agree with all of these, I guess the big question is, how do we get better at dealing with them?

  5. PawPrint says:

    My youngest daughter exemplifies #9, being controlled by her past. In her case, it’s a bad marriage that was over about 7 years ago. So I fall prey to #10 because, well, she’s my daughter. I’m not sure how to disengage from this, although I’ve tried several times. The result usually is that she gets angry and doesn’t want to communicate with me. Emotional blackmail–but I don’t want to lose my daughter.

  6. JoDi says:

    That was a great book! I read it many years ago and may have to dig it out again for a refresher. My husband was going through therapy at the time for his brain disorder, and I found it very helpful. His therapist used cognitive-based methods which were very helpful. I have always believed that how happy we are in life depends much less on the events in our lives than it does on how we view those events and the meaning we attach to people’s actions. Our perspective is something we can change; how others behave may not be, but sometimes when we change how we feel about the behavior and respond differently, their behavior changes as well.

  7. I think this would be valuable to review from time to time. Self knowledge is such a powerful tool.

    Tyler Karaszewski- Listening to Enya might actually be destructive. 🙂
    Actually I really appreciate your comments.

    Edward Ferguson- Yours too. I have really changed a lot in the last 3-4 years as a result of letting go of irrational thinking (or at least attempting to).

    OK- I confess. I like Enya.

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