Tool #4: Recognizing Irrational Thinking

Home page                                                                                           Tool #5
I like to teach people five simple rules.

Rule #1   You have the right to want whatever
                you want

That's true even if it's not good for you or others might not
like it, or agree with it.  That's your right as human being.  
However, according to Dr. Ellis, human beings have a
tendency to:

1) Start to think they NEED something they
    simply WANT
2) Treat their simple PREFERENCES as
3) DEMAND what they simply DESIRE

We can look at things anyway we want to.  However, we
need to be judicious about how we use words like
have to
and can't.  Most people probably believe we need
love.  Popular music would certainly suggest we do.  
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs includes a level for "love and
belonging".  It's often taught to most young people at some
point in their education.  However, do we really NEED love?  
Do we need it like air, water and food?  We'll die without
those in minutes, days or weeks.  Many people go long
periods of time believing they are not loved and don't die.  
Furthermore, would it be healthy for a young girl to believe
needs a young boy's love like she needs air, water and
food?  Would that put her in the best mental and emotional
place to act in her own best interest.  Or, would it put her at
a disadvantage in some way in dealing with young boys.

Rule #2 explains why these tendencies become so important
in everyday life:

Rule #2   The bigger the difference between your
                expectations and reality, the more               
                emotion you'll generate  

For example, if you simply want, prefer or desire something
and don't get it, you'll be frustrated, disappointed or
annoyed.  However, if you start to think you need it, it's a
necessity, you HAVE to or MUST have it, and DEMAND it,
and then don't get it, you'll generate anger.

Picture an old fashioned thermostat with a needle you can
push up or down.  The bottom third of the thermo- stat says
"I don't care".  The middle section says "I want, prefer,
desire" something.  The top section says "I need it, it's a
necessity, and I DEMAND it.  If you set your thermostat at
DEMAND, you'll make yourself angry when you don't get
what you demand.  If you set
your expectations at "I want, prefer, desire" and don't get
something, you'll be frustrated, disappointed, annoyed.  If
you really "don't care", you'll be able to remain calm and
Consider the thermostat again.  There are three ways to
look at something that happens.  To not care.  To think it's
unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable.  Or, to think it's
really AWFUL as in the end of the world, life's not worth
living anymore type AWFUL.

There's an old saying that accurately describes what we do
when we AWFULIZE.  We "make mountains out of
molehills".  Paradoxically, the easier life becomes, the more
likely we are to AWFULIZE.  The more likely we are to
exaggerate how bad something is, and "make a mountain
out of a molehill".

Anxiety is a figment (read that product) of imagination.  It's
about things that haven't happened yet.  Things that could,
but often never do. Awfulizing is a key ingredient in the
recipe for anxiety.  The formula for anxiety is:


First you imagine something "bad" happening.  That's
catastrophizing.  Then tell yourself it'll be AWFUL if that
does happen.  Not just unpleasant, inconvenient or
uncomfortable, but AWFUL.  If you said something like
, "So
what, who cares?  It's happened before.  It won't be that big
a deal" you wouldn't generate anxiety.
Can't Stand It-itis
Rule #5   We have a right to like or dislike
                whatever we want to.  

The mistake people make is to start telling themselves they
CAN'T STAND something they simply don't like.  The
bottom of the thermostat is "don't care".  The middle is "I
don't like it".  The top is "I can't stand it".  If we truly couldn't
stand something, we'd
die or go crazy.  Obviously, if
everyone died or went crazy when they said they couldn't
stand something they simply didn't like, we'd have streets
and hallways littered with dead bodies or crazy people.   
When we say we can't stand something we're exaggerating
and lying to ourselves.  We're lying to that part of our brain
that generates emotion.  That part of the brain is blind, deaf
and dumb to the outside world.  It takes the word of the
upper portions of our brains.  If we tell it we can't stand
something, it generates much more emotion than if we
simply said we didn't like it.  The truth is, we CAN stand
what happens.  We just don't like it, and that's okay.

By telling ourselves that we CAN'T STAND something we
simply don't like, we INFLAME ourselves unnecessarily,
usually to no good end.  That's why Dr. Ellis called this
thinking "I can't stand it-ITIS"  

LFT, or Low Frustration Tolerance is the reason why people
don't do so many things that might be good for them.  It's
largely a product of saying "I can't stand doing that".  It's
also a product of demanding that whatever you do be easy
or fun, or something you agree with, like or see the point to.  
Last, it's a product of saying that doing something you don't
like, agree with or see the point to, as being AWFUL.  Dr
Ellis called this type of thinking "Whining"

When people generate anxiety, they first imagine something
"bad" happening, and then tell themselves it will be AWFUL
if/when that happens.  When we tell ourselves that
something will be AWFUL, the implication is also that we
COULDN'T STAND IT if/when that happen.
Label and Damning
Remember Rule #5.

Rule #5   We have a right to like or dislike
                whatever we want to   

We have the right to dislike what someone else says or
does.  However, we often make the mistake of blatantly
overgeneralizing from their behavior to making judgments
about them as a person.  We condemn the DOER instead
of simply condemning the DEED.  We can do the same
thing to or with ourselves.  Label and Damning someone
else or yourself is like calling an apple BAD because it has
a bruise.  Despite the fact that 95% of the apple is still
perfectly edible.  It's calling someone stupid because they
did a stupid thing.  Doing one, or even multiple stupid
things, does not logically make someone a stupid person.  
Smart people can do stupid things
all the time.  

We can label and damn others, or ourselves.  Label and
damning others makes it hard to find common ground and
to resolve conflicts.  Racism and prejudice is basically
Label and Damning.  Label and Damning ourselves causes
us to generate needless, and often counterproductive
shame.  That shame can block needed and helpful change.
The Big Picture
People have ANT Problems
Thought Catching
Turning your Thermostat down
Dr. Ellis contended that if you have one type of irrational
thinking, you'll have the other three.  For example,
suppose you think you NEED something like you need air,
water and food, and DEMAND it.  And then don't get it.  It's
understandable that you would see that outcome as being
AWFUL.  It's also understandable that you would tell
yourself you CAN'T STAND IT.  If it was air, water or food
for minutes, days or weeks, you wouldn't be able to.  
These four types of irrational thoughts are what Ellis used
to call automatic irrational beliefs.  Some people now call
them automatic negative thoughts (ANTs).  They are well
rehearsed and practiced, and rutted in peoples' brains.  
That makes them automatic.  Having them causes people
to generate more emotion than is helpful or necessary,
and to say and do things that make their lives worse.  
That makes them irrational.  The automatic nature of such
People verbalize very little of the thought they have.  I'm
guessing maybe 1% or even less.  We all think constantly,
but talk much less.  Even if we talked constantly, no one
can talk as fast as they can think.  That's part of the
reason people can develop such things as anxiety
disorders.  The beauty of Ellis' model is that it allows us to
do what he called "though catching" or "turning private talk
into public speech".  For example, a teenager blurts out
"This sucks!" when he's expected to do something.  Using
The first goal is to take control of your own thermostat.  
Most people believe others, and events of their lives
control their emotional thermostats.  They even claim
people "push their buttons", which is analogous to having
a digital thermostat.  The way to take control of your
emotional thermostat is to develop an internal locus of
control.  That's Tool #3.  

The second goal is to turn your emotional thermostat
down.  Lower the Frequency, Intensity and Duration (FID)
of a particular feeling.  Or, have a
Long ago, Dr. Albert Ellis identified four basic types of
irrational beliefs that human beings are prone to. By
irrational, we mean that by thinking those ways they make
their lives worse instead of better.  They generate a
dysfunctional amount of emotion.  Then they often say and
do things because of it, or to deal with it, that makes their
lives worse.
The four types of irrational beliefs he identified were:

              Can't Stand It-itis         
              Label and Damning
The feeling you end up with depends on whether you make
demands of others, yourself or life.  If you make demands of
others and they don't get met, you'll generate anger.   If you
make demands of yourself before an event, you'll generate
 For example, a test, game or job interview.  If you
make demands of yourself after an event, you generate
shame and
guilt.   Loneliness doesn't come from being alone.  It's what
you think about being alone.  For example, you tell yourself
that you should be with someone and you're not, that you
should have more friends, or a boyfriend or girlfriend and
don't.  If you make demands of life, and they're not met, you
can end up feeling depressed.  Your basic demand is that

"My life shouldn't and can't be the way it is.  It
should or has to be easier or better than it is".  

Or something like

"I shouldn't have to deal with this.  This shouldn't
(or can't) be happening to me",

and you do, and it is.  Boredom is a lot like depression in it's
origin.  It comes from demanding that life be more fun and
exciting than it is.
Demand of       Feeling you get

Others               Anger

Self                    Anxiety (if made before events)
                          Shame, Guilt (if made after events)
 Life                   Depression
                          Anxiety (if made before events)

When people make demands of themselves, others and life,
they often use the verbs "should" or "shouldn't" in construct-
ing their thoughts.  This is jokingly called "shoulding" on
yourself, others and life.  Doing so just makes you feel
worse than necessary or helpful.  

Irrational demands often come in the form of a question.  For
example, "How DARE they do that?" or "How COULD they
do something like that?"  You're basically saying they
shouldn't, CAN'T or MUST NOT do something.  You're
implying that they should, HAVE TO, or MUST do something
else instead.  People sometimes make a demand of
themselves in the form of a question as well.  For example,
"How COULD I have done something like that?"

Rule #3   When people go from simply wanting,
                preferring or desiring something to
                thinking they need it, it's a necessity and
                demanding it, it can make otherwise  
                smart people do stupid things.  

The reason is simple.  If you were suffocating and needed
air, what would you be willing to do to get it?  Anything. Now
suppose someone not only wanted someone's love, but
started thinking they needed it. What would they be willing to
do to get it, or keep it?  Same thing.  Anything.  And that's
what can make otherwise smart people do stupid things.

Rule #4   Behavior intended to satisfy a perceived
                need will win out over behavior
                intended to satisfy a rational preference

For example, someone might WANT to quit smoking (a
rational preference) but they think they NEED to have a
cigarette.  They believe they CAN'T go a whole day without
one (perceived need).  What are their chances of quitting?
Finally, it's also understandable that you would blatantly
overgeneralize about anyone you see as being
responsible for you not getting what you thought you
NEEDED, and DEMANDED.  That would be LABEL AND
DAMNING.  And you would generate ANGER instead of
frustration, irritation or annoyance, and be more likely to
REACT or even OVERREACT to what happened.  See
the diagram below.
Ellis' model, we can brainstorm what he might be thinking.  
Ellis called it "speculative hypothesizing".  This teens
automatic irrational beliefs or ANTs might be something like
"It's awful that I have to do this" (AWFULIZING), "i can't
stand doing this" (CAN'T STAND IT-ITIS), "I shouldn't have
to do this" (DEMANDINESS), and possibly even "You're
stupid for making me do this" (LABEL AND DAMNING).  But
all we hear is "This sucks?"
thoughts allows people to pass quickly from one thought to
another at such high speeds that their thoughts can
become imperceptible to them.  When parents ask teens
"What were you thinking when you did that?", that's a
legitimate and worthwhile question.  However, they often
get an "I don't know", to which they wrongly conclude,
"That's the problem, you weren't thinking".
Home page                                                                                Tool #5
qualitatively different feeling.  For example, frustration,
irritation or annoyance instead of anger.  That would free
you to RESPOND instead of REACTING to what

The way you turn your emotional thermostat down is by
turning your cognitive thermostat down.  Remember, we
always have a CHOICE as to how we want to LOOK AT
anything that happens, before and after it does.  That's
where Tool #6 - Correcting Irrational Thinking comes into
I would appreciate any feedback on this page. Was it helpful?