Irrational Beliefs and Choosing Our Feelings

Introduction

In previous posts, I’ve written about the relationship of emotions with reason. I move forward with that here. In this case, the idea is to look at the way in which beliefs and choices based on them lead to emotions, both negative and positive.

The Disputation Pattern

In their book A Guide to Rational Living Albert Ellis and Robert Harper outline ten irrational beliefs that they believe interfere with people’s feelings of happiness or contentment. They discuss the ABCD pattern of disputing those beliefs. I’ve mentioned it here. Ellis, as far as I know, is the source of the ABCD pattern of belief change:

  1. Adversity
  2. Belief/Behavior
  3. Consequence
  4. Disputation

Martin Seligman added an E. Energize. He never defined what it meant, though. In practice, I’ve found that “energizing” a new belief or emotion is acting as though you believed or felt it before it kicks in.

10 Irrational Beliefs

Below are the ten irrational beliefs outlined in the book. It does not take a great deal of effort to see how these beliefs lead to making emotionally charged judgments about our lives and others. Similarly, one can see how they might lead to a fixed mindset (the notion that one cannot change). While I think that this material is useful for Christian spiritual growth, for the time being, I want to just state these false/irrational beliefs simply as facts of human nature. We have a tendency to buy into these ideas and give them to our children. This is the case regardless of religion. I think that Christianity provides the ultimate belief-set and moral vision for a growth mindset, but many people focus so much on the “right vs wrong” aspect of disputed doctrines that they do not look at the “transformation of the mind.” This, by the way, is evident by how many Christians who are deeply concerned about doctrinal correctness, have a tremendous wrungness in their thought lives (I’m not excluding myself here).

Anyhow look through these beliefs and ask yourself these questions for each one:

  1. Is such a belief reasonable, feasible, or helpful to anybody who might have it?
  2. Do I believe this?
  3. What consequences does this belief have for my emotions and decisions?

The irrational beliefs followed by my reflections on them:

  1. You must have love or approval from all of the significant people in your life. (101)
    The result of this belief is that any significant person who does not approve of you means that you aren’t accomplishing some important feat. It can lead to feeling like a failure and therefore sadness, anxiety, and anger.
  1. You must be thoroughly adequate, competent, and achieving. (115)
    This belief is self-defeating. If you believe that you must be great rather than that you can improve, then you’ll always feel behind.
  1. That people absolutely must not act obnoxiously and unfairly and when they do, you should blame and damn them and see them as bad or wicked or terrible individuals. (127)
    Buying into this belief can lead us to hate others for minor slights and to wilt under the slightest criticism because “they mustn’t do that.” This belief requires your self-concept and happiness to become very fragile. I personally have decided to take any mockery or attempt to shame me as a form of ego-boosting flattery. It makes life more interesting and fun.
  1. You have to see things as terrible, awful, horrible, and catastrophic when you are seriously frustrated or treated unfairly. (139)
    The result of this is to dramatize any speed bump in life. Thus a slight frustration becomes a ruined day, month, or year.
  1. You must be miserable when you have pressures and difficult experiences; and you have little ability to control, and cannot change, your disturbed feelings. (155)
    This is actually two beliefs. They are false and weakening. If you believe that you cannot change your disturbed feelings, then you won’t try to. If you think that trials will always make you miserable then you cannot grow from them. For instance, if pain means misery, then you’ll never go to the gym or ask somebody on a date for fear of rejection. Jonathan Edwards put it this way, “Resolved, After afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them; what good I have got by them; and, what I might have got by them.”[1] This is a much more powerful outlook.
  1. If something is dangerous or fearsome, you must obsess about it and frantically try to escape it. (163)
    I struggle with this. I’m afraid to run toward danger. But the fact of the matter is that danger and fright are a part of life. When it comes, thinking about it obsessively without formulating a plan may still leave you dead, but you’ll have been miserable until it got that way.
  1. You can easily avoid difficulties and self-responsibilities and still lead a highly fulfilling existence. (177)
    This is the millennial malaise. It can lead us to believe that we deserve more than we’ve earned solely because we’re special or the “system” doesn’t or shouldn’t apply to us. This appears to be a self-serving idea, but it doesn’t actually serve you. Abandon it, it’s bullshit.
  1. Your past remains all important and since something once strongly influenced your life, it has to keep determining your behavior and feelings today. (187)
    You aren’t your past.
  1. The idea that people and things absolutely must be better than they are and that it is awful and horrible if you cannot change life’s grim facts. (197)
    Christians can have a tendency to buy into this one in a big way. I think that people in relationships with abusers are this way, too. Instead of accepting that a person is what they are until they change, the attempt to change them is made paramount in life. This inevitably and lead to frustration or even hatred toward the person that the other wishes to help by changing them.
  1. You can achieve maximum human happiness by inertia and inaction or by passively and uncommitedly “enjoying yourself.” (207)
    The Netflix generation is one of the self-rated most anxious generations of all time. Yet, it is perhaps the nation that spends the most time on mindless entertainment. Obsessive passive enjoyment as a means to fulfillment is a definite dead end.

Many people might believe all or the majority of these. There is no reason to feel shame for having a false belief. It happens. Children believe that bread crust has more vitamins because a well-meaning adult said so. These things happen. But now, ask yourself what belief should you replace the false one with? What evidence is there for the true belief?

Example:

Belief 7: Your past remains all important and since something once strongly influenced your life, it has to keep determining your behavior and feelings today. (187)

You might persistently recall how a parent treated you, a bad habit from your past, or a terrible failure that bequeathed this belief to you. Either way, not it haunts you. So you say things to yourself like, “Once a loser, always a loser.” “I’m just a sinner.” “I’ll never change.” “This is who I’ve always been.”

So, you’ve got to argue with this belief. Here’s how you might do it:

  1. Argument 1: This belief has bad consequences. Of course I can’t change if I believe I won’t change. I’ll sabotage any progress I make!
  2. Argument 2: The Bible says that change happens like growth. It takes time and happens in increments. This means that it is possible but that it might not be immediately evident. Also, the Bible says that my past is not the only factor in who I become. It is very clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection as well as my baptism are even stronger factors for my future.
  3. Argument 3: Lots of people overcome their pasts. This belief is not only false, but it is obviously false.

Choosing the Circumstances of Our Emotions

In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard observes that:

“There is no choice that does not involve both thought and feeling. On the other hand, what we feel and think is (or can and should be) to a very large degree a matter of choice in competent adult persons, who will be very careful about what they allow their mind to dwell upon or what they allow themselves to feel. This is crucial to the practical methods of spiritual formation.[2]

His last sentence struck me as very powerful. I had never deeply considered the idea that emotions could be chosen. I set myself to researching the idea and came across the book Not Passion’s Slave by Robert Solomon. In it he defends the claim that that “One cannot ‘simply’ decide to have an emotion. One can, however, decide to do any number of things-enter into a situation, not take one’s medication, think about a situation in a different way, ‘set oneself up’ for a fall- that will bring about the emotion. Or one might act as if one has an emotion, act angrily for instance, from which genuine anger may follow.”[3] The Albert Ellis book I mentioned earlier has a similar perspective.

My current point of view is that we can choose our feelings, albeit indirectly. It is perhaps better to say that we can choose the evaluations of our life and the thoughts which result in our emotions and their intensification.

Conclusion: Do Some Practical Experiments

If you’re in a place in life wherein you feel enslaved to your feelings and find yourself thinking, “Maybe I’m just wired this way,” I think some experiments are in order. I recommend examining your feelings and getting very Socratic with yourself. Ask questions like this:

  1. What choice did I just make to make myself to feel this way?
  2. What am a “feeling” about? Am I mad at somebody/something?
  3. Is this feeling reasonable (am I mad at God, an inanimate object, a baby, a dog, etc.)?
  4. What belief am I basing this emotion on? Is this belief helpful, true, or false?
  5. What belief should I replace it with?
  6. Is my emotion pointing me to a problem for which there is a positive solution?
  7. Am I about to make an irrational decision to act immorally, increase my negative emotions, or hurt a relationship based on this feeling?

After you do this, think of a true/positive belief and act on it instead. See how things change. For instance, if you feel sad because you think you’re a loser, but you know that you don’t actually lose at things, then stop standing with defeated posture. Stand with straighter posture (chest out, chin up), smile, and do something beneficial for yourself or another person.

Try various exercises like this and see how they help you.

It’s a Pascal’s Wager. If you’re captive to your emotions and you don’t like being in that place, presumably nothing else has worked. Weeding out your irrational beliefs could help you or leave you in roughly the same place. You have a 0 cost proposition with some probability of benefit. And thanks to the placebo effect, it is possible that believing in advance that this will work could help you even more.

References

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), lxiv.

[2] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2002), 51

[3] Robert Solomon, Not Passion’s Slave: Emotions and Choice (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 199.

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