Albert Ellis’s 15 Irrational Ideas

Albert Ellis was one of the guys who invented cognitive therapy, which began as a kind of wacky-fringe psychotherapy in the 1950s and has grown to be one of the dominant and most-researched forms of therapy today. It’s effective and simple–easy to teach. Ellis’s version of cognitive therapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, is alive and well too.

Ellis’s basic tenets were that thoughts or beliefs, not events, cause emotions and that irrational thoughts or beliefs cause our emotional problems. Most people think it’s their situations that are causing their problems, but Ellis said that we feel bad when our situation is in conflict with anirrational belief, and that it is the belief that makes us feel bad. So his style of therapy basically consisted of deconstructing people’s irrational thoughts and beliefs.

I think that he was right in a lot, though not all, cases. There are many other effective forms of therapy that, instead of cognitions, target behavior, emotions, social systems, or some combination of the four. There are also, of course, non-therapy interventions that aim to improve people’s psychological experience by targeting biological systems, like drugs or the prefrontal lobotomy, and interventions that target political systems–various kinds of activism.

But irrational beliefs are as good a place to start as any. Here is Ellis’s list of our major irrational ideas, quoted from Jacobs, Masson, & Harvill’s Group Counseling: Strategies and Skills (pp. 285-6). Keep in mind that these don’t usually exist as overt beliefs–you might have to dig to find them in yourself, running you.

Which few are your main irrational ideas?

1) It is a dire necessity for an adult human being to be loved or approved by virtually every other person in one’s life.

2) One should be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving in all possible respects if one is to consider oneself worthwhile.

3) Certain people are bad, wicked, and villainous and they should be severely blamed or punished for their villainy.

4) It is awful and catastrophic when things are not the way one would very much like them to be.

5) Human unhappiness is externally caused and people have little or no ability to control their sorrows and disturbances.

6) If something is or may be dangerous or fearsome, one should be terribly concerned about it and should keep dwelling on the possibility of its occurring.

7) It is easier to avoid than face certain life difficulties and self-responsibilities.

8) One should be dependent on others and needs someone stronger than oneself on whom to rely.

9) One’s past history is an all-important determiner of one’s present behavior and because something once strongly affected one’s life, it should indefinitely have an effect.

10) There is invariably a right, precise, and perfect solution to human problems and it is catastrophic if this perfect solution is not found.

11) One should become quite upset over other people’s problems and disturbances.

12) The world should be fair and just and if it is not, it is awful and I can’t stand it.

13) One should be comfortable and without pain at all times.

14) One may be going crazy because one is experiencing some anxious feelings.

15) One can achieve maximum human happiness by inertia and inaction or by passively and uncommittedly enjoying oneself.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, May 17, 2010.]