This is the second article in my continuing series on negative and irrational thinking. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to quickly identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive and realistic ones? If you can master this technique, you will be much happier and more peaceful.
The best tool for identifying and replacing cognitive distortions is called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, or “REBT” for short. It was developed by Robert Ellis in the 1950’s.
The most effective way for me to help you both understand and be able to actually use REBT is through the use of an example. I have chosen one from my experience that I hope will resonate with you. It involves a pattern of negative thinking I succumbed to that is a bit more complicated than the usual fleeting negative thoughts that pop into our heads. This more complex example makes it a good choice for illustrating the breadth of usefulness and the power of the REBT process.
A couple of years ago I was in a period in my life in which I was experiencing a lot of anxiety. It was at this time that I received an invitation to a college reunion. The reunion was scheduled to last three days and be hosted by one of my college buddies at his house in another city.
For whatever reason, I had not kept in touch with any of my college friends after graduation. It had been almost 30 years since I had seen or talked to any of them. I became quite nervous about the reunion and wasn’t sure if I should agree to attend. Since I was feeling anxious in general, the whole idea of being out of town with people I hadn’t seen for decades was daunting. For several days, the fearful thought of the reunion would often pop into my mind, and when I tried to push it away it only got stronger and resurfaced more frequently. I was having a great deal of difficulty deciding what to do, and I was suffering.
This is when my therapist acquainted me with REBT. She said it would help me deal with and resolve this issue. The particular version of REBT I used then and continue to use has six steps. Here is how I utilized this highly effective tool to overcome the fear I was experiencing over my college reunion:
- Identify the situation and irrational beliefs: Fear of reunion. They will be judging me. I will be very nervous around these people I haven’t seen for so long. I’m “out of shape” physically, which makes me feel self-conscious. Three days is a long time, especially to be in someone else’s crowded house. I will be very unhappy. It is going to be a disaster.
- Self-defeating emotions: fear, self-consciousness, anxiety, doubt
- Cognitive distortions (select from the ten most common types of irrational thoughts, which I will list and explain in future articles): magnification, discounting the positive, jumping to conclusions
- Replace with rational beliefs: They will have little or no interest in judging me—people are more worried about themselves. I am in excellent shape, much better than most people my age. Who really cares what they think of me anyway? I like myself and am content with who I am. It will be interesting to see these old and good friends and catch up on things. I don’t care if I get a little nervous; it is normal in a situation like this. They will also be somewhat nervous. This will be fun. I’m going to go!
- Rational emotions: a little nervous (normal and expected), excited, confident, secure
- Expected positive outcome: an enjoyable couple of days seeing my college friends and reminiscing.
Well, to make a long story a bit shorter, after I used REBT to expose and replace my irrational fears, I agreed to the invitation, was very calm in the weeks leading up to the reunion, and really enjoyed the couple of days I spent with my great college friends. It was a huge win all the way around. I now stay touch with many of them, and we subsequently had another reunion which I also attended and thoroughly enjoyed.
I have since used REBT countless times to great success. It is now so ingrained in my thinking that I don’t even need to write down the steps. I can quickly and easily spot and dismiss negative and irrational thoughts as soon as they pop into my head, before they can cause any suffering, or worse yet, begin to grow into something larger, scarier, and more debilitating. I just think to myself “That thought isn’t right!” and then either “I’m going to ignore it” or “Here is a more accurate thought or assessment of the situation I will adopt.” Then I move on with my life, peacefully.
Once I realized that negative and irrational thinking was the source of so much of my suffering and could easily be dismissed, I made a pledge to myself: “I will no longer let these irrational thoughts and fears lurk in the dark corners of my mind, causing me to be continually unhappy. When brought out and exposed to the light of day, I see them for what they really are: nothing. They cannot withstand the scrutiny of realistic and rational thinking. I can and will set myself free of them!”
My next post in this series will cover two of the ten most common types of negative and irrational thought patterns. Once you learn more about these, I predict you will soon begin to identify some of them in your own thought processes, allowing you to quickly identify and replace them with more positive and realistic thinking. Here’s to good health and happiness!