I used to be an “obsessive” thinker. As a result, I used to suffer from irrational beliefs.
Since I can remember, I’ve had a distorted and somewhat negative picture of myself and other people in my life. I used to be furious with myself, and my behaviors were dysfunctional. I had to hit rock bottom to realize that my own negative and “nonsense” thoughts devoured me.
I criticized myself for almost everything, and I sentenced myself to a lifetime of misery.
Back then — drinking was my only escape and my friend, confidant, and inspiration. The day when I stopped drinking was one of the scariest days of my life, as I had to face myself in the mirror sober, for who I truly am — a loser. That’s really what I believed. Nothing was ever good enough for me. I could just never ever please myself enough, despite these facts:
- conversational fluency in five (5) foreign languages.
- having earned two (2) university degrees;
- having a high-paying job.
- publishing short stories; and
- teaching at universities.
Unbelievably, I wasn’t critical of other people around me. My irrational and toxic beliefs, aimed at targeting myself, included the following.
- I am not worthy of being loved.
- I don’t deserve to be happy.
- I am unsuccessful.
- I am fat.
- I don’t deserve friends or family.
And many more…
These beliefs kept me from achieving happiness. Years went by, and I was miserable from feeling miserable, so I changed my thoughts. I used the technique known as REBT.
REBT (Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) helped me to see that what happens around me doesn’t have to immediately affect the way I think, and that these events do not cause my negative emotions. If I change my feelings about specific events, my feelings will differ. Easy, right?
Not for someone impulsive, often irrational, and temperamental. I am fueled by my emotions! There is no place for rational/logical thinking.
That’s not who I am!
The issue was that if I let my emotions control me, then I would be back in the same miserable place where I started. Perhaps I should give this “rational” approach a try?
So I did.
A few weeks after I began practicing REBT, my dog died. My immediate thoughts were:
- He died because of me.
- I should not have fed him with the food I did. Perhaps that caused his heart to collapse.
- I didn’t agree to the surgery; I thought maybe the stroke he suffered would somehow go away.
- It is all my fault — I killed him. I am the worst owner ever, and I never deserved him. I will never ever have a dog again.
- Where is my bottle of vodka?!
Thought patterns such as these are obviously very harmful, damaging, and lead to no good. Look, I didn’t instantly erase these thoughts, but I overcame them by asking questions as if I were writing a monologue, based in logic and rationality, such as:
- Wasn’t my dog 12 years old, and didn’t the vet say his time is approaching soon?
- Didn’t I feed my dog every day with the same food as the night he died?
- Didn’t I wait 45 minutes for his state to improve when at the vet, and it kept deteriorating before I took him in for surgery — which was already said to be unlikely successful because of his old age?
- How did I kill him by trying to save him?
- What if I just wish to sabotage myself and drink excessively, and I am just currently looking for a reason to be miserable and destroy my recovery?
I realized that my dog’s death is not my fault, nor are my obsessive negative thoughts. I have learned, however, that it is up to me how I will decipher them and decide how – and if – to act on these thoughts. There are four types of toxic irrational beliefs:
“Must,” “Have To,” “Need,” and “Absolutely Should.”
Examples: “I must be successful, or I will feel like a failure,” or “I must be in a relationship, or I will end up alone.”
These are the thoughts that fuel mindless jobs and toxic relationships. There is ABSOLUTELY nothing that you must have or need to do. Don’t demand things or place conditions on yourself. You are setting yourself up for failure.
“Worst,” “Catastrophic,” and “Tragic.”
Examples: “I fail this test, it will be the worst day of my life,” or “my partner left me, it’s a tragedy!”.
These thoughts keep you in limbo and in a state of fear. You are exaggerating and stopping yourself from moving on. Relationships end — it’s okay, it’s not a tragedy. Failing tests and losing jobs and money is not the worst thing to happen to you. Grow up!
“If” and “Then.”
Example: “If this person hurts me, I could not handle it!“
When you believe external sources will cause you unbearable struggle, you unconsciously give up on yourself. Life isn’t easy. People may mock you, laugh at you, or hurt you — all of these adversities are vital to building resilience.
Building higher tolerance is vital for your survival.
“I am a failure” or “I am not good enough.”
Example: “If I lose this job, then I am undesirable.“
Stop conditioning yourself and life. You are a human being — you aren’t perfect; you make mistakes, make amends; lose, and gain every day.
Today, you can be the best version of yourself — if you choose to be.
Isn’t it empowering when you realize that you have the choice to respond differently to a situation? Choose to give yourself a break, and tell yourself “Today, I am good enough.”
REBT is a fantastic technique that helped me improve my relationship with myself: it helped me learn to accept myself the way I am, with all of my good and not-so-good traits. I often think of going back to my self-destructive behaviors, but then instead of judging myself, I practice acceptance.
I will always have that crazy first thought pop in my head which will point fingers at me and push me towards alcohol, but now I also have that other voice that says,
“Wait, before you cause trouble, why don’t we discuss this? What evidence makes you think that your thoughts and decisions make sense?”
Disputing and overcoming your own irrational beliefs demands that you search and provide evidence. To completely convince yourself that your belief is irrational, your research should include events that reflect your opinion, but also things that detract from your opinion. For example, you can sense something terrible but not feel something tragic.
Many people – I included – cling to concepts and behaviors that can be described as toxic. There is a simple and effective exercise to overcome this dependency. To do the exercise, get a sheet of paper and list your toxic irrational beliefs. Be honest with yourself, and voila — you are suddenly practicing rationality.