Irrational Beliefs and What to Do About Them

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 14, Issue No. 10a
February 1, 2016

By Dan Coughlin


In 1961 Albert Ellis and Robert Harper wrote a book called A Guide to Rational Living. It is certainly one of the most powerful books I’ve read. Their main point was that our irrational beliefs can generate sustained negative emotions (anxiety, fear, rage, pessimism, hopelessness, and helplessness), and we need to consciously dismantle those irrational beliefs in order to move on from those emotions.

Here’s an example of an irrational belief I used to have:

I believed people would do what I expected them to do.

Here are four examples of how this irrational belief impacted my emotions.

I was asked to serve a three-year term on two different not-for-profit boards. In both cases, I expected that the board meetings would consist of very collaborative discussions because all the board members were volunteers and they were all asked to be on the board because of what they brought to the table in terms of their knowledge and experience. In reality, on both boards a few people made all the decisions. There was virtually no real collaboration at all in all those years. I became extremely frustrated because people didn’t do what I expected them to do.

I expected that my children would have the same passions that I had. I became frustrated with them when they didn’t have the same passions that I had. The things I loved to do, they didn’t love to do.

When my children put on what I thought was a really strong performance in something, I expected that certain people would compliment them. I became frustrated when they would criticize them instead.

When I give a workshop, I talk for about five minutes and then I create an interactive exercise for the audience to do something. I used to expect that people would listen while I talked for five minutes. I became extremely frustrated when some people would talk out loud while I was teaching some idea.

The Problem Was With My Belief

 It finally dawned on me that the problem wasn’t with other people. The problem was with me. I was operating under an irrational belief. People don’t do what I expect them to do. They do whatever they want to do or feel they need to do. They’re humans. They have freedom of choice. As soon as I realized that, I stopped being frustrated with them. They were just being themselves.

How to Dismantle an Irrational Belief

First, whenever you feel trapped in a negative emotion over a long period of time, know that you might be able to trace that emotion back to an irrational belief. Second, after you identify that irrational belief, begin to examine the belief in order to see that your belief doesn’t make sense at all.

Ten Irrational Beliefs from A Guide to Rational Living

Here are ten irrational beliefs that Albert Ellis and Robert Harper explain in their book, A Guide to Rational Living with a brief comment from me after each one:

Irrational Belief No. 1: the idea that you must – yes, must – have love or approval from all the significant people in your life.

DC: If those people HAVE to love you, does that really constitute real love?

Irrational Belief No. 2: the idea that you absolutely must be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving. Or a saner but still foolish variation: The idea that you at least must be competent or talented in some important areas.

DC: Why must you be talented in some important area? Why would that ever be an absolute given?

Irrational Belief No. 3: The idea that people absolutely must not act obnoxiously and unfairly, and that when they do, you should blame and damn them, and see them as bad, wicked, or rotten individuals.

DC: People can act however they want to act. That’s what makes them people.

Irrational Belief No. 4: The idea that you have to see things as being awful, terrible, horrible, and catastrophic when you are seriously frustrated or treated unfairly.

DC: If someone cuts in front of you while you’re driving, you should be frustrated. Turning that frustration into a sustained feeling for the next month that life is horrible is completely irrational. People can be rude drivers. It happens. Move on.

Irrational Belief No. 5: The idea you must be miserable when you have pressures and difficult experiences; and that you have little ability to control, and cannot change, your disturbed feelings.

DC: Pressure comes with being alive. Difficult experiences happen to everyone. We can always choose how we perceive a situation. Think to yourself: I’m alive and with that sometimes come great difficulties. It’s part of the game.

Irrational Belief No. 6: The idea that if something is dangerous or fearsome, you must obsess about it and frantically try to escape from it.

DC: That’s like trying to run away from the world every day because there are dangerous things in the world somewhere all the time.

Irrational Belief No. 7: The idea that you can easily avoid facing many difficulties and self-responsibilities and still lead a highly fulfilling existence.

DC: That’s like trying to stop living while you’re still living. If you want fulfillment, you have to fill your life full of purpose, which includes difficulties and responsibilities.

Irrational Belief No. 8: The idea that your past remains all-important and that because something once strongly influenced your life, it has to keep determining your feelings and behaviors today.

DC: That’s like turning over your emotions today to a rude teacher you had in fourth grade. Let it go and move on with your life.

Irrational Belief No. 9: The idea that people and things absolutely must be better than they are and that it is awful and terrible if you cannot change life’s grim facts to suit you.

DC: This one reminds me of my irrational belief that people should do what I expect them to do. The reality is we can’t change other people. Only they can change themselves.

Irrational Belief No. 10: The idea that you can achieve maximum human happiness by inertia and inaction or by passively and uncommittedly “enjoying yourself.”

DC: How can you enjoy a game when you refuse to play it?


When you find yourself stuck in a negative emotion, know that there is an irrational belief lurking somewhere in your brain. Go find it, and take it on directly. Wrestle it to the ground. Argue with it until it no longer makes sense. And then move on with your life and get back to the business of making a significant difference with your life.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

Back to Newsletter Page