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Irrational Beliefs and the Role of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

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Hi! I'm a public health graduate with an interest in mental health.


What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

Do you suffer from low self–esteem, anxious or depressed? Dealing with life’s problems can sometimes make you feel this way. But, you can change how you deal with them by changing the way you think. Irrational beliefs can negatively affect your attitude and behavior in certain situations. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) aims to turn irrational beliefs into more helpful ones. The ultimate goal is to face problems with a more positive or helpful belief system. It’s about facing them with increased self-confidence, higher self-esteem to find enjoyment or fulfillment in one’s life.

CBT is effective in managing different mental health problems related to low self-esteem and confidence, depression, anxiety, grief management, relationships, and different kinds of disorders related to panic, eating behaviors, obsession-compulsion, post traumatic stress and sleep.

What are the Root Causes of Irrational Beliefs?

Your belief systems are products of your childhood or learning experiences, influenced by your parents, family, community or society in general.

1. Childhood Experiences

As a kid, you were not allowed to tell your opinion so you never tried to speak up. The thought of voicing out immediately leads into this faulty thinking of rejection. You thought your opinion won’t matter. Some develop a lower self-esteem because of this upbringing. A better way to cope with this is to think that there are people out there who are safe to talk to. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all people are not interested to listen. The all or nothing kind of thinking sabotages your belief in yourself. You might end up not giving it a try. There are people who will listen and some who won’t.

2. Parents’ Ways of Thinking

Some parents are great worrier. When you were younger, you would see them panic immediately when you are sick. You’d hear them extremely anxious if they see you vomiting. They will immediately think that you might die of dehydration or worse suffer from a terminal disease. As you grow up, this just makes you also panic when you experience such a symptom. It clouds your ability to think clearly even if it was just due to motion sickness.

They might also be extremely cautious that you might be hit by an accident. If they hear a story of mass shooting during a party, they worry that attending parties is already unsafe. They will tell you not to attend any parties anymore. You become limited because of the limits your parents’ impose on you.

3. Society’s Expectations

Many parents expect their children to be doctors, lawyers or engineer. Out of a need to please them, you take one of those courses even if you don’t want them. This leaves you with no alternative. What if your passion lies in the arts, music or design? The expectation of society can make you stick in a pre-designed career path. You might never try to pursue your passion and leave you feeling stuck.

Here are five cognitive distortions that sabotage your ability to cope with stresses in life:

1. Negative Evaluation of Self

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You can have the tendency to expect a negative outcome, and when that happens (self-fulfilling prophecy), you tend to judge yourself harshly and fail to look at what could possibly go right. For example, you were chosen to present a project to a big audience. You have a fear of public speaking so you expect that you will make a mistake. During the presentation, out of nervousness, you stuttered. So you are now convinced that you are not really good in public speaking (self-fulfilling prophecy). After the presentation, you overly criticized yourself for that split second of stuttering. You failed to see the applause and appreciation of the audience for you.

2. Negative Evaluation of Others

You judge others on how they should act based on your standards. When they do not meet your standards, you see them being incompetent. On the other hand, you can have a lower expectation of yourself but expect others to be better – to always be perfect. So, you blame or criticize them for their incompetence. You can also have a negative generalization of people's attitude. For instance, if you see someone shouting at someone for cutting in line, you’d say that “There are really no soft-spoken people nowadays.”

3. Negative Evaluation of Situations

You can view the rainy weather as gloomy but some find happiness from it. You tend to prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario and imagine all the negative things that might happen. For example, if you are going for a job interview, you begin to evaluate the possible work as similar to the bad work experience you had before. You have doubts of going to the interview. By overthinking, you miss out on the potential on being excited for the job interview. What if it turns out that it's a better work environment? Then, you just wasted so much time thinking that it might not be a good job for you.

4. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing events is blowing things out of proportion. For example, you saw your boss upset. You thought it was about the report that you made. You start to think that you are going to be fired. It could also be magnifying things as if it’s a life and death situation. You felt a big bump on your forehead. You start to think you might have a malignant type of tumor. Well, you can go ahead to your doctor and see if it's a benign cyst or simply a cystic pimple.

5. Shoulds

Shoulds are demands. You expect so much from yourself and others. For example, you do not like to displease anyone. You strongly feel bad if you hurt the feelings of others. You demand from yourself to be kind even if the other person is already disrespecting you. You feel uncomfortable at the thought of making others be angry at you. You become a victim of your own expectation because you can’t express what you truly feel.

Another example is when you demand others to never be late. You have so much expectation that when someone comes in late, you become irritated. You feel that the person is not respecting your time. They might have been late because of an unforeseen event like an accident on the road. You can desire that others come on time but you must also give a leeway in case it doesn’t happen.

These negative thinking patterns can be transformed into a more positive healthy ones using CBT. It's best to consult a therapist or psychologist to guide you in applying CBT in your daily life or when some situations already overwhelm you.


Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on November 27, 2019:

Good article to understand the basics of CBT. Thanks.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 26, 2019:

Cool and so informative. Thank you.

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