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Confronting Irrational Thinking Patterns

Using emotions, contexts, and goals to challenge irrational thoughts.

Key points

  • Emotions can bias people's perception of a situation. Therefore, knowing which emotions are present can clarify whether a thought is rational.
  • Worries can drive irrational thoughts. Knowing what specific fears are present can help to evaluate the context.
  • Understanding the goals of our thoughts can allow us to appreciate whether those thoughts are based on emotion or a logical desired outcome.

We all face our own irrational thoughts from time to time — we jump to conclusions, we make a mountain out of a molehill, or we worry about things that may not happen or probably will not happen.

Most of us can manage these thoughts and prevent them from interfering with our professional and personal lives. For some people, however, irrational thinking can become a pervasive challenge that makes it impossible for one to navigate situations and problems with ease or resolve.

In the professional realm, there are countless examples of this. For example, someone may have a project due, but be dogged by a persistent certainty that the quality of the work is unsatisfactory, and that it will never be as good as it needs to be. This can lead to procrastination, worry, and escalated anxiety. Worries about competence can prompt a person to further isolate and withdraw themselves, turning their thoughts into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For many of us, irrational thoughts are infrequent, manageable, and are driven by a transient emotional fear. If we are fortunate, we can recognize that our fear-driven thoughts are illogical, and we can therefore confront them with an abundance of evidence that refutes those fears. However, for individuals who suffer from various mental illnesses, a state of fear may be persistently on, as in generalized anxiety disorder, in social situations, as in social anxiety disorder, or in losing emotional attachments to people, as in separation anxiety or complicated grief. For individuals with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, whole regions of the brain become dysfunctional, leading to the person losing awareness that their thoughts are irrational, or that their behaviors are abnormal.

As seen in people who suffer a stroke, epilepsy, or a traumatic brain injury, these individuals may wax and wane in their ability to see themselves through an objective lens (called “anosognosia”). At that point, it becomes difficult or impossible for them to deal with the problem themselves. In these situations, the support of friends, family, and perhaps a mental health professional may be the only way to evaluate and treat the underlying condition with biological interventions alongside supportive psychotherapy.

During psychotherapy, when helping patients confront irrational thinking — whether in a professional setting, like the examples above, or in their personal life — I will help them identify and clarify the predominating emotion that is driving their thoughts and draw the connection between their emotions and thoughts within an overarching context. Often, the emotions are causing an extreme bias in their understanding of context as well as driving irrational thoughts. Therefore, if the person’s thoughts are biased by strong emotions, I may ask them more about their emotions (typically fear, anger, or sadness) and how they may relate to their thoughts.

For example, someone who fears incompetence and humiliation may assume that the quality of their work is inferior. However, if the person has not been given repeated feedback of their performance deficiencies, then it is possible that the work is not inferior at all, and that these doubts are irrational and without supporting evidence. Being able to take a tough look at which thoughts are evidence-based, and which are not, is a hard skill to master.

Important, too, is the need to look at the bigger picture of any situation; context matters. I often describe it as the “zoom-in, zoom-out” approach. For example, I once worked with a patient who wanted to schedule time with me to discuss a problem that he was facing with keeping his commitments. As he kept rescheduling the appointment and postponing, it put us in a no-win situation. Eventually, I confronted him that he was replicating his behavior pattern with our appointments, imploring him to break this cycle. We had a long-overdue session that focused on his emotional need to please others, a lack of establishing his own limits or boundaries, and feelings of shame that have accumulated over time through failed commitments and follow through.

From a “zoom-in” perspective, we needed to address the issue of keeping appointments and the irrational thoughts that were getting in the way. But taking a “zoom-out” approach, we also needed to confront the larger issues of respecting time and boundaries, emotional dependency, and how they can lead to a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

We can all struggle with irrational thoughts, but when they begin to interfere with our lives and happiness, it is time to seek outside assistance. It is time to confront these thoughts, and to determine whether any evidence exists to justify them. This is a process and a journey… but it can be a rewarding one when we can take better control of our thoughts and behaviors.

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