In college, I was a psychology major. I didn’t do anything directly with this education, although it provided a strong foundation for my financial philosophy while I was writing about personal finance. Over the past two years, however, I’ve begun to read (and re-read) certain popular psychological manuals from the past fifty years. Though pop psychology gets a bum rap, there’s plenty of wisdom to be had from these books.
For instance, I recently stumbled upon some ideas from A Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis and Robert Harper. According to the authors, therapists hear certain irrational beliefs and attitudes repeatedly from their clients. Among the most common are these:
- I must be loved by everyone or I am not lovable. I myself have fallen into this trap. I used to want to please everyone. If anyone disliked me, I felt unworthy. But nobody can please everybody, and it’s a fool’s game to try.
- I must do everything well or I am not competent. I know many people who fall into this trap. From childhood, we’re taught to equate success with self-worth. As adults, many people become afraid to try new things because they don’t want to fail. Or they find ways to only do the things at which they know they’ll succeed. You can’t be good at everything, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
- I must condemn others if they don’t treat me well. (And the inverse: If I don’t treat people well, I’m a bad person.) People make mistakes. This doesn’t make them bad people. It’s how we respond to our mistakes that define who we are.
- I must damn life if things don’t go my way. In his book Flow, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi writes: “The primary reason it is so difficult to achieve happiness centers on the fact that, contrary to the myths mankind has developed to reassure itself, the universe was not created to answer our needs.” Just because you experience misfortune doesn’t mean you should give up or get angry.
- I have no control over my feelings and behaviors; my emotions are controlled by the people and events around me. You are the boss of you. You choose more or less the kinds of things that happen to you. What’s more, you’re totally in control of how you respond to life.
- Because something is fearful or risky, I must be constantly concerned about it. I have a friend who is reluctant to attend crowded events because something bad might happen. It’s true, she might get stabbed or her purse might be stolen. Or worse. But the odds of these things occurring are very slim. Should she really sacrifice her life because something bad might happen?
- I must avoid responsibility and difficulty in order to be comfortable and content; I can achieve happiness through passive inaction. In reality, inertia makes you fat and unhappy. You’re more likely to achieve wealth and happiness by pursuing purpose, by taking on meaningful challenges.
- I must depend on others because I cannot run my life alone. Again, you are the boss of you. Nobody cares more about you than yourself. You can — and should — take charge of your own health and happiness.
- I am controlled by my past; anything that once affected me must continue to affect me. My mother is a slave to this irrational belief. Even at age 65, she allows her self-worth to be defined by things her mother said fifty years ago. The past is the past. It only has power if you allow it to.
- I must be affected by other people’s problems. You know those folks who seem to experience constant drama in their lives? From my experience, most of this drama comes because they allow other people’s problems to become their own.
- There’s a right way to do things; if things aren’t done correctly, I must suffer. I know a couple of people who hold this irrational belief on a personal level, believing others are stupid for not doing things the way they would. But many more people suffer from this at a political level, becoming upset because others are not as conservative (or liberal) as they are.
As Ellis and Harper say, these are irrational beliefs. When you fall into these traps, your life becomes less than it could be. In order to be the best person you can be, you should actively work to shake off these modes of thought. And be honest about it. Look at the things that bother you about life. What is causing you the most trouble right now? Could it be the result of one of these irrational thought processes?
We’ll discuss many of these irrational beliefs (and how to overcome them) in the months ahead as we explore how to be happy and how to forge a life filled with freedom.