Irrational thoughts are at the core of understanding your mental illness, according to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT’s theory is that common mental health issues like depression are caused and maintained, in large part, by our irrational thoughts running on automatic pilot within our minds. “I messed up that project, so I must be a stupid, worthless person.” “I just argued with my boyfriend and feel horrible; he’s going to leave me now.”

We do a lot of irrational thinking in our everyday life. So much so, we may not even realize the extent of it. Luckily there’s this handy article that helps you to identify irrational thoughts. After you’ve identified such thoughts, it’s time to start keeping a daily journal. Keep it with you at all times (your smartphone is a perfect way to do this) and track whenever you have an irrational thought along with what you were doing.

Once you start identifying and tracking these kinds of thoughts throughout the day, then what? What do you actually do with all of that information or data?

The Value of Answering Your Irrational Thoughts

So now that you’ve identified your irrational thoughts or irrational beliefs, what benefit is there in refuting them? Well, cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches that by refuting your irrational beliefs, you will be better able to “unblock” your emotions about your problems. It can also help you gain greater clarity about the issue, and be more productive in tackling the problem in a more productive manner. When you refute an irrational thought, it helps reduce the guilt — oftentimes unconsciously — we carry about the thought or behavior.

Refuting your irrational thoughts also helps to problem solve. It puts the thought and accompanying behavior into valuable context and perspective — is it really a life-altering issue, or is it a much smaller issue we’ve simply blown out of all proportion? By understanding context, it helps us be more authentic and realistic with ourselves. We are often our own worst critic. Worse yet, though, we often not a very fair critic to ourselves. Breaks we would gladly give to others, we rarely give to ourselves.

By answering our irrational thoughts, we become a more reasonable and fair critic of ourselves. We have value, and this process helps puts our self-worth into perspective. It allows us not only to move beyond these thoughts, but forgive ourselves for any mistakes we may have made in the process. Because, after all, we’re all just human. The sooner you learn that — and cut yourself some slack — the quicker you’ll be able to put this CBT technique into practice.

Refute Your Irrational Thoughts

Now that you have your irrational thoughts or irrational beliefs, it’s time to put them to the test. You have to test each thought’s rationality and purpose.

You can do this simply by answering the following questions about the thought or belief:

  • Is there any basis in reality to support this belief as always being true?
  • Does this thought encourage personal growth, emotional maturity, independence of thinking and action, and stable mental health?
  • Is this belief one that, if you follow, will help you overcome this or future problems in your life?
  • Is this thought one that, if you follow, will result in behavior that is self-defeating for you?
  • Does this belief protect you and your rights as a person?
  • Does this thought help you in connecting honestly and openly with others so that healthy, growth engendering interpersonal relationships result?
  • Does this belief assist you in being a creative, rational problem solver who is able to identify a series of alternatives from which you can choose your own personal priority solutions?
  • Does this thought stifle your thinking and problem solving ability to the point of immobilization?
  • When you tell others of this belief, do they support you because that is the way everyone in your family, peer group, work, church, or community thinks?
  • Is this thought an absolute — is it a black or white, yes or no, win or lose, no options in the middle type of belief?

Once you have determined that the thought is irrational, you are ready to refute this irrational belief. It’s best to do so on paper (or in a private online journal or your smartphone). Many people find it beneficial to answer these kinds of questions to help them refute the irrational thought:

  • How do I consistently feel when I think of this belief?
  • Is there anything in reality to support this thought as being true?
  • What — in reality — supports the lack of absolute truth in this belief?
  • Does the truth of this thought exist only in the way I talk, act, or feel about this problem?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen to me if I do not hold on to this belief?
  • What positive things might happen to me if I do not hold on to this thought?
  • What would be an appropriate, realistic belief I could substitute for this irrational belief?
  • How would I feel if I substituted this new thought for the irrational thought?
  • How will I grow and how will my rights and the rights of others be protected by this substitute thought?
  • What is keeping me from accepting this alternate belief?

Once you have answered these questions, it’s then time to substitute a rational thought and act on it. Simply try one out in a trial and error process until you find one that rings true for you, and feels like something you can do.

This process is something that doesn’t come naturally. We’ve spent our entire lives thinking these irrational thoughts, without interruption or challenge. Now in CBT, a therapist will be asking you to challenge them — constantly and consistently. Through constant and vigilant practice, you can learn to successfully defeat your irrational thoughts. Be patient, practice everyday, and before you know it, answering your irrational thoughts will become second nature.