Albert Ellis, an important contributor to the ideas behind cognitive-behavioral therapy and the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), discovered that people’s beliefs strongly affected their emotional functioning. In particular certain irrational beliefs made people feel depressed, anxious or angry and led to self-defeating behaviors.

When Ellis presented his theory in the mid-1950’s (Ellis, 1962), the role of cognition in emotional disturbance had not been fully addressed by the field of psychology. Ellis developed REB theory and therapy in reaction to what he saw as the inadequate techniques of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. He attributed the deficiency in the two camps’ techniques to their conceptualization of personality and emotional disturbance. Ellis felt that by ignoring the role thinking played in emotional disturbance both psychoanalytic and behavior theory failed to explain how humans originally became disturbed and how they remained disturbed.

The word “belief” means a conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something. So a belief is a thought with an emotional component (conviction) and a factual component (truth, actuality or validity). Beliefs can be either positive or negative. Having a negative belief is not necessarily a bad thing; however, when one believes in something that is false, a negative belief tends to become what Ellis called an “irrational” belief. Irrational beliefs are not friendly to happiness and contentment and are definitely unhelpful for getting one’s basic desires for love and approval, comfort and achievement or success met.

Core Irrational Beliefs

  • Demandingness or Absolutism – inflexible, dogmatic, extreme beliefs signaled by words such as should, must, have to, and need to (e.g., “I should not be in pain” or “I should be able to do what I used to do”). This is not the kind of should as in “I should go to the store and get some milk,” but rather a should with a capital “S”, a demand.
  • Demand for Love and Approval from nearly everyone one finds important
  • Demand for Success or Achievement in things one finds important
  • Demand for Comfort or nearly no frustration or discomfort.

When someone holds one of these irrational beliefs, they also tend to hold one or a combination of the following irrational beliefs.

  • Awfulization – refers to 100% disasterizing beliefs signaled by such words as disaster, horrible or awful, and catastrophe.
  • Low Frustration Tolerance – beliefs signaled by words such as intolerable, can’t stand it, and too hard.
  • Global-Rating – beliefs in which you condemn or blame your entire selfhood or someone else’s basic value in some important way. Global rating is signaled by such words as loser, worthless, useless, idiot, stupid.

ABCDE Model of Emotional Disturbance

Albert Ellis thought people developed irrational beliefs in response to preferential goals being blocked. He set this up in an ABCDE model (Ellis and Dryden, 1987). “A” stands for Activating Event or Adversity. This is any event. It is just a fact. “B” refers to one’s Irrational Belief about the event at “A.” That belief then leads to “C,” the emotional and behavioral Consequences. “D” stands for disputes or arguments against irrational beliefs. E stands for New Effect or the new, more effective emotions and behaviors that result from more reasonable thinking about the original event.

Disputing Irrational Beliefs

It is important to use vigor or energy when disputing irrational beliefs. Disputing is not just a rational or cognitive method but also an emotional method of changing irrational beliefs into rational ones.

Disputing Irrational Beliefs Continued…

Rational beliefs are flexible and are based on preferences, not extremist demands for comfort, success and approval. A belief also develops an emotional component after it is practiced repeatedly. Unfortunately, humans can rehearse untrue ideas and develop irrational beliefs. Typically, common sense tells us that an irrational belief is false, but there is little emotion connected to that common-sense thought. In other words, one can see the idea is wrong but it feels true. People tend to confuse this feeling, because it is so strong, with the truth and then tend to engage in activities that support the irrational belief. Disputing irrational beliefs involves asking oneself a few simple questions.

  1. The Empirical or Scientific Dispute. Ask “where is the proof that this belief is true?” With this question, one is looking for the scientific evidence of the irrational belief’s validity. For example, John’s irrational belief is that his love interest, Jane, should not reject him. But John is feeling very sad and rejected because Jane turned him down for a dinner date and he thinks that he cannot stand this rejection and that it is just awful! Where is the proof that his belief that Jane should not reject him is true? There isn’t any. In fact, she did reject him, therefore, the irrational belief that she should not reject him is clearly false. If John did not hold his irrational belief about Janet in the first place, he would not feel overly sad or rejected.
  2. The Functional Dispute. Ask “is my irrational belief helping me or does it make things worse for me?” In other words, does the belief work to help achieve basic goals? Is this belief helping happiness or hurting it? It was clear that John’s irrational belief made him feel worse when his belief was confronted with the facts.
  3. The Logical Dispute. Ask “is this belief logical? Does it ring true to common sense?” With this question, one is looking for ways in which the belief does not stem from preferences for love and approval, comfort and success or achievement. There may be overgeneralizing going on. Does it make sense that Janet should not reject John because he believes that she should not? Humans’ three basic goals of love and approval, comfort and success or achievement are desires. They are preferences or wants. When engaging in demanding thinking or absolutist thinking those preferences become absolutes (Ellis and Dryden, 1987).

Preferences are not laws of nature. While it is true that humans have these basic desires or preferences for their lives that does not mean that those preferences are necessarily achieved. Remember in the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson states that we have the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We do not have the inherent right to happiness but only a right to pursue it. The reason why he does not say we have the right to happiness is that happiness is not a law of nature. That we like happiness appears to be law and that we pursue happiness appears to be law of our nature. That we like love and approval, comfort and success is a fact. But because we like something or want something or prefer something does not make it a law that we must have it. We definitely suffer if we don’t have happiness or get our goals met; that is true. It is not a law that we must have it. If it were a law of nature we would simply be happy—our desires for love, comfort and success would just exist for everybody as a fact. And there would be no reason for Jefferson to state that we have the right to pursue happiness. He would have just said we have the right to happiness.

Any irrational belief stems from a core ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’, ‘need to’ statement. The illogical inferences of low frustration tolerance, awfulizing, and self or other downing (global rating) all flow from the demands for comfort, love and approval, and success or achievement. In a logical dispute the first question to ask is, “ Do my conclusions stem from my preferences or do they stem from some demand that I have made?” Let’s take a look at how making a demand can lead to false conclusions.

The statement “all dogs must have white hair” followed by the presence of what appears to be a dog with black hair leads us to incorrectly conclude that this dog-like creature with black hair is not a dog. When we say “I must have love and approval” and we don’t get it from someone we find important, we then tend to conclude that it is awful, that it is intolerable, and that maybe we are unworthy.

We can also argue against these conclusions as being illogical. If it were a fact that not getting the love we want was truly awful or intolerable we would just drop dead. We would not be able to survive. And if we conclude that we are unworthy or unlovable because we do not get someone’s love we also make a false statement. It is impossible for one’s basic worth to be based on getting the love or approval of one particular person. It is our judgment of ourselves that makes us feel bad or good. When we judge our self-worth on external events we conclude that our value as a person is dependent on getting someone’s love or approval and it clearly is not.


Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. New York: Lyle Stewart.

Ellis, A. & Dryden, W. (1987). The practice of rational emotive therapy. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Dr. Jorn is an expert in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) trained by Albert Ellis. She has specialized in treatment of chronic pain conditions since 1993. She is a lecturer and writer in pain management and REBT. She is founder of the Berkshire Institute of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.