On the mental health benefits of rational thinking
One of the fundamental beliefs of the cognitive school of therapy (e.g. CBT and REBT) is the assumption that emotional afflictions are a consequence of unbalanced, unrealistic thinking. While this is only one account of mental distress, and cannot therefore be considered as comprehensive, most therapists would find it uncontroversial that the amendment of our irrational, unhelpful beliefs plays a part in alleviating some of our emotional pain.
Below are some of the mental health promoting features of rational thinking and how to adopt this format more in your life:
Rational thinking is quite simply balanced thinking; its great antagonist is all-or-nothing thinking (also known as ‘either/or’ and ‘black and white’ thinking). This is for one of the following reasons: a) either/or thinking only admits extremes: you are either good or bad, right or wrong, loving or indifferent (or hateful); b) rational thinking is very different to this as it admits degrees, so it is much more moderate in its descriptions, e.g. someone can love their partner a lot but sometimes feel some annoyance or even hate towards them.
Rational thinking allows for the very likely possibility that our lives include good and bad, love and hate, success and failure and that what is important is the ratio, for example, of good to bad, love to hate, success to failure. Thinking rationally avoids extreme thinking and therefore it avoids submitting to extreme feelings caused by such thinking (i.e. all-or-nothing thinking leaves you feeling elated or dejected, fulfilled or frustrated depending on whether you satisfy without question the positive pole of the dichotomy (e.g. success without any taint of failure) and this is very hard to achieve). To think in a more balanced way, ask yourself questions that admit degrees rather than yes or no answers. For example, ask yourself ‘to what extent do I love him or her?’ rather than ‘do I love him or her?’ The former allows for the possibility that you might love your partner a lot and have the occasional row, whereas the latter might lead you to think there is something fatally wrong if you sometimes get annoyed at them or dislike them at times. Indeed, scaling - a technique used in solution focused therapy - can be a way of thinking in a more balanced way. What you do is this: if X is whatever positive quality you are asking about, make 10 the complete expression of that quality and 0 the complete absence of it, and then grade it out of 10. To return to our example, if you love your partner currently at a 7, 8 or 9 then that is pretty good; likewise, if it is unfortunately a 1 or 2 then the relationship might not seem salvageable, but at least you are not as dejected as you would be if you believed there was a complete absence of affection (not to rule out that this cannot happen of course).
Rational thinking is also realistic thinking that is grounded in some objective relationship to the ‘real’. In philosophical circles there is debate about whether truth is a correspondence with what is ‘real’ or coheres with what is ‘real’. For our purposes here, we do not need to get into technicalities, but instead note that many of the beliefs and thoughts that most disturb us usually have, to put it euphuistically, a tenuous relationship with reality. In general semantics, there is the famous saying that ‘the map is not the territory’, an admission that just because we find a viewpoint compelling does not mean that it is actually so.
Our beliefs - especially those that cause us distress - should be put to the test rather than simply believed. Here are two ways to do that: a) ask yourself what evidence there is for the belief. This question forces you to try and justify the belief and search for how much it corresponds to reality; b) another related question to ask is ‘what things might be inconsistent with what I believe?’ This question encourages you to consider counter-evidence and is good for amending distress-causing beliefs. Asking these questions leads to a truer, more adaptive viewpoint on the world, i.e. more coherent and evidence-based (notice I did not say that it leads to a true depiction of the world, as that would be to fall again into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking).
Rational thinking is also pragmatic thinking. More fully, unbalanced, irrational thinking is non-productive and idealistic in the negative sense of the term because of its all-or-nothing, unrealistic quality. Indeed, when we think in an unbalanced way, we do not allow for any possibility of change, and we are much divorced from a realistic assessment of what is going on. Consequently, it is very difficult to adopt a perspective that is predicated on accepting current circumstances and considering how to make things better (if not ideal). Yet pragmatism is an inherent feature of rational thinking, as such thinking is more in correspondence with ‘what is really going on’ and it admits relative degrees of betterment or worsening. Although rational thinking disallows for unconditional success (or for that matter unconditional failure), it does permit questions that can foster a better future. Unbalanced thinking, with its seesaw transitions from happiness to dejection, does not allow for betterment, and so there can be no pragmatic adaption of means to ends because, according to this perspective, you have, so to speak, either arrived or never set off on your journey (and strictly speaking, there is no journey).
If you find that trying to think in a more rational, balanced way is still difficult for you, please consult a counsellor who can help you tackle your unhelpful, distress-causing beliefs.
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About Alexander Fox
I am a counsellor with three private practices across the country (Harley street, London; Dundee; St. Andrews). I am trained to Masters level in pluralistic counselling, and I utilize a wide variety of different therapeutic approaches when working with clients. I also have a doctorate in English literature and my literary training informs my work.