Are you rational or rationalizing?

What is it that you want? That’s easy to answer because we all want the same thing: happiness. Since that’s the case, anything we willingly do that robs us of what we want (happiness) is stupid. ‘Irrational’ is just a polite term for ‘stupid.’ How often do we act against our own best interests? How often do we do stupid things? Part of being human is to accept that we are less than perfect and bound to make mistakes. However, whether we experience more happiness than misery, or vice-versa, depends on how we behave after making mistakes.

Whenever we do something stupid, such as arrive late at the office every day, we have a choice. We can admit our error, analyze what we are doing wrong, and correct our behavior. Or we can rationalize. That is, instead of taking responsibility, we may blame others, claim that it is not our fault, or insist that our actions were justified. Whether we are happy or miserable, then, depends on whether we live rational lives or lives of rationalizing.

One proponent of rational living is Dr. Albert Ellis, who originated Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy in 1955. Building on the small amount of research in cognitive-behavior therapy that existed at that time, he developed a school of psychotherapy that continues to have a profound effect on contemporary thought. For example, Dr. Aaron T. Beck, who is credited with establishing the now popular Cognitive Therapy, built on the work of Dr. Ellis. Today, the main spokesman for Cognitive Therapy is Dr. David D. Burns (author of “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” and “The Feeling Good Handbook”).

Dr. Ellis’ landmark book, “A Guide to Rational Living” was introduced in 1961. A brilliant writer, Dr. Ellis sprinkled his book with wit and wrote it for non-professionals in clear, everyday language. The latest version of his book is entitled “a new guide to RATIONAL LIVING” and is available at libraries and

The theory and practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) can be abbreviated as ABCDE. ‘A’ represents an internal or external ACTIVATING EVENT that triggers a thought and emotional feeling. ‘B’ stands for our BELIEF (attitudes, opinions, and expectations) that color, influence, and shape our thoughts. ‘C’ refers to the emotional and behavioral CONSEQUENCES of our belief about ‘A.’ ‘D’ represents DISPUTE, the act of challenging our thoughts when they are irrational (distorted). ‘E’ is the positive EFFECT that results from challenging our irrational thoughts, for when we change our thoughts, we change our feelings.

Our thoughts and feelings are linked, so that negative thoughts go with negative feelings and positive thoughts are accompanied by positive feelings. Our feelings are important, for they are how we experience life. I may have happy thoughts, but happiness is about FEELING happy. That’s enough of an introduction; let’s move on to an example: (Click here for diagram)

My son returns from work or school and goes to his room without saying anything.

This is ‘A,’ the ACTIVATING event. Listed below are five thoughts I may have, depending on my BELIEFS. Next to the thoughts are emotions that are linked to them.

1. “After all I’ve done for him, he doesn’t have the common courtesy to say hello.” Feeling angry.
2. “Something must have upset him.” Feeling concerned about his welfare.
3. “He must be angry with me.” Feeling worried.
4. “He must be upset because this morning I told him he was late for work again.” Feeling hurt.
5. “He must be lost in thought.” Feeling compassionate and understanding — no loss of happiness.

In thought #1, I believe my son is rude and I feel angry, the CONSEQUENCE of which may be an argument with him. But what if he was innocent? The happiness of two people are jeopardized by my irrational thought (distorted thinking). On the other hand, what if I DISPUTED the thought before flying off the handle? As soon as I felt the anger, I could have paused and asked myself some questions such as, “Am I jumping to conclusions? Can there be an alternative explanation for his silence? Am I unfairly judging him? Since I am his father and not a child, why don’t I take the initiative by greeting him and starting a conversation to learn why he was so quiet?”

Can you see the powerful EFFECT of changing my thought? Doesn’t it also change my behavior and its CONSEQUENCE? The point to remember is that it is not the ACTIVATING EVENT that determines our actions or behavior, but our interpretation of that event. You can practice the ABCDE steps with the other four example thoughts. Once you’re comfortable doing so, practice with your own thoughts and watch you change your life!

Get into the habit of becoming aware of your feelings before you act. Ask yourself if the feeling you’re experiencing reinforces your happiness or is a thief of happiness. If it is the latter, explore the feeling to find the thought that is creating it. Then DISPUTE the thought and change it to one that is aligned with your best interest. You will also find it helpful to study critical thinking and what Cognitive Therapy refers to as ‘distorted thinking.’ Once you become familiar with the patterns of distorted (irrational) thinking, you will find it easier to detect your own negative thoughts and correct them. I will discuss typical patterns of distorted thinking in a separate article.

Positive thinking is sometimes misunderstood; it is not meant to be inane or unrealistically optimistic, but a method of changing the thoughts that lead to negative consequences or unhappiness. Positive thinking is realistic, reasonable, and rational. Also, at times it is appropriate to experience anger and other ‘negative’ emotions, for as Dr. Ellis explains:

“… it is the quality of feelings that is important. Experiencing intense irritation and displeasure when things go wrong can motivate you to change frustrating conditions. Feelings of rage, on the other hand, often land you in a smoldering stew, where you’re likely not to take any action at all, or to act in ways that are impulsive and self-defeating. A bit of anxiety or some degree of concern about facing the boss can add an edge of excitement that sharpens performance; excessive anxiety, however, can interfere with thinking and action. While REBT tries to minimize debilitating emotions, that does not mean that it’s unhealthy to experience keen feelings of sorrow or displeasure when you experience misfortune.”