Irrational beliefs


This article caught my attention a while back. It is called ‘The Academic Rational Beliefs Scale: Development, Validation and Implications for College Counsellors’ by Egan, Canale, del Rosario & White. 

In this post I had intended to review the article and talk about how the scale could be used by you (the student) to examine your own beliefs about being at university. 

Ultimately however the article was a bit of a disappointment. To be clear, it was a very neatly and concisely written article, but unfortunately I didn’t think the scale was sophisticated enough to really tune into the beliefs that shape a student’s experience of university.  

I did think their underlying goal though was a good one. And I’d like to use the article to kickstart a conversation about irrational beliefs, particularly in relation to being a student.


Why irrational beliefs? 

I was drawn to this article because I like the idea that your experience of being a student and studying at university is shaped by the beliefs you hold about what it means to be a student and what you expect the university experience to be like. 

My interest in how beliefs shape our experience is no doubt a result of my training as a CBT therapist during my psychology degree. CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) has at its foundation the idea that the way we think and the beliefs we hold shape our experience of the world, our emotions, the decisions we make and we respond to things. Thus there is value in tuning into our beliefs and expectations. 

What we believe and expect is important but it is possible that our beliefs and expectations can be ‘irrational’ and not conform well to reality. In such cases, suffering often ensues.  

For example, if you come to uni with accurate expectations of what will happen and what will be required of you (e.g. level of effort, time allocated), then the chances are you will have a good experience overall. Your expectations/beliefs and reality are in sync. 

However, if your expectations of the university experience differ markedly from reality, you might become distressed and disconnected if you aren’t able to update your expectations (or modify your university experience). 

I experienced something similar when I was working in a more traditional academic role. My expectations of what it meant to be an academic were out of line with the reality of it and I found it hard to adjust my expectations to make it workable. I ultimately left academia as a result. 


Identifying irrational beliefs

Truth be told, the term ‘irrational beliefs’ isn’t used as much in CBT as it used to be. Telling someone their beliefs are irrational can be experienced by the person as quite confrontational and that isn’t necessarily the best way to start a therapeutic relationship. 

However for more general use, I still like the term. 

Identifying that someone holds an irrational belief is not intended to be an insult. We all hold irrational beliefs. In fact, humans are prone to making many different types of thinking errors. So many in fact that I sometimes think that finding someone thinking rationally is the rarer event 😄

It can be difficult to recognise one’s own irrational beliefs. By definition, because we ‘believe’ them, we don’t subject them to any kind of scrutiny. And this makes sense. It would be impossible to subject every one of our thoughts and ideas to rigorous examination. We’d never do anything or take action because we’d always be questioning our analysis of a situation. 

But some of our beliefs and expectations are worth examining more closely. Particularly those that might be causing us distress or hampering our efforts to adapt to the situations we find ourselves in.

So how do we find these irrational beliefs?


Pay attention to your thinking during episodes of high negative emotionality

Irrational beliefs and expectations often show up during times of significant emotional distress. Sometimes they are the cause of the distress, sometimes they amplify and maintain it. 

They are typically found in the story that we tell ourselves during that distress. For example, say you get an assignment back and you got a poor grade. You might tell yourself that “i’m stupid” or that “the lecturer is an idiot” or “this topic sucks” or “why do I even bother”. 

Driving some of these thoughts might be beliefs relating to your ability “I’m not good enough to be at uni”, the role of lecturers “whether I get good grades is dependent on the quality of the lecturers”, how fun uni should be “I only want to study topics I enjoy” and the role of effort “if I try hard, I should get good grades”.  

What does the story you are telling yourself say about the beliefs you might hold about the situation you are in, the people you are dealing with and who you are as a person?:


Look for absolutist or dogmatic language

Irrational beliefs often present themselves using dogmatic and absolutist language – should, must, right, wrong, everyone, everything, always, constantly, never, good, evil, intolerable, unacceptable, can’t handle  

They’re typically gross oversimplifications of reality, definitive statements that place you, others or the situation you’re in at one end of a spectrum and that don’t consider the full context of the situation


They should give me a good grade

I must get a HD for every assignment

I’m totally right to be angry about this

They shouldn’t have asked that question

I’m always being given bad grades

I should make it to every lecture

I can never hand in a bad assignment

The lecturers know nothing


Absolutist irrational beliefs are often attached to a sense of righteousness and indignation. They allow us to try and escape the reality of a situation by making claim that it ‘should’ be different. This might help protect our ego in the short-term, but in the long-term this failure to adequately capture reality in your beliefs means you’ll keep bumping up against similar problems. 


Look for ways to construct a more nuanced and detailed belief

The antidote to many irrational beliefs is to add nuance and detail to them. 

“They should give me a good grade” would become “if I do good work and answer the question, then it is fair for me to get a good grade. I can challenge a grade if I think it is unfair but I’ll need to provide evidence in doing so.”

You can see that this is quite a shift, and in the throes of anger and sense of injustice about a grade we’ve received, it might be hard to get our brains to work in such a way. 

Thus the work of challenging or upgrading our beliefs often happens in the periods of calm and reflection after a distressing event. It is why I suggest students take a day or two to calm down after a setback, before re-assessing the reality of the situation and their options. 

The work of updating or challenging our beliefs often happens in conversations with others. Close friends, a counsellor – someone we trust to give us honest feedback about whether we are viewing a situation accurately. It is one of the powerful contributions of connection with others. We have the chance to check our perspective on reality with other people. 


An example from my own life

I’ll use an example from my own life to illustrate that we can all fall prey to irrational beliefs. 

I had a friendship that came to an end. It caused a lot of hurt. 

Every time I thought about the friendship I would be flooded with memories of how that person hurt me. 

It became clear over time that I held some strong beliefs about that person:


They hated me

They were evil

They were intentionally trying to be nasty to me

They should have treated me differently


These blunt statements fueled my anger and resentment about the situation. 

But they were irrational. These beliefs were gross misrepresentations of the situation. Yes the person had treated me badly, but I wasn’t blameless either. Also there were many other factors driving their behaviour, beyond a dislike of me. 

And my insistence that they ‘should’ act in a certain way kept me from having to accept that they weren’t going to treat me that way. My insistence that the world be different to what it was kept traumatising me over and over again. I couldn’t grieve, because I was holding onto these irrational beliefs


I understand the need to want to understand the world in black and white terms

Look it totally makes sense that we want to make the world and others and ourselves conform to tight predictable standards. The world is an oft confusing and challenging place to navigate. 

People who know me describe me as being quite ‘black and white’ at times. But in failing to accept nuance and grey area and exceptions to rules, we deny ourselves the salvation of being able to let go of absolutes and dogmatic beliefs and embrace the world, others and ourselves as we actually are, not as we ‘should’ be

I’m not suggesting that all beliefs that contain absolutist statements are wrong. Some things do exist on the ends of a spectrum (don’t walk out in traffic, don’t jump out of a plane without a parachute), but we often apply absolutist or extreme language to situations that are far more nuanced. 

So the process of checking in, listening to the story you are telling yourself, looking for extreme words and forcing yourself to entertain alternative explanations is part of the process of tackling irrational thinking. 

It isn’t necessarily therapeutic in the short-term, but as your views of a situation start to align better with the reality of the situation, your distress will decrease and you’ll better adapt to similar situations in the future. 


I also understand the embarrassment that goes with discovering faults and errors in your own thinking

The other thing I want to say is that I also know the embarrassment that comes with realising one has been operating from an incorrect or oversimplified or unsophisticated perspective. 

It might even be worse than embarrassment. We might feel ashamed of how we’ve been thinking about a situation. 

Culturally, we’re encouraged to ‘stick to our guns’ which can mean stubbornly holding onto particular beliefs, even though we know they are causing us harm. We don’t want to appear foolish by backing down or changing our minds.   

But you are far better in the long-term to have some short-lived embarrassment in changing your viewpoint in order to gain a more accurate representation of the world. Otherwise, you’ll keep finding yourself in similar situations and reacting the same way. 

It is OK to accept that sometimes you will be irrational. 


More like this?

If you liked this post, let me know, we can dig into other irrational beliefs in future posts. 

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Psychological Tools

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