We’ve all been told by well-meaning loved ones at some point that something we did or said was unreasonable. We often make mistakes, act out of an emotional place or get so caught up in our thinking that we make a decision we realize later is illogical.
While we all have times when we make decisions without thinking clearly, sometimes people develop irrational thought patterns. This means that rather than an occasional thought that is based on false ideas, a person will struggle to see reality as it is.
If you’re curious about the definition of irrational thinking, what it looks like and how to change it, you’ve come to the right place.
Irrational thinking definition
Irrational thinking occurs when a person’s patterns of thinking about oneself or the world are not based on objective reality. Irrational thinking, sometimes called cognitive distortions, is associated with many mental health conditions, including the following.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Eating disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Bipolar disorders
- Personality disorders, like paranoid personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder
Irrational thought patterns can be intrusive and damaging to a person’s self-esteem and mood. These thought patterns can lead to compulsive patterns, self-depreciation and even dangerous behaviors. When someone is stuck in a pattern of distorted thinking, he or she may not realize how serious these negative patterns have become.
Rational vs. irrational thinking
Most of the thoughts of the majority of people are based on reality. Having rational thought patterns means that people are able to live in harmony, share mutual general beliefs about the world (like the sun will rise each day and there will be enough food next week), feel a general sense of safety and focus on other important tasks.
Developing rational beliefs is an essential developmental stage in early adolescence. Between the ages of three and five, children can generally distinguish between reality and fiction. As we age, however, several factors influence our thinking styles, and by adulthood, we may have developed negative patterns that become entrenched as more time passes.
Irrational thinking never starts off as extreme. Slowly, thoughts become more and more severe, often resulting in individuals unaware of the intensity of this behavior. Someone who has an irrational thought pattern feels that those beliefs stem from reality.
This is why it often takes the aid of a mental health professional to extract and explain a distorted cognition that we have. While we can recognize them on our own, it’s often clearer when someone else illuminates the poor thoughts we’re battling and explain the damage they’ve done.
How to stop irrational thoughts
Check out these steps to challenge irrational thoughts, learn the difference between your own rational vs. irrational thinking and reverse the damaging patterns that have been created.
Identify rigid thinking patterns
There are many types of irrational thinking patterns. You may struggle with thinking the worst-case scenario possibility is going to happen (catastrophizing) or project an experience with one person onto all similar people (overgeneralization).
There are plenty of cognitive distortions like black-and-white thinking, personalizing, discounting the positive and more. Learning about the different types of negative thought patterns can help you understand what types of thoughts you’re struggling with and how to best remedy them.
2. Talk to someone about your cognitive distortion
When a person enters therapy, a counselor or therapist will try to aid that person in developing a more flexible and realistic perspective. This process can take time and be frustrating for clients because we often see our thoughts as our own reality.
Our version of reality is reinforced when we don’t realize that is it untrue. Until someone can help see our thoughts as false, it’s hard to understand that they are irrational and problematic. The best way to challenge irrational thoughts is to meet with a mental health professional who can guide you through the process.
When clients with rigid thought patterns enter therapy, counselors try to help them develop more flexible and realistic lenses through which to see the world. This process takes a great deal of time and conscious effort and can be frustrating to many clients. If you believe you may struggle with rigid irrational thought patterns, here are some suggestions to get you started on becoming more flexible and realistic.
3. Use real-life evidence
Your own experiences often offer the best antidote to these thinking styles. Use key moments in your career, friendships, relationships and daily life to find positive examples that contradict your negative assumptions. The more you focus on the positive outcomes of past experiences and make hopeful and realistic plans for the future, the sooner your negative thinking patterns will be erased and replaced with positive ones.
It can be very difficult to identify and challenge rigid thought patterns on your own because they are often so deeply ingrained. Working with a therapist can help you improve your ability to shed your rigid thoughts and develop more flexible ways of thinking.
If you are interested in working with a therapist to develop a healthier and more flexible way of thinking, contact The Light Program today.