Never Too Late for Rational Thinking

Rational Thought - Stop Letting Emotions Control Your Life

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

"The ability to think is one of the most powerful tools that we as humans possess," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "Unfortunately, thoughts can sometimes negatively impact our lives and can interfere in what we are able and not able to accomplish. So, the question is, what is normal thinking and what is not? Learning to identify irrational thinking, what causes these thoughts, and how we can overcome them is important if we are to live a healthy and meaningful life, and we can do that at any age."

"There is nothing more unproductive than being burdened with unrealistic patterns of thinking at any age, even for seniors," continued Attorney Connelly. "To be clear, we all experience irrational thoughts when under stress, but for those who live with them daily, even during periods of relative calm, they can be disheartening and, in some cases, dangerous. We should always strive for a pattern of rational thought, which allows us to draw realistic and justifiable conclusions from the data, rules, and logic that is presented to us."

"Today, we tend to rely on medications to deal with our problems when just a change of behavior could address the issue. The same with allowing irrational thoughts to guide our choices and then medicating the consequences," Attorney Connelly said. "Yes, we can use pharmaceuticals to address the anxiety and depression caused by our choices, but wouldn't it make more sense to work on changing behaviors as well? Thank goodness we have medications to help us, but that alone without addressing the root cause makes little sense. Plus, learning a new skill can be fun especially when it has a real payoff."

"Today, we tend to rely on medications to deal with our problems when just a change of behavior could address the issue. The same with allowing irrational thoughts to guide our choices and then medicating the consequences..." --- Attorney RJ Connelly III

Rational and Irrational Thoughts

Rational thinking requires many different skill sets that need to be applied in multiple situations. For example, the logic that is used when developing an estate plan at Connelly Law is different from the logic needed when building a front porch. The human brain did not evolve to always think in a logical fashion, and therefore some reasoning abilities are simply too difficult for the brain to do so we rely on emotions to make decisions which can be easier in the short term but quite costly in the long run.

"Think about a child who was terrified by a brown dog who chased her down the street and bit her," said Attorney Connelly. "Such an event can be so traumatizing that as the person grows, she will have irrational fears of brown dogs, which could then generalize to all dogs in general. Rational thought tells us that not all dogs will bite, and not all brown dogs will bite, in fact, very few dogs bite. But the woman's experience as a little girl leaves her with irrational beliefs about dogs that creates levels of anxiety that will be detrimental to her well-being. Irrational thoughts and beliefs are powerful things that can create upset in our lives." Make no mistake about it, irrational beliefs become entrenched and difficult to move on from.

"In the case of the brown dog, the A or activating event is the chase and the bite from the animal," explained Attorney Connelly. "The B or belief is that all brown dogs and maybe all dogs in general will chase and bite. The C or emotional consequence is anxiety and fear as a result of the irrational belief."

Beliefs We Live By

As with the brown dog example, we have learned things in our lives that are ingrained within our psyche. Every experience we now have is run through those filters we have put into place. As a result, we have a set of beliefs that govern our lives. Although most of these beliefs are rational and based on reality, others are irrational and self-defeating. Mostly subconscious, these beliefs determine how we react to incidents that occur in our lives. When an event triggers off a train of thought, what we consciously think depends on the general beliefs we subconsciously apply to the event.

Let us say that you hold the general belief: "To be worthwhile, I must succeed at everything I do." You happen to fail an examination, make a bad cake, or have a fight with a loved one; this event when coupled with the underlying belief, leads you to the conclusion: "I’m not worthwhile."

Underlying beliefs are general, meaning one belief can apply to many situations. If you believe, for example: "I can’t stand discomfort and pain and must avoid them at all costs," you might apply this to the dentist, to work, to relationships, and to life in general. So, you avoid anything that can create discomfort for you. But daily living and making gains in life will result in discomfort from time to time if real growth is to occur.

A Cause for Concern

As mentioned earlier, most of our beliefs serve us well. Some, however, are self-defeating and can set off a chain of events that lead to false conclusions and poor choices. Suppose you believe that “you must succeed at everything you do, or you are not worthwhile”. In that case, you may end up not applying for that job you really wanted, pursuing that relationship with someone you really love or allowing others to take advantage of you because you view yourself as “less than”.

This is a recipe for anxiety, depression, and addiction. Self-defeating (irrational) beliefs are easy to recognize if you are looking for them. Let’s look at what can happen by holding self-defeating beliefs:

  • Reality becomes distorted and events around you are often misinterpreted.

  • You will not achieve the goals and purposes you set out for yourself.

  • They create extreme emotions that end up causing distress and a “frozen state” in which you accomplish nothing and even regress.

  • You develop behaviors that harm you, others, and your quality of life.

A Stark Contrast Rational thinking presents a stark contrast to an irrational thought and belief process. When you think rationally, your outcomes could not be more different. Rational thinking is:

  • Based on reality, it sees things as they really are, keeps the good and the bad in perspective with an understanding that everything may not be the way we want it to be but that’s the reality of life.

  • A way to achieve goals and purposes.

  • A way to keep emotions in check and appropriate to the presenting situation.

  • A way to develop behaviors that lead to healthier outcomes.

Rational Thinking versus Positive Thinking

Let’s take this time to quickly distinguish between rational thinking and positive thinking. Many experiencing stresses are told to “think positive”, sounds nice but it is unproductive and even worse, can lead to unfulfilled outcomes. Positive thinking in many cases is wishful thinking, a type of "magical" thinking filled with hopes and dreams but no realistic plans to make this happen.

Rational thinking is goal oriented and realistic, with plans in place and goals that can be achieved. A positive thinker will buy a lottery ticket and hope to win so he can pay the rent while the rational thinker will find a job to achieve that goal - not just for today, but for the long term.

A Rational Life

So, does this mean that using rational thought will result in life being great from this point on and you will never be upset? Sorry, but that won't happen. Because rational thinking contends that we are human and imperfect, as a result we will all think irrationally from time to time. The goal, however, is to reduce how often this happens, how long it lasts, and how intense these beliefs are that lead us to our poor choices and outcomes. Reducing these events is the result of developing three basic insights:

  1. We don’t get upset, we upset ourselves by being inflexible in the beliefs that we hold.

  2. No matter when and how we start upsetting ourselves, we continue to feel upset because we refuse to let go of our irrational beliefs.