How To Correct Your Thinking Using Rational Disputing

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) teaches that emotional disturbance is largely the result of faulty or distorted thinking.  Put in another way, human beings sometimes think and behave in ways that are unhelpful and irrational.   If this is true, then we should carefully examine what we believe since our emotional well-being largely depends upon it.  Recognizing this first step prepares us for the change process.

When expectations about others, the world, and self become unrealistic, this could provoke emotional disturbance.  Beliefs are termed irrational when there is little or no objective evidence for their support.  The language we use to express distorted thinking typically takes the form of should, must, never, and always.  Demanding that a thing should or should not exist when it does or does not is absurd.  After all, there are probably no certainties in life; nothing ever really must turn out the way we expect it.  However, believing this will probably cause a great deal of unnecessary emotional pain.

Rational Disputing is the systematic process of examining beliefs and testing assumptions.  A question and answer dialogue fosters a critical evaluation of one’s belief system.   In much the same way that a scientist reviews data in testing a hypothesis, we can learn to test our own assumptions by scrutinizing the evidence for ourselves.  If the data does not fit, we can reformulate our ideas and test them again.  Therefore, like the scientist, we use a similar problem-solving approach, although not always in a helpful way.

Given the fact that none of us is perfect, sometimes we stubbornly act-out ways of thinking and being that are not in our best interest.  This happens primarily because our ideas about self, others, and the world often become well-rehearsed, deeply entrenched and second nature.  The unfortunate result is that we achieve our goals less often, and get more upset in the process.  Expressed another way, it is possible for any one of us to convincingly believe and act in ways that do not foster good coping.  Consider the following example:

I must do perfectly well at my job for the boss to accept me.

Can we ever perform perfectly well at anything?  After all, Olympic athletes who train most of their lives to master their sport rarely get a perfect score.  If perfection is such an uncommon prize for athletes, who, by the way, make a habit of practicing, why should the rest of us be so expectant of it?  Secondly, is it necessary to have the boss’s approval?  Granted, it might be helpful to get it, but you cannot prove that it is necessary.  Why?  Because we can always unconditionally accept ourselves no matter what others say or do.

Opinions are not necessarily facts.  We often presume that our own thoughts (or what others think of us) accurately and absolutely reflect reality!  Part of achieving more happiness or contentment means realizing that people and circumstances do not have to live up to our expectations of them.  Learning how to be more flexible in our thinking helps us to cope better.

That is where practicing Rational Disputing can help.  We can learn a skill for dislodging well entrenched, but unhelpful beliefs.  Rational Disputing helps us to generate reality driven ideas:  the kind that promote our emotional well-being, increase our frustration tolerance, and make it less likely for us to get or stay upset.

Frank Morelli, MA, LMHC
P.O. Box 600100
Jacksonville, FL 32260
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Questioning What We Say To Ourselves

What follows is a list of questions that will help us to examine those self-defeating, irrational beliefs.  They are simply guidelines for changing thinking.  Remember:  if we want to feel better, think more realistically.  If we want to get better, then we should practice self-examination the rest of our lives.  Here are the questions as applied to the example given previously:

1) Is there any evidence to support what I believe?  Can I prove it?

Can I prove that performing perfectly well on the job will win my boss’s approval?  No.  Getting his approval does not depend on my performance; it is a choice he makes!  Besides, I am putting myself under too much pressure thinking I cannot make any mistakes.  There are no perfect human beings.

2) What evidence exists for the falseness of this belief?

Believing that my boss should accept me is like demanding a guarantee.  I do not run the Universe, nor am I owed anything.  Even if he chooses not to like me, I can still appreciate my work and the gratitude of others.

It seems that I am putting too much stock into whatever opinion my boss has of me.  Regardless of what he thinks, I do not need to doubt myself, put myself down, nor underestimate my real strengths.  When I do have doubts, it is only because I told myself to!

3) Does evidence exist to justify the truthfulness of this belief?

Considerable evidence exists to suggest that if I care about my work, but do not get the boss’s recognition, then I might lack his affection, be disadvantaged, inconvenienced or deprived in some way.  It is hardly worth being terrified about it.  My existence is not in jeopardy because of his opinion.  Why act that way?

4) What are the worst things that may happen to me if I do not get what I think I must get (or do get what I think I must not get)?

While it may be true that being promoted in this company largely depends on my boss’s appraisal, it is hardly the end of the world.  It may mean that I am temporarily deprived of the privileges that follow an increase in income and status.  Too bad for me!  I may not like it, but my choices are to tough it out, ask for transfer to another department or leave this employer.

5) What good things could possibly arise from this bad situation?

Toughing it out could increase my frustration tolerance making me more resilient to rejection.

It is possible that conducting a new job search could yield a better career opportunity.

I could practice my assertiveness skills and ask my boss for more appreciation.

I certainly could focus less on getting his approval, while working on other pleasurable pursuits in my life such as hobbies, relationships, spirituality, etc.

Generating Rational Coping Statements

We have seen how asking a series of reality driven questions can test the validity of our assumptions.  This is the heart of Rational Disputing.  Notice how the answers to those key questions generated statements fashioned in terms of probability.  They contain words like could, possible, may and might.  Other examples include perhaps, likely and preferably.  None of those words suggests a demand for certainty or connotes black-and-white thinking.

Words are what we use to convey meaning; they reveal our attitudes about self, others and the world.  This is what makes examining our self-talk important.  Self-appraisal provides us with the opportunity to correct our automatic thoughts:  those images and ideas that first come to mind, but are not necessarily rational.  It is realistic to have strong desires about wanting or not wanting something.  Rational thinking means being convinced that rarely, if ever, is there certainty in life.  It is also recognizing that life is pregnant with possibilities and potentials.  Desperately wanting it any other way will probably upset you.

Generating rational coping statements occurs by turning demands into desires: “I must do perfectly well for my boss to accept me” becomes “I would like my boss to recognize my efforts, but even if he/she doesn’t, it’s not a catastrophe.  At worst, I may not get ahead in this company.  I could look for a job elsewhere, tough it out, or ask for a transfer.”

It is better to be stubborn about reality than to demand that life or people accommodate us.  Still, we easily upset ourselves.  It takes a good deal of practice, repetition and conscious effort to install rational coping statements.  Rarely does anything come so easy!  I suggest that we consider the following ideas for deepening new convictions:

1) Write down your coping statements and read them aloud several times per day;

2) Practice while standing in front of a mirror to examine your body language;

3) Be skeptical about your thinking, especially those thoughts which produce upsetting emotion.  Ask yourself, “What should or must did I say to myself?”  Find it and vigorously dispute, dispute….DISPUTE!;

4) Use a tape recorder to state one of your irrational beliefs.  Figure out several disputes for this irrational belief and strongly present them on this same tape;

5) Get feedback from others you trust by practicing your coping statements with them.

I hope this essay has enlightened us all about the benefits of changing our thinking the REBT way.  For those who are interested in learning more about how to solve emotional problems, please feel free to make an appointment with me.  I welcome the opportunity to visit with you.  To learn more about REBT or cognitive therapy, visit the website for the Albert Ellis Institute at

OCD and Anxiety Disorder Specialist

Frank Morelli MA, LMHC | P.O. Box 600100 Jacksonville, FL 32260 | (904) 410-6324

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