No! ‘Course we’re not!

Most of us like to believe that we are rational creatures, that is, until the emotions take over. Then we can be highly irrational or even justify our irrational behaviour and attitude.

Well, what is irrationality?

Put in a nutshell, it is when we have a distorted view of reality. This is especially when we define distorted, and say it’s not. That is, we are not irrational, everybody else is!

Who then decides what is rational? At this point we must ignore the heavily philosophical articles and go for something easier, and accept that rational behaviour and thinking is based on logic and reason.

Since everything we believe or think has been socially constructed in some way, we can salute the Stoics and the Greek philosophers for our grounding in logic and reason.

A rational person will look at logic, reason, and facts when making a decision, then think of possible consequences and outcomes of each part of a problem before acting. He or she will look at all the information available, past experience, what has been seen or heard, or any other information available and form a reasoned and logical opinion.

An irrational person uses neither logic nor reason, but bases his or her decisions and behaviour purely on emotions. Recent and similar situations may be quickly used to make decisions without analysing the consequences of these or whether they fit the current circumstances.

An irrational person may stick to an outmoded decision made in the distant past because they are emotionally attached to it, again without applying logic or current relevant situational information.

Rational thinking is goal-directed, and benefits both the thinker and those affected by the thinking. It is predictable, and built on the norms in society and its assumptions regarding rational behaviour.

Rational thinkers are more likely to reach their goals, and irrational thinkers are likely to be hindered by a lack of clarity and logic in their decision making, and so may miss their goals.

In other words, irrational thinkers tend to be dysfunctional in certain situations where rational thinking is required.

There is no law against being irrational, and some people can be happily irrational all their lives and may not hurt a flea. But others may be over emotional, disagreeable, or act out in ways that are against the law because they think that they are right, or that they have a special right to do so.

How do we get to be irrational?

We all have our own core beliefs, mostly learned and subconscious, and we react accordingly when these core beliefs are triggered by a particular situation. If we are irrational, what follows usually is a stream of negative thinking. For example, if we stuff up at anything, we will then begin to put ourselves down if we have a belief that we should not fail, and people who do stuff up are “losers”. These beliefs can be reinforced by those around us, or by messages in society which may also reinforce these beliefs.

Consider the bumper sticker I saw once. “If you come second, you are a loser”. This statement ignores the fact that a person in a competition may be very good, but on this occasion did not come first. The people who are in the race may all be extremely good, but there can be only one winner. So we do not discount other place-getters because this would be irrational and unhelpful. It also places undue emphasis on winning.

Dysfunctional core beliefs can also be generalised to all areas of life, just to make you even more miserable. Your demand for perfectionism can mean that you think you are a lousy cook, hopeless at work, no good at relationships, hopeless at math, a bad parent, or whatever. This may be because you have a belief that you must be perfect in in all these areas in order to be “acceptable”.

How it works and how to change. Just because your supervisor at work is unhappy with you today for some reason, you have a choice of thoughts from your thought stream. You can think:

  • (accurate) He/she seems unhappy with me or my work.
  • I’ve stuffed up
  • (Irrational belief) I must be perfect and do everything perfectly otherwise
  • (inaccurate conclusion) I’m a failure, a loser, I’m no good!
  • And just for good measure you may generalise this for the whole of your life, “I’ll never be any good”.

Sometimes a negative thought may be accurate. You may have stuffed up. But it is only on this occasion, so limit your negative thinking to the present situation. You can think instead something like – “I’m usually on the ball and I mostly do good work (think of other more successful times instead of focusing on one bad occasion). “Just because I stuffed up today doesn’t mean that I am always a failure or no good”.

You are more likely to recover quickly and rectify your mistake, or learn from it, if you think like this. Notice that it is not positive thinking, it is rational, more accurate, and mindful thinking, although it is more positive than putting yourself down unnecessarily. Notice also that it is not rationalising your actions, that is, glossing over them or blaming someone else for them, and excusing your poor performance.

You will achieve your goals more quickly if you are reasonable, rational, and forgiving of your less than perfect actions. You will be able to bounce back, have more clarity, and learn from your mistakes.

Watch that your demand for perfectionism does not generalise to others. This happens when you demand that according to your belief system they must be perfect, otherwise they are no good. Notice the black and white thinking here? This attitude and belief will make you negative, and very difficult to get on with. Remember your beliefs and values may or may not be similar to those of others.

It’s good to think about some of the beliefs that you hold, where you got them from in the beginning, and whether some ought to be ditched.

My next article is about self-knowledge and how this can work in your favour. Stay tuned.