The ABC’s of Rational Thinking

rational thinking is education and therapy

The ABC’s of Rational Thinking

In the field of rational thinking, aka rational emotive therapy, aka cognitive behavior therapy, there is a particular homework assignment that can be helpful in building skill in rational thinking. Rational thinking is a higher brain function and it’s typically not taught in public or private schools. The closest you have come to rational thinking has been in science and math classes where evidence and proof are principle guidelines. We generally don’t know how to apply evidence and proof in regards to our own thinking. Rational thinking has a lot of substantiated merit as an antidote to anxiety and depression and is one of the ingredients in the treatment of trauma.

To assist in getting a grip on rational thinking, we need to use situations which generate a troubled state of mind; we need a problem, because rational thinking therapy is very solution oriented, and there is no solution without a problem.

The basic blueprint of the homework exercise is to take a sheet of notebook paper, draw three vertical columns. The leftmost column is A, the middle B, and the right C. A is the column to note a situation in which you became frustrated, angry, sad, withdrawn, confused, a troubled state of mind, a problem. It is the Antecedent Situation. The C column is for the feelings, moods, emotions, ill at ease, troubled, problematic, commonly believed to be caused by A. It appears to be the consequence of A. But, there is is this B column, which is really the cause of the feelings, moods, and emotions. B is typically labeled our Beliefs. That can include assumptions and conclusions we’ve made; it can include our values, biases, preferences, and even demands. Our Beliefs are built with our own thinking; however, we use language to think; so it is language that sustains our beliefs, effective or dysfunctional as they may be. These language-based beliefs are broad, encompassing such views and opinions, perhaps even some facts, about the purpose of humanity on earth to the more personal experiences of romance, love, marriage, family, work, obligations, responsibilities, vacations and vocations. We have beliefs about what it means to get a job, lose a job, be promoted, or demoted; we certainly have political and religious beliefs. We may have environmental beliefs. We hold innumerable beliefs including those about who we are, what we are, where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. Our belief schemas are not just cognitive constructs in the mind. They are emotional constructs in the brain, and felt in the body. When some deeply established belief schemas are challenged, the result can be, at best, disturbing, at most, enraging. When enraged, violence is very possible. When the belief schema that the sun revolved around the earth was proven faulty, it generated violence. We have belief schemas about ‘self’ which are likely faulty. The process of repairing faulty belief schemas is termed ‘cognitive restructuring.’ It starts with understanding the ABC’s of Rational Thinking.


So, in the homework exercise you start in the C column, writing down your state of mind which, presumably, has been agitated or irritated by a situation, which you write down in Column A. Column A, the Antecedent Situation, is often perceived to be the cause of the Emotional Outcome, column C.


But, there is this B column in the middle. It is actually the Belief Schema through which the Antecedent Situation passes to yield the Emotional Outcome.


If you were caught in a traffic jam (AS) and were very upset (EO), your belief, for example, that this traffic jam should not be happening (BS), is faulty and may slip into frustration or anger. To think the traffic jam should not be happening is faulty because the objective, verified and proven reality is, it is happening. What would be a more rational belief schema or conclusion about the situation, given the fact that it is happening?


A lot of beliefs, assumptions, conclusions upon which we base our day-to-day thinking is faulty, and we are then susceptible to fall or trip into one of these faults, and use language in a way which generates mood disorders. No wonder anxiety and depression are so prevalent; we think daily in ways which support it. The rational thinking therapy homework really happens in column BS, by challenging the way we use language to sustain those faulty, and subterranean, belief schemas. By writing this out in words, using the columns, we begin to get a basic sense of the ABC’s of rational thinking, and begin the process of cognitive restructuring.  There is this problem or troubled state of mind, and there is this situation that appears to have caused it; but, in fact, there is this intermediary of thinking, the way we use language to describe and give meaning to the situation, our belief schema, which is the real culprit. At some point, we can do away with the writing out and simply think it through, focusing in on the belief schema that is generating our particular mood or emotion at the time, question it, challenge it, repair it with a more reality-based interpretation of the situation.

There are well over a dozen very specific ways of thinking identified as irrational, or faulty, which need to be replaced, or repaired, with more realistic thinking. Below are a few of these identified patterns:

Black and White Thinking

Black and white thinking, also referred to as absolutist thinking, is when situations are interpreted as being all good, or all bad, a total success, or a complete failure. There is no continuum, no shades of gray. Science, evidence, verification, all suggest variations, differences in scale, intensity, temperature, weight. Life is a continuum, not an either/or. If a person is depressed because they failed, perhaps the B column says they are either a total success or a complete failure, and the person only got a slightly better than average score; but, that’s not total success, so they are a complete failure, and, depressed. Or, a person is overweight by a small amount, and calls themselves fat. Rational thinking would change this way of using language to describe experience, from black and white to continuum, with shades, hues and degrees. One of the best tools to aid in this practice is the Likert Scale. The Likert Scale is a measurement between 1 and 10, with the lower number being absolute worst and the highest number being perfect best. So, right now, as you read this sentence, where would you rate yourself on feeling safe?

Least                                                           Most


The Triad of Coercion: Should, Must & Have to

You don’t have to do anything. When told you should or must do something, be somewhere, have this or that, who has such authority over you? Of course, as a child, and even an adolescent, your parents had such authority over you, as did teachers, and other adults. But, you’re an adult now. Everything you do is a choice, with consequences. The choices you make may be to obtain positive consequences, or avoid negative consequences. Regardless, we make choices; we are generally not coerced or forced into most everything we do today. We don’t have to go to work, we choose to, because of anticipated consequences. However, in our language, in the words we use, the statements, assumptions, conclusions, and commentary we make to ourselves, and with others, we do use, and do believe in, ‘have to.’ We use ‘should’ the same way sugar is found in so much food. In a traffic jam, we are upset, because we believe we have to or should be somewhere and if we are late we will be rejected, criticized, ridiculed and disapproved of by, presumably, somebody important or with authority. And, what is your belief schema, how do you use language within yourself to describe and give meaning to a situation such as interacting with those in perceived authority? If you were to go and ask for a raise from your boss, what feelings and moods might you write down in column EO? What body sensations, tightness, discomforts, perspiration, breathing, do you notice, as part of Column EO? In column AS, the Antecedent Situation, it is being with your boss in the office asking for a raise. Whatever you wrote down in column EO is not because of what’s in column AS, it’s because of what’s in column BS.

Ultimately, realistically, for everyday situations, the terms ‘should’ and ‘must’, and ‘have to’ are not conducive to mental health. They represent coercion, which most typically results in resistance and conflict. We can do away with a lot of our own inner resistance and conflict by eradicating should, must and have to. In most all cases, whatever we believe we have to do, or should be, or must not do, ‘choose to, or choose not to’ is a more appropriate term to represent the fundamental power of choice, which, though often referred to as both a blessing and a curse, is ours. You can feel the grip of the coercive belief schema if you start saying ‘choose to’ when in a situation where you are a bit angry because you ‘have to’ or ‘should’ be doing something you don’t want to do. It may feel odd, weird, to say choose to instead of have to or should. And yet, really, you don’t have to do it, there is no real should, there is no real basis to use coercive language. There are consequences for choosing not to do what you ‘should’ or ‘have to’ to, just as their are consequences for doing it. That’s just the way it  is. Choice. Consequences. Those consequences may come soon, late, obvious, subtle. It’s physics. It’s Natural Law. Replace as much as possible the use of  coercive language, both within ourselves, and with others, with a word more representative of this inherent freedom, such as Choice, Choose To, or Consider. ‘I’ll consider it’ can be an effective response to a coercive statement.

For, example, within your own ‘self talk’ instead of ‘I have to go to work’ it becomes, simply, ‘I am going to work.’ The coercive phrase is removed. Add the choice phrase, I choose to, I choose to go to work, and feel that. What do you feel when you say ‘I choose to go to work’ as opposed to ‘I have to go to work?’  One can use have to or must in everyday conversation, because it’s so normal, and yet still abide by, and feel, the knowledge of choice, eradicating any sense of coercion. Ultimately, choices are binary, yes or no, go or stay, do or not do. Once that decision is made, other choices may then present themselves. If you were confronted with a new, radiantly transformative, liberating belief schema, about you as person, so verified and evidence-based that you’d be considered a moron by rejecting it, would you accept it?

Mind Reading & Forecasting

One of the more common faulty belief schemas we hold is that we can somehow know what other people are thinking. We can read their minds. We can become rather upset (column EO), when we believe somebody is thinking ill of us (BS), standing around the water fountain with others (AS). Of courser, it is not really that others might be thinking ill of us that us the underlying BS, it is what it means to us, that others might be thinking ill of us. We have layers and  layers of belief schemas. Although ‘body reading’ can certainly give clues and hints to what one might be feeling, by what they are showing in body language, we don’t know what they are saying to themselves about others, or about themselves. The art of reading body language can provide a lot of insight into what, not how, a person is thinking, and, yet, most people are not skilled enough to form conclusions about what a person is thinking, let alone how a person is thinking. One of the most rational statements we can make to ourselves in regard to what another is thinking is ‘I don’t know.’ We can find out. We can ask. That is a choice we have, with consequences, which are not necessarily negative or positive. Consequences too may come in degrees measured on a Likert Scale; some mixture of positive and negative leaning one way or the other. Of course, it may be that somebody is thinking ill of us. That becomes Column A. We become angry about what they are thinking, which is Column C. What is your belief schema about others being angry with you? What does it mean to you when another is angry at you? What is your anger belief schema? What is anger? And, if anger is on the most right of a Likert Scale, what would be on the most left end as a representative of the exact opposite of anger?

Just as we don’t read minds, so we don’t know the future. And yet, almost all anxiety is a projection into the future. Column AS is filled with anticipated situations, and about which our belief schemas (BS) are such that the emotional outcome is problematic, troubled, conflicted, uncomfortable. The problem is not generated by the anticipated situation, it is based on the language we use describing the situation to ourselves, and what that description means to us. Moderately uncomfortable situations can be amplified into deeply disturbing experiences based on a projection, a conjecture, a guess about the future. Again, one of the most rational uses of language in regards to the future is ‘I don’t know.’ And, unlike mind reading in which we do have an opportunity to actually know, by asking, we don’t have such opportunity regarding the future. Probabilities can be useful in projecting a future based on trends. However, educated guessing is still guessing. And guessing is not knowing. If your feeling anxious about something in the future, consider adopting the belief schema that you don’t know the future. You can improve the odds of positive outcomes, for you, individually, through preparation; but, ultimately, you don’t know. And, there are no guarantees. What you do know, for certain, is your immediate sensory experience, fleeting as it is….

Even not knowing can be a situation around which we hold various conclusions that may mean we are stupid or dumb, which would then tend to make us feel depressed, unworthy, incapable or disabled. How would you feel about you not knowing something, if the emotional outcome is based on a belief schema that means you are intelligent and mature?  To acknowledge lack of knowledge is to have an open mind, to be receptive. That is mature. That is intelligence.

“What should we think of someone who never admits error, never entertains doubt but adheres unflinchingly to the same ideas all his life, regardless of new evidence? Doubt and skepticism are signs of rationality. When we are too certain of our opinions, we run the risk of ignoring any evidence that conflicts with our views. It is doubt that shows we are still thinking, still willing to reexamine hardened beliefs when confronted with new facts and new evidence.” – Diane Ravitch

More ABC’s of Rational Thinking CLICK HERE

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