What Is… Ellis’s 12 Irrational Beliefs

Albert Ellis's 3 major musts based on 12 irrational beliefs

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week, we’ll look at the 12 irrational beliefs and 3 major musts described by Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT).

I was vaguely familiar with REBT as the therapeutic approach behind SMART Recovery. Recently, when I was reading Calm & Sense by Wendy Leeds, I came across REBT founder Albert Ellis’s 12 irrational ideas/beliefs. I was quite impressed at how well they capture our run-of-the-mill human ridiculousness.

12 Irrational beliefs

  1. The idea that it is a dire necessity for an adult human being to be loved or approved by virtually every significant other person in his community.”

    Will everyone like us? Realistically, of course not. Except we’re not realistic.
  1. The idea that one should be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving in all possible respects if one is to consider oneself worthwhile.”

    How dare you not know how to do macramé? How dare you not have been alive during the ’70s to have a clue what macramé is? What kind of an excuse for a person do you think you are?
  1. The idea that certain people are bad, wicked, or villainous and that they should be severely blamed and punished for their villainy.”

    I’ve talked before about moralizing, which involves jumping on one’s self-righteous moral high horse. It’s not a good look. If a horse is necessary, Lady Godiva would be a better look.
  1. The idea that it is awful and catastrophic when things are not the way one would very much like them to be.”

    What’s interesting here is that things are never the way we would very much like them to be.
  1. The idea that human unhappiness is externally caused and that people have little or no ability to control their sorrows and disturbances.”

    This is sort of a reverse choose happiness with a twist. We often say someone “made me feel _______.” But no one else has power over your emotions. Now, depending on illness and other factors, you might not have a lot of control either, which is where I differ a bit from Albert Ellis.
  1. The idea that if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome one should be terribly concerned about it and should keep dwelling on the possibility of its occurring.”

    Anxiety isn’t one of my issues, but I can see this one having blinking red lights for the anxiety-disordered folks reading.
  1. The idea that it is easier to avoid than to face certain life difficulties and self-responsibilities.”

    What??? Avoidance is my favourite unhealthy coping mechanism.
  1. The idea that one should be dependent on others and needs someone stronger than oneself on whom to rely.”

    This one seems pretty foreign to me. Sometimes I wish for a magical dependable person to take care to take care of task [x], but otherwise, my style is more get out of my way, I can take care of myself, so leave me alone.
  1. The idea that one’s past history is an all-important determiner of one’s present behavior and that because something once strongly affected one’s life, it should indefinitely have a similar effect.”

    My in-person friend tends to do a variation of this. We used to work together, and every week, he would stock up on candy and put it in his designated drawer at work. All week, people would steal his candy, and then the next week he’d refill it again. He had it stuck in his head that if he stopped providing free candy, people would think less of him. I tried to intervene, but he was having none of it; that was part of who he was as an employee, and, in his mind, it couldn’t be changed.
  1. The idea that one should become quite upset over other people’s problems and disturbances.”

    This one surprises me. I can see in a self-referential sense getting ourselves worked up over what other people think of us or are going to do to us, but perhaps I’m just too short on fucks to give a rat’s ass about other people’s disturbances just because I “should.”
  1. The idea that there is invariably a right, precise, and perfect solution to human problems and that It is catastrophic if this perfect solution is not found.”
    I’m not a perfectionist myself, but I can see this resonating strongly with the perfectionists in the crowd.
  1. The idea that you can give people (including yourself) a global rating as a human and that their general worth depends upon the goodness of their performances.

    Sometimes you might do this to yourself; the question “am I a bad person” comes to mind. Other times, it might be someone writing you off as “toxic” because they think you’re bringing down their vibrations.

3 major musts

The three major musts are the highlights of the 12 irrational beliefs.

  1. I must do well and win the approval of others or else I am no good.”

    There are several problems with this “must.” It places a lot of weight on what others think, which is something we have no control over. It’s not realistic, it’s not self-accepting, and it makes for a very fragile foundation for determining one’s self-worth. Behavioural consequences of this belief include avoidance and procrastination.
  1. Other people must do ‘the right thing’ or else they are no good and deserve to be punished.”

    This is moral high horse territory. It’s not up to you to dictate other people’s right and wrong, but if you try, you can venture into the territory of intolerance, nagging, or even bullying. Our self-righteous high horses are ugly and they , and we should just leave them in the stable.
  1. Life must be easy, without discomfort or inconvenience.”

    This can lead to a desire to control external circumstances that aren’t controllable, or it can lead to avoidance of dealing with problems when they come up. This “must” is disempowering, and it can feed into self-blame a pattern of thinking that something must be “wrong” if things are difficult.

Do any of these stand out as being particularly loud in your head?


REBT Network: What is irrational? | The three major musts

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

30 thoughts on “What Is… Ellis’s 12 Irrational Beliefs”

  1. I’d totally forgotten about these from Ellis! It’s interesting going through them and wondering whether you hold those feelings, especially as many are the sorts of subconscious biases and tendencies that we’re not consciously aware of until we dig a little deeper. x

  2. I probably experience a lot of these. The trouble is, it’s hard to get away from irrational emotions. Our emotional brain is so much older than our rational brain.

    1. I guess the thing with these, though, is they’re all cognitions. We can’t do much about the automatic emotions, or even the initial irrational thoughts, but we can change what we do with them and whether or not we treat them as gospel truth.

  3. Johnzelle Anderson

    “But no one else has power over your emotions.” 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾 and I audibly affirm, the part about the shortage of fucks to give 😄

  4. I must say, I dislike irrational belief #2 with a passion. Why do people think someone is stupid for not knowing one thing? I’ve been talked down to before for not knowing something about car mufflers, and because I was around a group of “car guys” it became a joke to them. I probably won’t offer my services if they ever needed help trading stocks or building a website 😉

    Ang | https://loseweightwithang.com

  5. What a fascinating list (both of them). I linked this post to one I wrote earlier about end of life choices. It’s relevant and yes, the anxiety one resonated soundly with me! O_o

  6. Matthew Morgan

    To be completely honest I feel like I fall victim to all of these items on this list. Rationally I know these are not great behaviors but I let my mind have all these different thoughts. This was a great read!

    1. The book I was reading only briefly referred to it. I haven’t read any of Ellis’s books, but REBT is pretty similar to CBT. If you Google REBT self-help you can find the basic REBT process.

  7. We worry. We let old wounds affect us. When people we live with suffer, we feel it and take it on and suffer. We are perfectionist to impossible degrees. Our life feels like a shit bag. We love some people. We do some stuff. Mostly we suffer. Not enjoying it. We try really hard to lessen the suffering. It aint working. This ellis doesn’t sound like the gatekeeper to better times lol. 💕

  8. escapingthecage0d76919ed5

    Number 1 rings true for me especially your comment ‘but we’re not rational’. I can have 10 people compliment me for something and 1 criticise and it’s the criticism I dwell on. Number 3 is the one I find hardest to deal with in others, who seem unable to comprehend how we are affected by the circumstances of our life. Me, I’m painfully aware that given the right negative circumstances and influences I would probably have been capable of all kinds of awful things.

    1. I agree, with the wrong circumstances we could all go off in really bad directions, but some people seem to see themselves as too removed to recognize that.

  9. With the dependent bit, I wonder if dependent and interdependent are different things.

    As for avoidance, I agree that avoidance is always (or at least almost aways) easier in the short-term. But in the longer term, it means having to continue with buttloads of the original problem, which in the end is probably harder than having just dealt with the problem in the first place.

  10. This is a good summary. I think, though it is difficult, when we can identify and challenge our beliefs and musts we are in a good place to create change.

  11. When I was studying for a doctoral degree in psychology, many students watching films of Ellis at work found him cold and unnecessarily argumentative with patients, but I found him warm, amusing and, if anything, insisting that his patients had the capability to change their thinking about their lives and problems. I still find it helpful, to this day, when feeling anxious, to clarify with myself what it is I am actually nervous about, so that I can then find a way to think about in less anxious terms, and even say to myself: “that’s nothing to worry about at all, you are just a worrier by nature, so know that, and let this go” and it is amazing how such a simple inner disputation can help one feel better! Thank you Albert!

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