Don’t Believe Everything You Think: How These 3 Cognitive Distortions Make You Miserable

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Do you believe everything you think? Don’t! In this post, you’ll learn about the 3 cognitive distortions that make you miserable.

You will also learn about some CBT skilled and exercises that will help you beat must-erbating. 

When you’re feeling stressed, depressed, angry or helpless you usually feel like some-thing is making you feel that way. Crappy drivers make me angry. My incompetent boss makes me stressed. The fact that I overshared way too much at book club- makes me anxious. But here’s the thing, researchers have found that usually it’s not external factors that make you feel this way, it’s irrational thinking that fuels many of these intense emotions. And most of the time we’re not even aware of the types of thoughts that make us feel this way. Dr. Albert Ellis, one of the founders of CBT, described three types of thinking that make people upset, and because they all involve the word “Must” he calls it Must-erbating (I hope this doesn’t get me demonetized).

In this post, you’ll learn to recognize these three forms of irrational thinking, so that you can replace them with healthier thoughts and be calmer, and happier, and solve problems without feeling like a helpless victim. So, let’s get better at feeling

Three Essential CBT Skills

Real quick. If you want to learn more about CBT skills, specifically about how to stop worrying, check out our online course Worry-Free where psychologist Nick Wignall teaches 3 essential strategies to stop worrying- and to be honest, this course actually really helped me personally. I used to wake up in the middle of the night worrying and worry throughout the day and this course taught me how to decrease that by like 70%. Check it out, the link’s in the description.

CBT Exercises

OK, so before we get going I want you to bring to mind your latest incident that made you upset. Grab that thought and put it in your mind. Putting this into practice is going to help you way more than just watching this video. That’s right, you’ve got homework. And I can’t even give you an A. You’ll have to settle for happiness.So write it down. Why are you upset? What happened?  You can pause the video if you need to.

Who Was Albert Ellis?

Albert Ellis was a famous American psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), which is kinda CBT’s daddy, REBT is the Madonna to cognitive-behavioral therapy’s Lady Gaga. In his theory, Ellis identified 3 “musts” that people often hold, which can contribute to emotional distress. And that’s what CBT skills are all about- changing thinking patterns to improve your mental health.

Three Crucial Cognitive Distortions

The “musts” are a set of rigid, absolute beliefs that people hold about themselves, others, and the world around them. There are three main “musts” in Ellis’s theory, which are:

  • “I must do well and be approved of by everyone I meet. Or else I’m no good.” 
  • “Others must treat me fairly and kindly and always consider my feelings. If they do not treat me this way, they are not good people and deserve to be punished.”
  • “I must always get what I want, when I want it. And if I don’t, I’m miserable”


At the center of this is the belief that life “shouldn’t” be as it is. This type of thinking makes you anxious, depressed or angry. But you can totally learn how to feel happier and healthier when you learn Ellis’ system for changing this type of thinking. And the first step is learning to identify this in yourself so
let’s do some examples of Must-#1 I must do well and be approved of by everyone I meet. 

  • A high school student who feels pressure to get perfect grades and excel in sports because they believe they must meet everyone’s expectations, including their parents, teachers, and peers. (this was me as a teen, I was totally chill at parties.)
  • A person who struggles with social anxiety and fears rejection because they believe they must be liked by everyone they meet. (this often ends in avoiding social situations, by the way)
  • Someone who spends a lot of time and money on their appearance, possessions, or lifestyle because they believe they must impress others and be seen as successful or attractive.
  • A parent who feels guilty and inadequate because they believe they must be the perfect parent and meet their children’s every need, even at the expense of their own well-being.

Take a minute and check your problem that you wrote down for this type of thinking. Do you catastrophize if you don’t perform perfectly? Do you feel like an anxious wreck if you think someone might not like you? It’s okay, you’re not broken. Or we’re all broken. Either way, you’re not alone!

OK, let’s check for #2. Here’s some examples of people who may believe “Others must treat me fairly and kindly, and always consider my needs and feelings”:

  • You get angry or offended when someone doesn’t agree with you
  • You feel hurt or rejected when a friend cancels plans or does not respond to your messages right away, because you believe others must prioritize your needs and make time for you.
  • An employee gets frustrated and demotivated when their boss doesn’t give them positive feedback or recognition, because they believe others must acknowledge their hard work and talent.
  • Someone who expects their romantic partner to fulfill all of their emotional and physical needs, because they believe others must always consider their feelings.

You can see how the belief in “Others must treat me fairly and kindly, and always consider my needs and feelings” can lead to unrealistic expectations, disappointment, and conflict in relationships. Check your problem for this. If this section made you kind of angry, that’s a good thing! I mean, I’m not happy that you’re mad, but it means you’re doing well with identifying patterns. Virtual gold star for you. 

OK, let’s check out faulty belief #3. “The world must give me what I want, when I want it.”

  • “I deserve a promotion at work because I’ve been here for a year, and the company owes it to me.”
  • “I shouldn’t have to wait in line at the grocery store. They should open up more registers because I’m in a hurry.”
  • “If I don’t get the grade I want on this test, then the teacher is unfair and doesn’t know how to grade properly.”
  • “It’s not fair that I have to pay for this parking ticket. I shouldn’t have to follow the rules just because the government says so.”

We all desperately want the world to be fair and kind, and we aren’t too different from toddlers who throw a fit when it isn’t. OK, so have you checked your original problem for these three types of thinking?  

Five Steps To Beating Must-erbating

The good news is that you can take the fuel out of these types of emotions, and CBT has a really concrete system for teaching you how to do it. There are 5 steps:

  1. Identify the Belief (hopefully we just did that) 
  2. Challenge the Belief (not to a duel, but sort of)
  3. Replace the belief
  4. Practice new behaviors
  5. Monitor and celebrate progress (possibly with ice cream)

So here’s an example. You went to book club, you may have overshared, now you’re having serious anxiety, worrying about what everyone thinks about you, and feeling anxious and like you never want to go out in public again.

So #1. Identify the belief-  The root of this problem is not what you said or did, it’s the belief “I must do well and be approved of by everyone I meet,”I have to perform perfectly to be accepted, and I have to be accepted to be a good human being.

2. Challenge the belief: Once you have identified the belief, challenge it by asking yourself questions such as:

  • Do I have evidence that I must be approved of by everyone? Is it realistic? 
  • Is it really true that everyone must think poorly of you just because you may have overshared in a conversation? Could it be possible that they are not judging you as harshly as you think?
  • Are you being fair to yourself by assuming the worst-case scenario?
  • How would you feel if someone else had this thought about themselves after a conversation with you? Would you automatically judge them negatively, or would you try to be understanding and supportive?
  • What are the consequences of holding this belief?

3. Replace the belief: choose something that is more realistic and helpful. So you might say

  • “It’s okay if I overshared in the conversation, as long as I did not harm or offend anyone. I can learn from the experience and be more mindful in future conversations.”
  • “It’s not my responsibility to control how others think or feel about me. I can only be true to myself and trust that others will respect and appreciate me for who I am.”
  • “I can give myself credit for being open and honest in the conversation, and for having the courage to share my thoughts and feelings. This can help me connect with others on a deeper level and build more meaningful relationships.”

So after you’ve challenged those thoughts, and replaced them. #4. Practice new behaviors that align with your new way of thinking. Don’t stop going to social activities, continue to express yourself. Stop yourself from ruminating about social experiences. 

#5. Monitor progress– watch yourself for any signs of success- are you developing closer relationships with friends because you’re sharing about yourself? Are you starting to feel more confident? Are you starting to look forward to book club because you enjoy the good conversations? Or do you just like the food and a chance to get out of the house? Looking for the outcome actually increases dopamine and motivation. It’s an essential part of the feedback loop and it helps you be more motivated to challenge your thinking in the future and do more activities that line up with the life you want to live. And pretty soon, the new belief becomes automatic and habitual.

Want one more example? Do you get super angry when you’re driving? Do you think “Everyone is a terrible driver and needs to get off the road”. Let’s identify this MUST- I would say this is mostly likely #2. “Others must treat me fairly and kindly, and always consider my needs and feelings”. And believing this makes you angry.  Someone’s slow to drive when the light turns green “CAN’T THEY SEE I’M IN A HURRY!” (spoiler alert, they definitely can’t.)someone’s driving slow in the fast lane “What the heck are you doing! You’re so inconsiderate to my need to get there 3 minutes faster!” Even if someone is driving dangerously and erratically it’s not super helpful to think “Everyone else needs to, has to be responsible for my safety, and if they aren’t I’m going to get really angry and yell in my car and throw a tantrum because that’s going to make these roads a safer place”. (To everyone out there who doesn’t use sarcasm in their culture, I’m so sorry, I tend to use sarcasm sometimes. That was sarcasm. You’re welcome, you’ve gotten two lessons for the price of one – which is precisely zero dollars because YouTube is free.)

So you’re angry because none of the other drivers are spending their drive thinking about you and your needs.

2. Let’s start by challenging that thought:

     a. Is it really true that everyone is a terrible driver, or are you making a sweeping generalization based on a few bad experiences?

     b. Are you being fair to other drivers by assuming they are all incompetent or dangerous? Could it be possible that they are doing their best in difficult driving conditions?

     c. How would you feel if someone else had this thought about you? Would it be fair to judge you based on a few mistakes or errors?

3. Then try to replace that thought with something more helpful. 

  • “Some drivers may make mistakes or be inexperienced, but most are probably trying their best to be safe and responsible on the road.”
  • “It’s okay if other drivers are not perfect, as long as they are following the rules and driving safely. I can be patient and understanding of their mistakes.”
  • But Emma, you may say, what if they’re actually endangering me! Yes, what if- is it ok to get mad and throw a tantrum then? Is that going to help you? If other people are endangering you- let’s focus on what you can control- you can practice defensive driving, you can pull over and call the police. Either of these options is probably more helpful than just being really angry and thinking about how idiotic the other drivers are. 

#4. Let’s practice some new behaviors. Develop some mantras to be more patient and forgiving of other drivers. Or focus on your own driving skills. Or even just practice some compassion – sometimes when I see someone doing something especially annoying, frustrating or weird, I just think “Bless you” or “May it be well with you” because they are probably having a hard time in life because they act that way and they could probably use some love. Plus it just makes me less judgmental and angry inside. 

And then #5- just check in with yourself- is practicing this making you less angry on your drives? Are you able to enjoy yourself a little more or arrive home feeling more relaxed? Just notice every little victory and that’s going to make it easier and easier to change your brain

Identify, Challenge, Replace, Practice, Reward, Repeat. 

You can also check out our course, How to Process Emotions. 

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