Disproving irrational thoughts

An irrational thought often has a basis in fact but becomes distorted when the facts are exaggerated or misinterpreted. For example, you may:

  • Exaggerate the negative side of something (for instance, believing that a small mistake means you are not competent).
  • Anticipate the worst result (expecting a horrible result from a medical test or imagining that a person who is late was in an accident).
  • Interpret small things to mean something you don't have evidence for (worrying that a supervisor's facial expression means you are about to be fired).

To disprove an irrational thought, think back to an event or situation that caused the negative thought, action, or emotion. Then:

  1. Write down what happened. Stick to the facts and be objective in listing them.
  2. Write down your negative thoughts about the situation or event. Here, your subjective, personal view is allowed. List your assumptions, beliefs, predictions, and worries.
  3. Consider the emotions that come from your thoughts. Make a list of them, keeping the items short and simple (angry, depressed, feeling worthless, and so on).
  4. Look at your thoughts and try to identify one as irrational. (There may be several to choose from, but pick just one troubling or typical thought for this process.) Dispute this thought with the following steps:
    • Is there any rational support for the thought? Since you already know this thought is irrational, the answer is "no." Whatever may seem to support it probably only supports a less extreme thought.
    • What evidence exists to show that the thought is false? Thinking about each specific thing that points to the falsehood of the thought is useful.
    • What is the worst thing that could happen to me because of this event? This step allows you to think rationally about the "worst case," which is usually much less terrible than what you may have been thinking.
    • Is this thought a reality or is it just your perception? Because perceptions can be changed, they are much less disturbing than if this thought were a reality.
  5. Change your negative thoughts to positive thoughts to change your perception. Substitute more realistic views of the event or situation. Now that you have looked at both irrational and rational thoughts connected with this event or situation, it is easier to recognize them and react positively.

[Reprinted with permission by New Harbinger Publications, Inc. The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, 5th ed., Davis, et al. www.newharbinger.com.1]


  1. Davis M, et al. (2000). The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, 5th ed., pp. 119–121. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Last Updated: April 22, 2009

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