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Imperative Thinking Errors

To understand Imperative Thinking we can turn to Albert Ellis, founder of REBT, who emphasised that ‘demands’ lie at the very heart of emotional problems.

The thoughts and beliefs that contain words such as ‘must’, ‘need’, ‘should, ‘ought-to’ and ‘got-to’ can be problematic as they are rigid and inflexible leading to poor adaptation to reality.

Aaron Beck, founder of Cognitive Therapy, described this ‘imperative’ use of language as MUSTerbation!

imperative thinking errors lead directly to stress and anxiety - man holding his head

The use of these imperative thinking styles can lead directly to unhelpful perceptions, for example:

  • You believe that you must have the approval of your friends and work colleagues so your social behaviours become focused on doing what ever it is that gets approval, even if this is at your own personal expense.
  • You believe that as YOU try so very hard to be kind and considerate to other people that others really ought to treat you the same. Unfortunately as people tend to develop their own rules and regulations for how this lead their own lives, this can lead you to have very unrealistic expectations and feel hurt or let-down when others don’t behave the way YOU do.
  • You believe that you should never let other people down and as a result tend to put your own needs last and other people needs first. This often leads to stress and anxiety when people don’t put YOU first.

Challenge Imperative Thinking

These inflexible rules and demands would be better replaced with more flexible thinking styles such as:

Pay attention to language

Try to replace words like ‘must’, ‘need’ and ‘should’ with words like ‘prefer’, ‘want’ and ‘could’.

Reduce approval seeking

Could your life be worthwhile even if you don’t get the approval of everybody that you seek it from? If you try to think of your need for approval rather more like a preference for approval then you are likely to feel much less stressed when it is not given.

Recognise that people have different rules for life

Your rules are unique to you, and no matter how much you believe that they are ‘universally true’, if you allow other people the right to have and use their own rules, then you can feel less ‘let down’ when they fail to meet your ‘standards’.

Focus on what you would LIKE not what you think you NEED

If you think about the things that you would actually like to have in your life, or how you would like life to ‘be’ then you will be able to develop much more meaningful strategies that could help you achieve these aims rather then become depressed about how you think it should be.

Furthermore, people who WANT to achieve something are significantly more motivated than those people who think that they NEED to achieve something!

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