Rational coping statements: more than just ‘live, laugh, love’

If you’ve ever read any self-help books or looked online for ways to boost your mental health, you might have come across affirmations and heard about how they can be helpful in promoting a positive mindset.

These affirmations often take the form of positive but somewhat generic phrases such as “I find joy in everything I do”; “My body is healthy and my mind is at peace”; “Opportunities come my way easily and effortlessly”, or “I am confident and I am enough.” Sometimes they may be accompanied by a calming photograph of a stream, or someone climbing a mountain. Perhaps a kitten hanging from a washing line.

While affirmations can be helpful in the short-term, they aren’t always enough to get rid of negative thoughts and feelings. That’s where rational coping statements come in. In this blog, we’ll explore why these statements can be even more effective than general affirmations, especially in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), which is what we practice here at the College.

Rational coping statements were first introduced by Dr Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT). The basic idea behind REBT is that our emotions are largely influenced by our beliefs, not just by what’s happening in the world around us. If we can change our beliefs from irrational, unhelpful ones, we can change our thinking, our behaviour, and therefore our emotions.

At the heart of REBT are the ideas of acceptance of the world how it is, not how we’d like it to be, and an understanding of our ability to tolerate the discomfort this reality can sometimes bring.

An example healthy, rational belief, based around one of the affirmations above might be: “I would like to feel confident at all times, but I accept that sometimes I won’t. This would be bad, but not awful, uncomfortable but I could tolerate it (and it would be in my interests to do so), and this simply means I am a fallible but worthwhile human being.”

This is perhaps not the catchiest of phrases, but hopefully you can see how it is flexible, realistic, logical and helpful. Once a healthy belief is identified, clients are encouraged to come up with their own personal, specific and meaningful ways of reinforcing it, especially when they are in situations that may provoke their old, unhealthy beliefs.

This is where rational coping statements come in. Unlike general affirmations, which are often vague and unrealistic, rational coping statements are specifically designed to challenge the individual’s negative thoughts and beliefs. They’re like little mental tools that help you to reframe your thinking and view things from a more balanced and realistic perspective.

For example, let’s say you have a thought like “I can’t handle this situation.” A rational coping statement in response to this thought might be “I have handled difficult situations before, and I can handle this one too.” This statement helps you to question the negative thought and recognize that you have the ability to handle the situation by accepting its difficult reality and recognising your existing ability to tolerate the discomfort.

Now, you might be thinking “but aren’t affirmations supposed to be positive? Why not just repeat positive affirmations instead?” Well, the problem with general affirmations is that they can be too unrealistic, and our brains often reject them as false. Deep down we understand that they are simply not true. This can actually make negative feelings and thoughts stronger, rather than weaker. Have you ever been told to ‘just try looking on the bright side’ when things were going wrong? Did it actually help?

To tell yourself that you are feeling confident when you actually aren’t is not accepting the reality of the situation. To tell yourself you feel nervous but you can tolerate it, and things don’t have to go perfectly is much more honest. And therefore, much more helpful.

In contrast to generic affirmations, rational coping statements are based on reality, and in particular the lived experience of the individual, not just on wishful thinking and vague generalities. They give you a more accurate understanding of your abilities and strengths, and help you to develop a more rational and resilient outlook that’s grounded in reality.

Rational coping statements can be more effective than general affirmations in cognitive behaviour therapy and REBT because they’re designed to challenge negative thoughts and beliefs, rather than just try to replace them with positive ones. If you’re looking to improve your own wellbeing and mental health, incorporating rational coping statements into your daily routine can be a great place to start.

What might some of yours look like?

Nick Jones
REBT/CBT Therapist

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