A Quick Guide To Rational Living: How To Be Less Neurotic

How can you be less neurotic? You have to give up your distorted thinking about the nature of reality. In this post, I explain some simple strategies.

less neurotic

Your brain is about thirty times more powerful than the fastest supercomputer.

If you give it a chance, it can help you power through life with grace and ease.

One study at Carnegie Mellon University  suggested that if you could rent out your brain’s processing power, you could earn $4,700 to $170,000 an hour.

This power is evident when you consider astonishing human accomplishments. Take for example, calculating something as minute as Plank’s Constant (6.62607004 × 10-34 m2 kg / s). Or Einstein’s celebrated equation that describes how a particle of matter can convert into a massive quantity of energy.

Still, we all find life overwhelming much of the time. We have trouble making simple distinctions and creating superior decisions.

The Monkey Wrench in the Machine

What’s the reason for this discrepancy between high potential and low performance?  It’s a glitch in our biocomputer—irrational thinking.

Albert Ellis, the godfather of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, wrote A Guide to Rational Living. It sold over 1,500,000 copies. He’s ranked among the most influential psychologists in history.

In his seminal work, he examined the roots of neurosis, seeking to find a reason for our distorted thinking.

The primary reason we are irrational is because we’re upset about something most of the time. While stress-reduction techniques can help restore out rationality, it’s not enough. Yes, we feel better after a meditation or a walk in the woods, but the relief is temporary. Eventually, we have to begin the hard-work of cleaning up our self-sabotaging thinking.

Distorted thinking is the root of all our neurosis.

A Computer Analogy

If our brain is analogous to hardware, then our beliefs would be analogous to software. When we have a negative belief, it’s a bad program because it creates distorted thinking and disruptive emotions. It’s easy to see that if you’re running bad programs, you’ll get less than desirable results.

In Secrets of a Millionaire Mind, T. Harv Eker describes how “the software” works. Thoughts affect feelings, feelings influence actions, and actions determine results. Distorted thinking is that that does not line up with reality. Because our thoughts miss the mark, we will fail to achieve anything significant in the world.

So, by changing your thoughts, you can change your life. And, if you change enough thoughts, you can improve almost every aspect of your life that isn’t working right now.

Relearning our ABCs To Become Less Neurotic

A pivotal idea in Cognitive Behavior Therapy is the ABC model. A stands for Actions, B for Beliefs, and C for Consequences.

Let me unpack that for you.

An action is an event. Say, your car runs out of gas on the highway.

A belief is what you think about it. As you walk a few miles to a gas station to buy a gas can, you think, “Things just keep getting worse for me.”

A consequence is what happens when you are emotional upset.

For instance, this is what might happen after your gas crisis:

When you get home, you diffuse your bad mood by spreading chaos. You smack the dog for jumping up to greet you. You yell at your spouse for not telling you that the gas tank was almost empty. And you snap at your son when he asks for your help with his math homework. You may feel less neurotic, but everyone around you will feel worse.

How to Respond with Healthy Emotions

In the How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubormirsky offers us some suggestions on how to react to negative events.

She suggests we interrupt our beliefs when things don’t go our way. We interpret a reflexive, agitating thought with a question that evokes a different response.

She suggests asking questions like:

  • “What else could this situation or experience mean?”
  • “Can anything good come from it?”
  • “Does it present any opportunities for me?”
  • “What lessons can I apply to the future?”
  • “Did I develop any strength as a result?”

Two Types of Neurotic Programs

Neurosis arises out of distorted thinking. When we are neurotic we liberally dispense our dissatisfaction, triggering other people’s repressed neurosis.

Distorted thinking, then, is expecting reality to be different than how we want it to be.

Here are some examples of distorted thinking:

1. Idealism.

As we look around us, it’s easy to feel disappointed. Few things work well, and most things are well-below standard. We can see how a few improvements could make a huge difference.  We love to talk about how a person, business, or nation could do things better. This contrast between how things are and how they could be disheartens us. It makes us bitter. It turns us into cynics and makes us skeptical about everyone and everything.

The antithesis of idealism is acceptance.

Accept the way things are because people don’t know better, and accept yourself, too. Have a charitable interpretation: Everyone is doing the best they can with what they know. Over time, people, businesses, and nations will learn how to manage things better.

2. Perfectionism.

This is like idealism. The difference is in scope and application. Idealism focuses on the world at large. Perfectionism focuses on our own shortcomings. Idealism makes us abandon all hope because there is little we can do to change the whole world. Perfectionism is the feeling we get when we feel we aren’t good enough. Despite our best efforts, we fail to represent the best version of ourselves.

The antithesis of perfectionism is optimism.

In The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar suggests becoming optimalists.  We can improve something so that it is better than it used to be without expecting it to be perfect.

Two Types of Rational Programs

If life is as challenging as it appears to be, how can we clean up our thinking to be able to live with more grace and ease? Do we have a real chance to be less neurotic, even happy?

While these two ideas may or may not make you happy, they will at least make you less neurotic. Life will become more interesting and engaging:

1. Experimentation.

One reason, we get angry, disheartened, and depressed is because we fail when we try to do something. But unless you fail, you won’t learn from your mistakes.

Of course, if you don’t try, you won’t make mistakes and you won’t fail. While this is a clever way to avoid the agony of defeat, you won’t experience much joy either. Instead, you’ll be stuck on a plateau of minimal personal growth.

Still, even this strategy of not setting goals or designing projects will stop working.  At some point, entropy will set in and destroy your fragile equilibrium, plunging you into chaos.

If the road to success is paved by the bricks of failure, how can you keep on keeping on without a loss of enthusiasm?

The answer: experiment.

Instead of being serious everything you do, try it as an experiment. Experiment with getting fit. Experiment with writing that novel. Experiment with going back to school to get an advanced degree.  Try it, you might begin to think of life as a grand adventure. If you don’t get the rewards, at least you’ll be better off than when you first started.

Abraham Maslow points out that we learn enough from our blunders to stop making them. Meanwhile, Ralph Waldo Emerson, champions the virtue of experimentation. He says, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

2. Flow states.

What happens when you experiment long enough? You get good at something. The reward for mastery is the psychological state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described called flow. He believes it is the secret to happiness.

Live a Fully-Engaged Life

Life is not a spectator sport. Engage your mind to think deeper thoughts. Encouraging your body to be fitter and stronger. Allow your spirit to soar to touch the realm of grace. When you live a fully-engaged life, you will be less neurotic because you will be too preoccupied.

When you think about it, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have all the things you want. And it doesn’t matter if your life doesn’t turn out to be a glorious dream.

The only thing that matters is that you have a mind open to wonder and a heart big enough to embrace the miracle of existence.

Give up idealism and perfectionism. Experiment. Step into the flow. All these strategies will help you be less neurotic.


Go forth, and be bold.

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