Demandingness or “The Rules of Life: Perceived Abilities”


By Malek Mneimne, M.A.

Demands can be conceptualized as rules of life that include inferences, evaluations, and/or philosophical beliefs with words related to “should,” “ought,” or “must.” One of the core principles of REBT(Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy), as hypothesized by Dr. Albert Ellis, is that demands are considered the primary irrational beliefs that contribute to psychological distress, from which awfulizing/catastrophic beliefs (e.g., “This is 110% terrible!”), ratings of worth (e.g., “I/you/the universe am/are/is worthless”), and frustration intolerance beliefs (e.g., “I can’t stand/deal with/tolerate this!”) are derived. Together, theory and studies suggest that these beliefs contribute to, maintain, and exacerbate psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, and/or rage.

Irrational Demands

Demands can be irrational for several reasons. First, by virtue of its definition as a necessary imperative, there is often no reason that we, others, or the world absolutely must do anything other than the basic functions necessary for survival and/or contentment. For instance, do we absolutely need luxury to be content? Beyond basic biological functions, which must be carried out if we wish to survive, there is hardly a problem for which there is or has been only one solution that must be done.


Second, holding onto irrational demands is usually not helpful in the practical sense in that they hinder attempts at changing the adversity or situation or contribute to more costs than benefits. In the case of two students who take a psychology course and just learn that they both failed it, the one who thinks, “I should’ve passed that course. I’m worthless, this is awful, and I can’t stand it!” will be more prone to distress than the one who thinks, “I wish I had passed that course, but there is no reason I should have passed it. I am not less valuable as a result, this is disappointing but not awful, and I can tolerate having failed it.”

Third, there may be no empirical evidence or data to support the should, leading one to wonder, where’s the evidence that “If you want to be happy or live a satisfying life, then we should treat each other well?”

Indifference and Apathy

In response to such arguments against holding demands, some peoples’ knee-jerk solution is occasionally indifference or apathy. Such people adopt this attitude as a result of deducing that because there are few true shoulds, then few things truly matter. But indifference or apathy is not entirely rational, either.

Changing a “should” to “want/can…but don’t have to…” often reveals that demands contain an individual’s opinions and/or values. As such, it does not make rational sense to throw out irrational demands entirely and adopt an attitude of indifference or apathy, because the demands may still contain relevant opinions or values, which are merely expressed or disguised in rigid terms.

Flexible Preferences

Instead, REBT encourages people to revise the demands by replacing them with flexible preferences, or by changing should-related phrases to “I want/wish/can…but there’s no reason I/you/they should…” as noted above in the example of the two students. In this view, REBT encourages people to become their own scientists through the process of assessing for evidence of demandingness and editors through the process of revising demands in their books on The Rules of Life, with the caveat that they don’t have to do either of those, either, but that if one wants or wishes to be less psychologically distressed, then they should identify, challenge, and revise those demands.

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