It’s The Thought That Matters: Depression’s Distorted Thinking

I was talking with my best friend, Steve, over some spicy noodles at our favorite Thai restaurant last week. We’ve been chums for the past 17 years.  He’s a Political Science professor at the University at Buffalo here in town. 


Steve’s grey beard and glasses make him look like a long-lost relative of Sigmund Freud.  Our lunchtime talks are always illuminating and, frequently, laugh-filled.  Steve has never suffered from depression. So he’s always curious about my experiences with it.  During our chat, I talked about some hard-won wisdom. 

brain thinking

I have listened to hundreds of people over the years tell me their story about how they experience depression and how it’s affected their lives. Over and over again, these folks have told me how poorly they think of themselves and how crummy they believe the world really is.  What strikes me most about their revelations is their lack of perspective. They are ironclad in their self-condemnations and negative distortions of reality.


Depression expert, Aaron Beck, Ph.D. developed a theory about cognitive distortions and depression.  Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true.  These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions – telling themselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep them feeling bad about themselves.  See which distortions you employ when depressed:

All-Or-Nothing Thinking: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never- ending pattern of defeat.

Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

Jumping to Conclusions: You make a negative interpretation though there are no definite facts that convincingly support conclusion. Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and you don’t bother to check this out. The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.

Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”

Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

Should Statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration and resentment.

Labeling and Mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a goddamn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.

Self-Worth: You make an arbitrary decision that in order to accept yourself as worthy, okay, or to simply, feel good about your- self, you have to perform in a certain way; usually most or all the time.


Okay, then.  What’s the antidote?  How can you possibly change the way you view yourself and the world?  Here are some ideas:

1.         Identify Cognitive Distortions

We need to create a list of our troublesome thoughts and examine them later for matches with a list of cognitive distortions. An examination of our cognitive distortions allows us to see which distortions we prefer. Additionally, this process will allow us to think about our problem or predicament in more natural and realistic ways.       

2. Examine the Evidence.

A thorough examination of an experience allows us to identify the basis for our distorted thoughts. If we are quite self-critical, then, we should identify a number of experiences and situations where we had success.

3. Double Standard Method.

An alternative to “self-talk” that is harsh and demeaning is to talk to ourselves in the same compassionate and caring way that we would talk with a friend in a similar situation.

4. Thinking in Shades of Gray.

Instead of thinking about our problem or predicament in an either-or polarity, evaluate things on a scale of 0-100. When a plan or goal is not fully realized, think about and evaluate the experience as a partial success, again, on a scale of 0-100.

5. Survey Method.

We need to seek the opinions of others regarding whether our thoughts and attitudes are realistic. If we believe that our anxiety about an upcoming event is unwarranted, check with a few trusted friends or relatives.

6. Definitions.

What does it mean to define ourselves as “inferior,” “a loser,” “a fool,” or “abnormal.” An examination of these and other global labels likely will reveal that they more closely represent specific behaviors, or an identifiable behavior pattern instead of the total person.

7. Re-attribution.

Often, we automatically blame ourselves for the problems and predicaments we experience. Identify external factors and other individuals that contributed to the problem. Regardless of the degree of responsibility we assume, our energy is best utilized in the pursuit of resolutions to problems or identifying ways to cope with predicaments.

8. Cost-Benefit Analysis.

It is helpful to list the advantages and disadvantages of feelings, thoughts, or behaviors. A cost-benefit analysis will help us to ascertain what we are gaining from feeling bad, distorted thinking, and inappropriate behavior.

The best place to learn to challenge your thinking is with a skilled Cognitive-Behavioral therapist.  It’s much harder to try to do this by yourself because you can’t see the forest because of the trees. 

Copyright, Daniel T. Lukasik, 2014



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Subscribe to LWD

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,822 other subscribers

11 thoughts on “It’s The Thought That Matters: Depression’s Distorted Thinking

  1. hi, i’m not a lawyer, but somehow found your blog. i am in the midst of a massive major depression and have been struggling to find my way out. meds don’t seem to be working. i’ve been in and out of therapy for many years. the messages my depressed brain are telling me say that this will never be better. how did you get through? thank you for being so outspoken about his disease.

  2. Jenna, never give up on yourself, you will get through this and see better days. It can look bleak at times but there is a way out. My thoughts and prayers are with you on your road to recovery.

    1. thank you Joe. I really appreciate it. I’m barely holding on. new psychiatrist is just upping my meds, which haven’t been working. doesn’t give me a lot of hope, but i have to just stay the course and trust that things will change. very hard to do after 6 months of clinical depression. i have to stick around for my daughter, who’s 14, so no opting out. thank you for reaching out to me.

  3. My wife and daughters are the only reason I am still here. I put them through a lot and they have stayed by my side. I would not be where I am today without them. Just remember that she will always be there for you.

    1. If you had cancer (God forbid), would you apologize for putting your family through a lot? i have that same feeling that I’m “putting my family through a lot,” so i get what you’re saying totally. i apologize to them all the time. my husband says, stop it, you shouldn’t be apologizing for something you can’t help. It’s hard when you’re depressed to not feel like a total burden.

  4. I am not apologizing for my depression, but it did drive me to do things that I am not proud of and that put a lot of stress on the family. We are all slowly healing from the experience although I worry greatly about my younger daughter. She tends to keep her feeling very close to the vest. I worry that she is feeling things that she is not letting out. My older daughter is worried about her as well. Trying to reach her, to get her to open up, but it is hard. She has agreed to go to a therapist so I am searching for one that has some experience with children (I still call her a child at 18) her age.

  5. i wish your daughter well, Joe. My daughter is 14 and having serious issues also, suffering from depression, anxiety and oppositional defiance. i feel so awful that i’m such a wreck and not myself . she also stuffs her feelings. she’s adopted and that has always been an issue for her, feeling abandoned and unworthy. and it’s so heartbreaking that I’m not my strong self to help her right now. having trouble helping myself.

  6. I still have not gone to any doctor or shrink but I really can relate to this. I have also taken a few depression tests and they all resulted to one thing, I have major depression.

    I always wanted to get help but sometimes I think it’s just me. That I might be just assuming and when a doctor would check me, he’ll see nothing wrong. However, the signs and symptoms of depression has always bugged me because most of them keep/are happening to me. Just like with the list of cognitive distortions you have posted, I can relate to almost all of them. I am really embarrassed to tell anyone about this because they just might laugh it off and tell me it’s not true that I’m just assuming. So, I have always been searching ways to at least turn this around by myself. And the solution for cognitive distortions might really help.

  7. I! I am 25 years old and in 2013, I had a “breakdown” or something like that. I was finishing my degree, doing my thesis (architecture, which is already stressful by itself). I started having these feelings in regards to my parents, they had this huge argument about something bad that my dad did. Since then they were like enemies trying to fight for me and my brothers like my mother saying “I am the one right, and he is a monster” and my father “she is being paranoid, she needs help”. because my father didn’t want to tell the true about his mistake. so my mother had a depression (she have had depressions before) and she called me every day when I was at university saying that she wanted to die and she could not live like that.

    So.. I started to blame my father, and later blamed my mother, for what they were doing to me.. I didn’t know if my father was a liar or my mother paranoid, and I still don’t know which one was telling the true. It was hard, and I was trying to help them… but it was too much for me.

    I have done some therapy, and my therapist told me that because my parents raised me and my identity is based on my education (that they gave me) and i was really angry at them and didn’t want to be like them, it was like I didn’t have anything to support my identity, like I no longer knew who I was, or trying to fight to don’t be like them. Since then I felt like I am no longer myself, and everyday i try to bring me back and I can’t, I feel unhappy the way i am now, i don’t trust anyone, I always feel like someone is judging me, or lying but the thing it that i know is not true, and it is all in my head, but i can’t change this way I see things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *

Built by Staple Creative

%d bloggers like this: