Secrets of Self-Esteem #2

Negative Vs.Positive Distortions*

By David D. Burns, M.D.

* Copyright © 2010 by David D. Burns, M.D. Revised, 2014. Do not reproduce without permission. Do not quote or reproduce without express written permission.

In my book, Feeling Good, I listed ten cognitive distortions, or thinking errors, such as All-or-Nothing Thinking, Jumping to Conclusions, Should Statements, Emotional Reasoning, and Self-Blame. These negative distortions trigger negative feelings such as:

  • Depression
  • Feelings of worthlessness, inferiority, and low self-esteem
  • Hopelessness
  • Anxiety, shyness, and panic
  • Shame and guilty
  • Anger and frustration

The list of negative distortions has been reproduced in hundreds of magazines and books and has been helpful to many individuals suffering from mood problems. The idea is that when you’re feeling upset, you’re often involved in a mental con, but you don’t realize it. You’re telling yourself things about yourself and the world that aren’t really true. And when you change the way you think you can change the way you feel.

Most people are not aware that positive distortions can also play an important role in emotional and relationship problems, as well as habits and addictions. There are ten positive distortions that are the exact mirror images of the ten negative distortions. For example, Positive All-or-Nothing Thinking is the opposite of Negative All-or-Nothing Thinking. In both instances, you look at things in opposite, black-or-white categories, and shades of gray do not exist. In the negative version, you might think of yourself as a “loser” because your marriage broke up, or because you failed to achieve an important personal or professional goal. In the positive version, you might think of yourself as a “winner” because of some positive event or personal success.

Positive distortions can be as destructive as negative distortions. When left unchecked, they can trigger mania (abnormal mood elevations), habits and addictions such as gambling and alcohol and drug abuse, and relationship problems, as well as feelings of rage, violence, and even war. For example, Hitler’s messages to the German people involved a skillful blend of positive and negative distortions. He tried to sell the German people on the idea that they were a superior race with the right or duty to exterminate Jews, mental patients, gypsies and others who were labeled as “bad” or “inferior.” Unlike the negative distortions, the positive distortions typically lead to intoxicating mood elevations so you may not be motivated to challenge them or to change the way you’re thinking.

Here are brief definitions, along with some examples, of the ten positive and negative distortions.

Checklist of Negative and Positive Distortions*


Negative Distortion Example

Positive Distortion Example

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. You think about yourself or the world in black-or-white, all-or-nothing categories. Shades of gray do not exist. When you fail, you may tell yourself that you’re a complete failure. When you succeed, you may tell yourself that you’re a winner and feel superior.
2. Overgeneralization. You think about a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat or a positive event as a never-ending pattern of success. When you’re rejected by someone you care about, you may tell yourself that you’re an unlovable loser who will be alone and miserable forever. When you overcome an episode of depression or self-doubt, and you’re suddenly feeling happy again, you may tell yourself that all your problems are solved and that you’ll always feel happy.
3. Mental Filter. You think exclusively about your shortcomings and ignore your positive qualities and accomplishments. Or, you dwell on the positives and overlook the negatives. A TV talk show host told me that he typically received hundreds of enthusiastic emails from fans every day, but there was nearly always one critical email from a disgruntled viewer. He explained that he’d obsess for hours about the negative email and completely overlook the hundreds of glowing ones. As a result, he constantly struggled with feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem in spite of his tremendous ratings and popularity. You may fantasize about how good that desert will taste, and ignore the negatives, like gaining weight and feeling guilty or bloated afterwards. Or, you may tell yourself how great you’ll feel if you have a drink, and ignore the fact you nearly always drink too much and end up with a hangover.
4. Discounting the Facts. You tell yourself that negative or positive facts don’t count, so as to maintain a universally negative or positive self-image. Discounting the Positive: When someone genuinely compliments you, you may tell yourself they’re only saying that to make you feel good. Discounting the Negative: When you’re trying to diet and feeling tempted by something tasty, you may tell yourself, “I’ll only have one little bite.” But you’ve probably given yourself this message on hundreds of occasions, and it has never once been accurate!During an argument, you may get defensive and insist that the other person is “wrong.” Then the conflict escalates.
5. Jumping to Conclusions. You jump to conclusions that aren’t warranted by the facts. There are two common forms that are called Mind-Reading and Fortune-Telling.
Mind-Reading, you make assumptions about how other people are thinking and feeling. If you’re feeling shy at a party, you may tell yourself that other people don’t have to struggle with shyness or that they’d look down on you if they knew you were shy. You tell yourself that a relationship is going really. well when the other person is actually feeling annoyed or unhappy with you.
Fortune-Telling, you make dogmatic negative or positive predictions about the future. When you’re depressed, you may tell yourself that you’ll never recover. When you’re feeling anxious, you may tell yourself that something terrible is about to happen—“When I give my talk, my mind will go blank. I’ll look like an idiot.” You tell yourself, “I’ll just have one drink” or “one bite,” when, in fact, you never stop at just one drink or bite.
6. Magnification and Minimization. You blow things out of proportion or shrink their importance inappropriately. This is also called the “binocular trick” because it’s like looking through the ends of a pair of binoculars, so things either look much bigger, or much smaller, than they are in reality. When you’re procrastinating, you may think about everything that you’ve been putting off and tell yourself how overwhelming all those tasks will be. (Magnification) You may also tell yourself that you’re efforts today wouldn’t amount to anything anyway, so you might as well put it off. (Minimization) When you’re trying to diet and you’re feeling tempted, you may tell yourself: “This ice cream will taste so good!” (Magnification). Will it really be that good? Will it be worth the way you’ll feel about yourself after you give in to the urge to binge?
7. Emotional Reasoning. You reason from how you feel. In point of fact, your feelings result from your thoughts, and not from what’s actually happening. If your thoughts are distorted, your feelings will be as misleading as the grotesque images you see in curved fun-house mirrors. When you procrastinate, you may tell yourself, “I’ll clean my desk (or start my diet) when I’m more in the mood. I just don’t feel like it right now.” Of course, the feeling never comes! When you’re depressed, you may tell yourself, “I feel like a loser, so I must really be one.” Or “I feel hopeless, so I must be hopeless.” When you’re gambling, you may say, “I feel lucky! I just know I’m about to hit the jackpot.”This distortion also triggers romantic intoxication. When you meet someone attractive, you may feel so happy and excited that you think that he or she must be wonderful—the man (or woman) of your dreams.
8. Should Statements. You make yourself (or others) miserable with “shoulds,” “musts” or”ought to’s.” Hidden Shoulds are sometimes implied by negative thoughts.
Self-Directed Shoulds cause feelings of guilt, shame, depression, and worthlessness. You tell yourself that you shouldn’t have screwed up and made such a stupid mistake. When you’re feeling tempted, you may tell yourself, “I’ve had a hard day. I deserve a drink (or a nice dish of ice cream).”
Other-Directed Shoulds trigger feelings of anger and relationship problems. You may tell yourself, “That fellow shouldn’t cut in front of me in traffic like that. I’ll show him that he can’t get away with it!” You may tell yourself that your values are the best values and that other people should think and feel the same way.
World-Directed Shoulds cause feelings of frustration and entitlement. “The train shouldn’t be late when I’m in such a hurry!” You may tell yourself that the world should be the way you expect it to be.
9. Labeling. You label yourself or others instead. Labeling is actually an extreme form of overgeneralization, because you see your entire self or essence as defective and globally bad, or superior. You may label yourself or someone you’re not getting along with as “a loser” or “a jerk.” A physician slipped up on her diet and gave in to the temptation to eat a donut Then she told herself that she was “a fat pig with no will power.” This thought was so upsetting that she ate six more donuts. When you do well, you may think of yourself as special or as “a winner.” Motivational speakers, politicians, and athletic coaches often use this strategy to motivate people. But in reality, there’s no such thing as a “winner” or a “loser.” We’re all human beings, and no one can win or lose all the time.
10. Blame. You find fault with yourself (Self-Blame) or others (Other Blame). Self-blame. If you’re depressed, you may beat up on yourself constantly and mercilessly, blaming yourself for every error and shortcoming instead of using your energy to find creative solutions to your problems. Other-blame. During an argument, you may tell yourself that the other person is to blame for the conflict. Then you feel like an innocent victim and overlook your own role in the problem.

Although it is a matter of controversy, I believe that it is possible to feel joyous and enlightened without positive distortions. I’m also convinced that healthy negative emotions (such as sadness or healthy fear) can be distinguished from unhealthy negative emotions (such as clinical depression or a panic attack) by the presence or absence of negative distortions in the thoughts that trigger the feelings.

In the third chapter of Feeling Good I described an experience during my medical school when I was on call for the inpatient surgical service one evening at the Stanford Hospital. One of our patients was an elderly man with a kidney tumor. We operated and successfully removed his kidney, and the prognosis seemed positive. Unfortunately, he suddenly developed an aggressive metastasis to his liver and was placed on the critical list. The metastasis was not treatable.

His elderly wife stayed by his bed night and day, and wouldn’t leave the hospital. At times, she would just let her head slump next to him on the bed and fall asleep. She often stroked his head and said, “You’re still my man and I have always loved you.”

One night he began to slip into a coma, so the family was notified. Nearly a dozen of them soon arrived in his room, including his children and grandchildren. One of his sons asked if I could remove the catheter from his penis, because it had been uncomfortable for him. I was pretty unsure of myself, and didn’t even know how to remove a catheter, so I checked at the nursing station, but they said it was okay and explained how to do it. I asked if this meant that he was dying, and they said he was.

I went back to the room, pulled the curtain around the bed, and removed the catheter from his penis. Then I opened the curtain again. His son looked at me and asked, “Does that mean he’s going to die tonight?”

I had grown attached to him because he was a very kind man who had reminded me of my grandfather. Tears were rolling down my cheeks as I said, “He’s slipping into a coma, but he can still hear you, so it’s time to say goodbye. I loved him, too.” They all gathered around his bed to comfort him. I went to the room where the residents did their charting work and began to sob. He died within an hour.

To my way of thinking, the experience of profound sadness and loss, without distortions, is not depression, but rather a celebration of life. Sadness reflects our capacity for love. Healthy negative and positive emotions don’t need treatment, but are part of the richness of the human experience.

Sometimes healthy negative emotions (such as grief) are complicated by negative distortions, so healthy and unhealthy feelings coexist. In this case, you can use the “Mood Journal” to pinpoint and challenge your distorted negative thoughts. In Feeling Good I also described a severely depressed, suicidal physician whose brother had committed suicide. She was telling herself: 1. His depression was my fault because our parents loved me more when we were growing up. 2. I should have known he was suicidal the night he killed himself. 3. Because I failed him, I too, deserve to die.

These thoughts contained many distortions, such as Self-Blame, Should Statements, and Emotional Reasoning, as well as Mind-Reading and Fortune-Telling, since she expected herself to know how he was thinking and feeling the night he took his life. Fortunately, we were able to find a way to challenge and defeat those thoughts during her seventh therapy session. Her depression and suicidal urges vanished, and she was finally able to grieve his loss. Paradoxically, the intense depression, shame, and guilt she was feeling had prevented her from grieving his loss in a healthy way.

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