The Eleven Forms of Self Defeating Thoughts

Aaron T Beck identified eleven common forms of common cognitive errors. He suggested that these errors in our thinking are more pronounced when emotions are running high. He encouraged clients to memorise the following types of thoughts so they could identify these tendencies in themselves. We may all do well to take note.

1. All or Nothing Thinking

You see things in black-and white categories. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure. You are either a saint or a sinner. An addict going through recovery may lapse and take a drink, but instead of getting back on track, he thinks that he may as well go for bust because he has blown it.

2. Overgeneralisation

Making sweeping statements such as “I can never control my temper” based on a minor incident, is an example of overgeneralization. A single negative event, such as a relationship break up, or being turned down for a job is seen as a never-ending pattern of being a loser. The favourite words for those who overgeneralise are, ‘always’ and ‘never’.

3. Discounting the Positive

You reject positive experiences by insisting they ‘don’t count.’ If you do a good job, you may tell yourself that it wasn’t that good because anybody could have done it. Discounting the positive takes the joy out of life because you won’t take credit for a job well done, and it makes you feel unfulfilled and unrewarded.

4. Jumping to Conclusions

You jump to conclusions when you have one small part of the picture and you make a judgment about the whole thing. I haven’t received a phone call from that job interview today because they think I am useless and wouldn’t want me to work for them anyway.

5. Mind Reading

Can you read someone else’s mind? If you say things like, “I know that she doesn’t like me because she avoided me yesterday”. Not much evidence to support that premise, that’s why we call it mind reading.

6. Fortune Telling

Fortune telling is when you know the future is not going to turn out well for you by predicting that things will turn out badly. If you are going through a bad time, you may deduce that things will always be this way.

7. Magnification/Minimising

This is when you magnify the importance of a negative event, or lack of evidence for a positive event. You magnify your problems and minimise the importance of your blessings. This is also called the ‘binocular trick.’

8. Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is when you believe something to be true because it feels like it is true. You assume that your negative emotions reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel that I am not good enough to do my job, I feel hopeless. If I feel hopeless, I must be hopeless.

9. Making ‘Should’ Statements

This is when you tell yourself that you should do (or should have done) something better, when it would be more accurate to say that I would like to have done better, you are making ‘should’statements.

Other guilty offenders are, ‘I must’ ‘ I ought’ and ‘I have to’. ‘Should statements directed against you lead to guilt and frustration.

Should statements that are directed against other people lead to anger and frustration: ‘He shouldn’t be so stubborn and argumentative’

10. Labelling

When you use a label like, “I must be a bad father” because you have made a mistake, and then take on board all that this implies, you are labelling.

Labelling leads to anger, frustration and anxiety and a lack of self esteem. When you apply it to someone else especially in a close relationship like a marriage it can often lead to a break down in communication. This is because you are making a judgment on someone’s character, when more correctly, their thinking or behaviour is at fault.

11. Inappropriate Blaming

Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. When you use hindsight to determine what you ‘should have done’ even though you could not be expected to have known the best outcome at the time, you are using inappropriate blaming.
You might say, “I should not have gone away on holiday, then I would have been there when my father had the accident”

You could apply it to someone else by saying something like, “My marriage is falling apart because my wife is so unreasonable”

The blame game is not a good place to be.

Most of us are familiar with many of the above examples. When we fall into the trap of distorted thinking, we need to test the thoughts against objective reality. We could ask ourselves, “What is the evidence for this?” There is generally an alternative way of thinking about any situation.

Alan J Butler is a Recovery Coach and has worked with recovering addicts and ex offenders for the last 10 years. He spent 3 years living on site as a staff member of the Ovis Farm Project in Devon, England. He is an Associate of Life for the World Trust, an organisation whose aim is to equip the church to reach marginalised people. He holds a Diploma in Coaching & Mentoring from the Institute of Counselling, Glasgow. He welcomes comments at

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