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Roger Watts, Ph.D.Roger P. Watts, Ph.D.
A blog about alcohol and other drug addictions and how to obtain lifelong recovery.

Fourteen Dysfunctional Thoughts That Can Keep People Sick

Roger P. Watts, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 3rd 2013

Dr. David Burns wrote a classic self-help book to help relieve depression and other psychological problems called Feeling Good (1980). In it he outlined a number of dysfunctional thoughts that people may commonly engage in that influences mood and behavior. For the average person, these may cause some concern, but for the alcoholic or drug addict this kind of thinking usually only leads to one behavior…using alcohol or other drugs. Ask yourself the questions related to each dysfunctional thought and decide for yourself if this is a concern for you.

businessman thinking1. All-or-Nothing Thinking (Black-and-White Thinking) - is seen in statements that use absolute terms such as "always, never, completely, totally, or perfectly." Leaves no room for middle ground or exceptions. Often used to suggest you are a failure if your performance falls short of standards. Have I reduced some complex reality to black-and-white or all-or-nothing alternatives?

2. Blaming - Blaming ourselves, someone else or a situation for set-back, mistake or problem instead of using it as an opportunity to learn. Have I responded to a setback by blaming circumstances, someone else, or myself instead of seeing it as an opportunity to learn?

3. Catastrophizing - is a building of up consequences to an event so that they seem insufferable or particularly horrible. Have I distorted some unwanted outcome as a catastrophe I simply couldn't survive?

4. Minimizing (and maximizing) - "the binocular trick" happens when we enlarge our shortcomings or someone else's accomplishments while shrinking our accomplishments or someone else's shortcomings. Have I downplayed or trivialized my accomplishments or successes?

5. Fortune-telling / Jumping to conclusions - occurs as unfounded, usually dire predictions that are made as if they are already fact. Have I predicted some unwanted outcome without having any solid basis on which to make the prediction?

6. Labeling - is an extreme form of overgeneralization whereby a negative and usually emotionally charge label is attached to a person on the basis of a relatively isolated or insignificant behavior. Have I called anyone a name or described myself or someone else in unflattering terms?

7. Mental filter - focusing on an aspect, usually negative, of a situation while ignoring the positive. Can also be rejecting the positive experiences by insisting they "don't count". Have I blocked out my past successes or my talents and focused instead on some negative experience or quality?

8. Mind reading - is a prediction about other people's thoughts or behaviors that is made without checking it out. Have I presumed to know how others must be thinking or feeling?

9. Overgeneralization - is the use of a single negative event as evidence for a never-ending pattern of negative events. Have I taken one or a small number of unwanted experiences as proof that I'm condemned forever to repeat them?

10. Should statements - are statements that suggest a desire to change some reality when the only real choice is between accepting and not accepting it. Often related to shame/guilt statements. Have I allowed my arbitrary expectations of myself (or those of others) to cloud my thinking about how I feel or what I want?

11. Selective interpretation - happens when we choose to hear/believe only those statements which meet/fit our own expectations/experience. Situations or facts outside our reality are not recognized. We have a tendency to selectively take information and use it to fit our own reality. Have I taken some event or reaction out of context and jumped to a conclusion that's not supported by the larger body of facts?

12. Personalization - happens when we interpret an event or a situation as having special meaning (usually negative) for only ourselves. Have I come to believe that others are deliberately setting out to humiliate, disappoint, or frustrate me?

13. Reasoning with your heart / Emotional reasoning - is a mood dependent thinking based on the assumption that feeling something strongly necessarily makes it true. Have I used my feelings exclusively to draw a conclusion about the truth?

14. Over-responsibility - Taking responsibility for something that we have little or no control over. Have I taken responsibility for something over which I have little or not control?


Roger P. Watts, Ph.D.

Dr. Roger P. Watts, Ph.D., a psychologist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor, operates and currently provides substance abuse counseling to dozens of alcoholics and addicts. He has 23 years experience delivering health care to hundreds of patients through individual, group, and online counseling services. He has been in recovery himself for 24 years. He lives and works in Saint Paul MN, and can be reached at

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