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Effective Counseling Skills

Shared by contributor Yvette McBride Thomas

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Effective Counseling Skills

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Gestalt – Fritz Perls

1. View of Human Nature

a. A Gestalt means a whole, and Gestalt therapy is based on the person feeling whole or complete in their life.

b. Gestalt therapy is considered to be a here-­and-­now therapy focusing on awareness with the belief that when one focuses on what they are and not what they wish to become, they become self-­actualized. The idea being that through self acceptance one becomes self-­actualized.

c. The Gestaltists believe that the individual naturally seeks to become an integrated whole, living productively.

d. Gestaltists are antideterministic because they believe that people have the ability to change and become responsible.

e. Gestalt borrows heavily from the viewpoints of existentialist, experientialist, and phenomenologicalist with the emphasis on the present and awareness. Gestalt focuses on the client’s own inner world of interpretation and assessment of the present life situation

f. Gestaltists believe that individuals emphasize intellectual experience, diminishing the importance of emotions and senses, resulting in an inability to respond to the situations or events in their life

g. Gestaltists believe that thoughts, feelings, and reactions to past events or situations can impede personal functioning and prevent here-­and-­now awareness. The most common unfinished business is that of not forgiving one’s parents for perceived mistakes in one’s parenting.

h. Awareness is considered on a continuum with the healthiest person being most aware. These people are aware of their needs and deal with them one at a time. The emphasis in on reality and not on embellished or imagined needs. The individual recognizes their internal need and meets that need through manipulation of the need and the environment.

Difficulty may arise in several ways:

i. Loss of contact with the environment and its resources.
ii.. Loss of contact with self through over involvement with environment.
iii. Fail to put aside unfinished business.
iv. Loss the Gestalt resulting in fragmentation or scattering.
v. Experience conflict between what one should do and what one wants to do.
vi Experience difficulty with life’s dichotomies, i.e. love/hate, pleasure pain, masculinity/femininity.

2. Role of the Counselor

a. The counselor creates an environment for the client to explore their needs in order to grow.
b. The counselor is fully with the client in the here-­and-­now with intense personal involvement and honesty.
c. The counselor helps the client to focus on blocking energy and to positively and adaptively use that energy.
d. The counselor also helps the clients to discern life patterns.
e. Among the rules that counselors use to help client:

i. The principle of the now requires the counselor to use present tense.
ii. I and Thou means that the client must address the person directly rather than talk about them or to the counselor about them.
iii. Making the client use the I instead of referring to own experiences in the second (you) or third (it) person.
iv. The use of an awareness continuum that focuses on how and what rather than on why.
v. The counselor has the client convert questions into statements.
vi. DSM-­IV categories and standardized assessment is not considered necessary within this theory (Gladding, 1996)

3. Goals

a. The emphasis is on the here-­and-­now of the client’s experience
b. The client is encouraged to make choices based on the now as opposed to past
c. Help the client resolve the past
d. Assist the client to become congruent.
e. Help the client to reach maturity intellectually.
f. Help the client shed neuroses.

4. Techniques

a. Techniques in Gestalt therapy one of two forms, either an exercise or an experiment

i. Exercises include activities such as:

  1. frustration actions
  2. fantasy role playing
  3. fantasy
  4. psychodrama

ii. Experiments are unplanned creative interventions that grow out
of the here-­and-­now interaction between the client and the

b. Dream work in Gestalt therapy consist of the client telling the dream and then focusing their awareness on the dream from the perspective of each character or element in the dream.

e. Empty chair is a process where the client addresses parts of the personality , as if it were an entity sitting an empty chair. The client may switch perspectives by switching chairs or may simply address the chair. The technique is contraindicated for severely disturbed clients.

f. Confrontation is another of the Gestalt exercises that is very powerful. Basically, the counselor calls attention to the incongruence between the client’s verbalizations and observed emotions or behaviors.

g. Making the rounds is a group exercise in which the client is instructed to say the same sentence to each member of the group and then adding something personal to each person.

h. I take responsibility is the phrase that follows each statement expressing statements or perceptions that the client states. The process is to help the client to integrate their internal perceptions and their behaviors.

i. Exaggeration is over-­dramatizing the client’s gestures and movements to help gain insight into their meaning.

j. May I feed you a sentence is the question that the counselor asks before giving the client a more specific expression of what the counselor believes is the underlying message of the client.

Existential Counseling – Rollo May and Viktor Frankl

1. View of Human Nature

a. Existentialists believe that the individual writes their own life story by the choices that they make.

b. Psychopathology is defined by existentialists as neglecting to make meaningful choices and accentuating one’s potential.

c. Anxiety is seen as the motivational force that helps the clients to reach their potential. Conversely, anxiety is also seen as the paralyzing force that prevents clients from reaching their full potential. Therefore, through awareness, this anxiety can be helpful in living more fully.

d. Frankl shares that each person searches for meaning in life, and that while this meaning may change, the meaning never ceases to be.

e. According to Frankl, life’s meaning can be discovered in three ways:

i.by doing a deed (accomplishments or achievements),

ii. by experiencing a value (beauty, love, nature, and arts)

iii. by suffering (reconciling ourselves to fate)

2. Role of the Counselor

a. Each client is considered a unique relationship with the counselor focusing on being authentic with the client and entering into a deep personal sharing relationship

b. The counselor models how to be authentic, to realize personal potential, and to make decisions with emphasis on mutuality, wholeness and growth.

c. Existential counselors do not diagnose, nor do they use assessment models like the DSM-­IV.

3. Goals

a. A goal of existential counseling is to have the clients take responsibility for their life and life decisions.

b. A goal of existential therapy is to develop self-­awareness to promote potential, freedom, and commitment to better life choices

c. A major goal is to help the client develop an internal frame of reference, as opposed to the outward one.

4. Techniques

a. The most common technique used in existential counseling is the relationship with the client .

b. Confrontation is also used by existential counselors, when they challenge the clients with their own responsibility for their lives.

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Person Centered – Carl Rogers

1. View of Human Nature

a. Rogers viewed human nature as basically good

b. He believed that if given the appropriate environment of acceptance, warmth and empathy, the individual would move toward self-­actualization

c. Self-­actualization is the motivation that makes the individual move toward growth, meaning, and purpose

d. Person-­centered is considered a phenomenological psychology in which the individual’s perception of reality is accepted as reality for the individual.

e. Person-centered is often referred to as a self theory, because of Rogers’ emphasis on the self being the result of the person’s life experiences and the person’s awareness of comparisons to others as the same or different.

f. Rogers believed that most people were provided conditional acceptance as children, which lead them to behave in ways that would assure their acceptance. However, in their need for acceptance, the individual often behaved in ways that were incongruent with the real self. Thus, the greater this incongruence between the real self and the ideal self, the greater isolated and maladjusted the person became.

2. Role of the counselor

a. The counselor sets up a environment where the client is safe to explore any aspect of the self. The counselor’s job is to facilitate the exploration through a special client-therapist relationship of unconditional positive regard, empathy, and warmth.

b. The person­centered counselor uses psychological testing on a limited basis. The Q-sort is sometimes used in assessment by the person-­centered counselor. A series of 100 statements are written on cards. The statements are self-­descriptions, i.e. I am capable, I am dependent, I am worthless. The client is asked to read and sort each of these statements into nine piles from most like me to least like me. Then the stacks are recorded. The client re­sorts the cards into what they would like to be like. The Q-sort gives an indication of the incongruence between the perceived real self and ideal self.

c. The use of diagnostic categories is discouraged as incompatible with the philosophical view of the individual as unique. Diagnosis places the counselor in a position of authority and imposes a treatment plan.

3. Goals of therapy

a. In person-­centered theory are directly concerned with the individual.

The counselor facilitates the client toward:

i. Realistic self-­perception

ii. Greater confidence and self-­direction

iii. Sense of positive worth

iv. Greater maturity, social skill, and adaptive behavior

v. Better stress coping

vi. More fully functioning in all aspects of their lives

4. Techniques

a. The techniques used in person-­centered therapy have changed over time.

b. Three periods of time in which different techniques were stressed:

i. Nondirective Period (1940-­1950). In this period of theory development, the counselor focused on listening and creating a permissive atmosphere. The counselor did not provide interventions, but communicated acceptance and clarification.

ii. Reflective Period (1950-­1957). During this period of time,

counselors emphasized being non-judgmental of the client, while responding to the client’s feelings and reflecting the affect accurately.

iii. Experiential Period (1957-­1980) This is the period of the EWG: Empathy, Warmth and Genuineness. Empathy is the ability of the counselor to understand the emotions of the client and correctly communicate this understanding. Warmth is also referred to as acceptance and positive regard in person-­centered literature. Warmth is the ability of the counselor to convey an unconditional acceptance of the client’s personhood. Genuineness or congruence is the ability to be who one really is without assuming roles or facades.

c. The counselor helps the client through accurate reflections of feelings, keeping the client focused on the concern, and clarification of feelings and information. The counselor uses open-­ended questions or phrases to help the clients gain insight into experiences and necessary changes in their lives.


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Individual Psychology – Alfred Adler

1. View of Human Nature

A)    The Adlerian concept of social interest is the individual’s feeling of being part of a whole in the past, present, and the future. Adler believed that people were mainly motivated toward this feeling of belonging. He did not believe that social interest was innate but rather a result of social training.English: Alfred Adler Česky: Rakouský lékař a ...

B)    Adler expressed that people strove to become successful and overcome the areas that they perceived as inferior. He referred to this process of personal growth as striving for perfection. Those who did not overcome feelings of inferiority developed an inferiority complex. Those who overcompensated for feelings of inferiority developed a superiority complex.

C)    Adler believed that a person’s conscious behavior, not their unconscious, was the mainstay of personality development. Because of this concept, Adlerian theory emphasizes personal responsibility for how the individual chooses to interpret and adjust to life’s events or situations.

D)    Maladjustment is defined in Adlerian theory as choosing behavior resulting in a lack of social interest or personal growth. Adler believed that misbehavior would take place when the person had become discouraged or when positive attempts at good behavior had failed to get the needed results. Encouragement to good behavior was often the recommended antidote to misbehavior.

E)     Another concept is that of teleology, which simply put means that a person is as influenced by future goals as by past experiences.

F)     Adlerian espoused the belief that the birth of each child changed the family substantially. He thought that the birth order of the children in the family influenced many aspects of their personality development. Briefly, characteristics of these birth positions are:

I) Oldest children are usually high achievers, parent pleasers, conforming, and are well behaved.

II) Second born children are more outgoing, less anxious, and less constrained by rules than first born children. They usually excel as what the first born does not.

III) Middle children have a feeling of being squeezed in and are concerned with perceived unfair treatment. These children learn to excel in family politics and negotiation. However, they can become very manipulative. This position also tends to develop areas of success that are not enjoyed by their siblings.

IV) The youngest child is the most apt at pleasing or entertaining the family. While they run the risk of being spoiled, they are also the most apt at getting what they want through their social skills and ability to please. They are often high achievers, because of the role models of their older siblings.

G)    Only children or children born seven or more years apart from siblings are more like first born children. Children with no siblings often take on the characteristics of their parents birth order, as the parents are the only role models. While these children may mature early and be high achievers, they may lack socialization skills, expect pampering, and be selfish.

H)    Adler saw the family as the basic socialization unit for the child. He believed that children’s interpretation of the events in their life was determined by the interaction with family members before the age of five. The family interactions taught the children to perceive events and situations through certain subjective evaluations of themselves and the environment, called fictions. Basic mistakes could be made based on these fictions.

Adlerians believe that some of those mistakes are (Mozak, 1984):

I) Over-­generalizing in which the individual believes that everything is the same or alike.

II) False or impossible goals of security which leads the individual to try to please everyone in seeking security and avoiding danger.

III) Misperceptions of life and life’s demands which leads the individual to expect more accommodation than is reasonable and to interpret their failure to get accommodation as never getting any breaks.

IV) Minimization or denial of one’s worth results in the individual believing that they cannot be successful in life.

V) Faulty values results in a “me first” mentality with little or no regard for others.

VI) Adler believed that life took courage or a willingness to take risks without knowing the outcome. He believed that a person with a healthy life style contributed to society, had meaningful work, and had intimate relationships. He espoused cooperation between the genders as opposed to competition. He believed that well-adjusted people lived in an interdependent relationship with others in a cooperative spirit.

2. Role of the counselor

A)    The counselor is as a diagnostician, teacher and model. The counselor helps the client to explore conscious thoughts, beliefs and logic for behaviors that are not in the client’s best interest or social interest. The client-­counselor relationship is an equal one with the counselor sharing insights, impressions, opinions, and feelings with the client to promote the therapeutic relationship. Therapy is very cognitive with an emphasis on the examination of faulty logic and empowering the client to take responsibility to change through a re-­educational process.

B)    The counselor encourages the client to behave “as if” the client were who they wished to be and often provides the client with “homework” assignments outside the sessions. Adlerians are eclectic in technique with an emphasis on encouragement and responsibility.

3. Goals of Adlerian counseling

A)    Goals focus on helping the client develop a healthy lifestyle and social interest. The counselor assists the client through four goals of the therapeutic process:

I) establishing a therapeutic relationship

II) examining the style of life

III) developing client insight

IV) changing behavior

B)    The behavior change is the result of the individual taking personal responsibility for behavior .

4. Techniques

Confrontation – Consists of challenging the client’s private logic and behavior.

Asking “the Question” – Consists of asking the client how their life would be different if they were well? The question often asked to parents is, what would be the problem if this child were not the problem?

Encouragement – Consists of the counselor supporting the client by stating the belief in the client’s ability to take responsibility and change behavior.

Acting “as if” – Consists of instructing the client to behave “as if” there were no problem or as the person that the client would like to be.

Spiting in the client’s soup – It means that the counselor points out the purpose of the client’s behavior. Afterward, the client may continue the behavior, but cannot do so without being aware of their motivation for engaging in the behavior.

Catching oneself – Consist of helping the client learn to bring destructive behavior into awareness and stop it.

Task setting consists of helping the client set short-­term goals leading toward the attainment of long-­term goals.


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Psychoanalytical Theory – Sigmund Freud

 View of Human Nature

  • Freud’s view of human nature is considered to be dynamic, meaning that there is an exchange of energy and transformation. Freud used the term catharsis to describe this release of this energy.
  • Freud saw the personality as composed of a conscious mind, a preconscious mind and an unconscious mind. The conscious mind has knowledge of what is happening in the present. The preconscious mind contains information from both the unconscious and the conscious mind. The unconscious mind contains hidden or forgotten memories or experiences.

Structure of Personality

  • The personality has three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego
  • The id is present at birth and is part of the unconscious. The id is the site of the pleasure principle, the tendency of an individual to move toward pleasure and away from pain. The id does not have a sense of right or wrong, is impulsive, and is not rational. It contains the most basic of human instincts, drives, and genetic endowments.
  • The ego is the second system to develop and it functions primarily in the conscious mind and in the preconscious mind. It serves as a moderator between the id and the superego, controlling wishes and desires. The ego is the site of the reality principle, the ability to interact with the outside world with appropriate goals and activities.
  • The superego sets the ideal standards and morals for the individual. The superego operates on the moral principle which rewards the individual for following parental and societal dictates. Guilt is produced when a person violates the ideal ego denying or ignoring the rules of the superego.

Developmental Stages

  • Oral stage is centered on the mouth as a source of pleasure.
  • Anal stage is centered on the anus and elimination as a source of pleasure.
  • Phallic stage is centered on the genitals and sexual identification as a source of pleasure.
    • Oedipus Complex is described as the process whereby a boy desires his mother and fears castration from the father, in order to create an ally of the father, the male learns traditional male roles.
    • Electra Complex is described a similar but less clearly resolved in the female child with her desire for the father, competition with the mother and thus, learns the traditional female roles.
  • Latency stage is a time of little sexual interest in Freud’s developmental view. This stage is characterized with peer activities, academic and social learning, and development of physical skills.
  • Genital stage begins with the onset of puberty. If the other stages have been successfully negotiated, the young person will take an interest in and establish sexual relationships.

Ego Defense Mechanisms

  • Were believed by Freud to protect the individual from being overwhelmed by anxiety. He considered them normal and operating on the unconscious level. Some of the ones most often referred to are:
    • Repression is the defense mechanism whereby the ego excludes any painful or undesirable thoughts, memories, feelings or impulses from the conscious.
    • Projection is the defense mechanism whereby the individual assigns their own undesirable emotions and characteristics to another individual.
    • Reaction Formation is the defense mechanism whereby the individual expresses the opposite emotion, feeling or impulse than that which causes anxiety.
    • Displacement a defense mechanism whereby the energy that is generated toward a potentially dangerous or inappropriate target is refocused to a safe target.
    • Sublimation is a positive displacement is called whereby the frustrating target is replaced with a positive target.
    • Regression is the defense mechanism whereby returns to an earlier stage of development.
    • Rationalization is the defense mechanism in which an individual creates a sensible explanation for an illogical or unacceptable behavior making it appear sensible or acceptable.
    • Denial is a mechanism whereby an individual does not acknowledge an event or situation that may be unpleasant or traumatic.
    • Identification is a defense mechanism whereby a person takes on the qualities of another person to reduce the fear and anxiety toward that person

Role of the Counselor

To encourage the development of transference, giving the client a sense of safety and acceptance. The client freely explores difficult material and experiences from their past, gaining insight and working through unresolved issues. The counselor is an expert, who interprets for the client.

Goals of therapy include

a. Helping the client bring into the conscious the unconscious.
b. Helping the client work through a developmental stage that was not resolved or where the client became fixated.
c. Help the client adjustment to the demands of work, intimacy, and society.


  • Free Association is a process where the client verbalizes any thoughts that may without censorship, no matter how trivial the thoughts or feeling may be to the client
  • Dream Analysis is a process where the client relates their dreams to the counselor. The counselor interprets the obvious or manifest content and the hidden meanings or latent content .
  • Analysis of transference is a process where the client is encouraged to attribute to counselor those issues that have caused difficulties with significant authority figures in their lives. The counselor helps the client to gain insight by the conflicts and feelings expressed .
  • Analysis of resistance is a process where the counselor helps the client to gain insight into what causes form the basis for a hesitation or halting of therapy.
  • Interpretation is a process where the counselor helps the client to gain insight into past and present events .


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15 Types of Distorted Thinking

Contributor: Yvette McBride Thomas

Thought Distortions

  1. Tunnel vision
  2. Awfulising
  3. Black & White Thinking
  4. Generalization
  5. Assumption
  6. Projection
  7. Negative Thinking
  8. Self-consciousness
  9. Blame
  10. Unfairness
  11. Emotional Reasoning
  12. Manipulation
  13. Shoulds
  14. Got To Be Right
  15. Heaven’s Reward

1. Tunnel vision :

Example: “I expect it’ll be another boring party”.

It is being stuck in a mental groove. In particular you look for that which confirms your fear or prejudice, remember it from the past and expect it in the future. You ignore other points of view or the possibility of alternative solutions.

2. Awfulising :

Example: “I can’t bear going on these awful buses”.

This attitude is saying that it’s unacceptable if things aren’t as you would prefer them to be. You take the negative aspect of a situation and magnify it. To handle this, recognize when you use words like terrible, awful, disgusting, etc. and in particular the phrase “I can’t stand it”. Examine their rationality.

3. Black & White Thinking :

Example: “You’re either for me or against me”.

Things are black or white, wonderful or terrible, a great success or a total failure, brilliantly clever or really stupid, a certainty or a complete mystery, friend or enemy, love or hate – there is no middle ground, no room for improvement, no room for mistakes. judgments on self and others swing from one emotional extreme to another and are easily triggered. It is important to remember that human beings are just too complex to be reduced to dichotomous judgments, and that all qualities fall somewhere along a continuum, containing elements of either extreme.

4. Generalization :

Example: “I’ll never be any good at tennis” (after one poor game).

In this distortion you make a broad, generalized conclusion, often couched in the form of absolute statements, based on a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again. If someone shows evidence of a negative trait, this is picked up on and exaggerated into a global judgment. This inevitably leads to a more and more restricted life and your view of the world becomes stereotyped. Cue words that indicate you may be over-generalizing are: all, every, none, never, always, everybody and nobody. To become more flexible use words such as: may, sometimes and often, and be particularly sensitive to absolute statements about the future, such as “No one will ever love me”, because they may become self-fulfilling prophecies.

5. Assumption :

Example: “Nothing can change the way I feel”.

Making an assumption, presupposes knowledge that you do not have. Assumptions are often popular beliefs that have been adopted without examining their basis in fact, such as “I’m over the hill now that I’m forty”. Making decisions based on assumptions may lead to disaster, as when an executive assumes that a new product will sell well, having made no market research. Often, taking things for granted causes people to be blind to possible solutions – assuming no-one can help them, a couple’s marriage may go on the rocks, when they could seek counseling. Question: What leads you to believe this? Why do it this way? Who says? What alternatives are there? What would happen if you did? What would happen if you didn’t? As a practical matter, all of us must proceed with the business of living by relying on “maps” of the world which we have taken on trust and which we have not tested and often cannot test. To supplement personal experience, we absorb a constant stream of reports, descriptions, judgments, inferences and assumptions coming from a multitude of sources. From this abundance of stored information, you piece together a mental “model” of the world and its workings that literally becomes your world view. However, people do vary considerably in the extent of their misinformation and in the degree to which they actively seek out new information, take opportunities to correct or update their mental models, and expose themselves to new experiences.

6. Projection :

Example: “I know he doesn’t like me”.

Making false assumptions about what other people think depends on a process called projection. It is like mind-reading – putting words into peoples’ mouths. You imagine that people feel the same way you do and react to things the same way. If you get angry when someone is late, you assume that another will feel the same way about you or others, in that situation. If you don’t like yourself, you assume others also think that way. The answer is not to jump to conclusions about what other people think and feel.

 7. Negative thinking :

Example: “We haven’t seen each other for two days – I think the relationship is falling apart”.

You read a newspaper article about some misfortune and wonder if that could happen to you. Predicting negative consequences is a defense, to protect oneself from disappointment by expecting the worst. Consider, what are the realistic odds of that happening?

8. Self-consciousness :

Example: “Quite a few people here seem smarter than I am”.

This is the introverted tendency to relate everything around you to yourself, to think people must be judging you, or to think that everything they do or say is a reaction to something about you. It is the habit of continually comparing yourself to other people, based on the underlying assumption is that your worth is questionable. You are therefore continually forced to test your value as a person by measuring yourself against others. If you come out better you have a moment’s relief; if you come up short, you feel diminished. Your worth doesn’t depend on being better than others, so why start the comparison gamble?

9. Blame :

Example: “It’s your fault we’re in debt”.

If you see yourself as externally controlled, you see yourself as helpless, a victim of fate or “the system”. You don’t believe you can really affect the basic shape of your life, let alone make any difference in the world, so you try and manipulate others to take care of your interests. Someone else is to blame and is responsible for your pain, your loss, your failure. The truth is that we are constantly making decisions and every decision affects and steers our lives. It is your responsibility to assert your needs, to say no or go elsewhere for what you want. In some way we are responsible for nearly everything that happens to us, including our distress and unhappiness. Taking responsibility means accepting the consequences of your own choices. Ask yourself: What choices have I made that resulted in this situation? What decisions can I now make to change it? The opposite distortion is also very common – the fallacy that makes you responsible for the pain or happiness of everyone around you. You carry the world on your shoulders. You have to right all wrongs, fill every need and balm each hurt; if you don’t you feel guilty and turn the blame on yourself. Blaming yourself means labeling yourself inadequate if things go wrong. With this viewpoint you are very easily manipulated. The key to overcoming this fallacy is to recognize that each person is responsible for himself – taking responsibility doesn’t imply that you are also responsible for what happens to others. Remember, part of respecting others includes respecting their ability to overcome or accept their own pains, make their own decisions and be in control of their own lives.

10. Unfairness :

Example: “It’s not fair, he should take me out more often”.

The consideration of unfairness results from resentment that the other person does not want or prefer the same as you, or that events do not turn out in your favour. The person gets locked into his or her own point of view, with a feeling of ever-growing resentment. Be honest with yourself and the other person. Say what you want or prefer, without getting involved in the fallacy of unfairness: that people and situations shouldn’t be the way they are.

11. Emotional reasoning :

Example: “I feel depressed, life must be pointless”.

You believe that what you feel must be true – automatically. If you feel stupid then you must lack intelligence. If you feel guilty then you must have done something wrong. If you feel angry, someone must have taken advantage of you. However, there is nothing automatically true about what you feel – your feelings can lie to you, they can be based on misconceptions. If your feelings are based on distorted thoughts, then they won’t have any validity. So be skeptical about your feelings and examine them as you would a used car.

12. Manipulation :

Example: “If we had sex more often, I’d be more affectionate”.

The only person you can really control or have much hope of changing is yourself. When you pressure people to change, you are forcing them to be different for your own benefit. Strategies for manipulating others include blaming, demanding, withholding and trading – in order to make the other feel obliged. The usual result is that the other person feels attacked or pushed around and resists changing at all, or feels resentful if they do. The underlying fallacy of this thinking style is that your happiness depends on controlling the behavior of others. In fact your happiness depends on the many thousands of large and small decisions you make during your life.

13. Shoulds :

Example: “You should never ask people personal questions”.

In this distortion, you operate from a list of inflexible rules about how you and other people should act. The rules are right and indisputable. Any particular deviation from your particular values or standards is bad. As a result you are often in the position of judging and finding fault. People irritate you, they don’t act properly or think correctly. They have unacceptable traits, habits and opinions that make them hard to tolerate. They should know the rules and they should follow them. Of course, the answer is to focus on each person’s uniqueness: his or her particular needs, limitations, fears and pleasures, and consequently different values. Personal values are just that – personal. You are also making yourself suffer with shoulds, oughts and musts (or their negatives). You feel compelled to do something or be a certain way and feel guilty if you don’t, but you never bother to ask objectively if it really makes sense. Some people beat themselves up constantly for being incompetent, insensitive, stupid, too emotional, etc. They are always ready to be wrong. The psychiatrist Karen Horney called this the “tyranny of the shoulds”.

14. Got to be right :

Example: “I’ve been doing this longer than you, so I know what I’m talking about”.

In this very common distortion you are usually on the defensive, needing to prove to yourself and others that your views, assumptions and actions are all correct. You never make mistakes! If you’ve got to be right, you don’t listen. You can’t afford to – listening might reveal that you are wrong sometimes. Your opinions rarely change because if the facts don’t fit what you already believe you ignore them. This makes you lonely, because being right seems more important than an honest, caring relationship. The key to overcoming being right, is active listening – making sure you really understand what’s been said to you, to appreciate the other’s point of view and what you can learn from it, which is effort better spent than in devising rebuttals and attacks. Remember that other people believe what they are saying as strongly as you do, and there is not always just the one right answer.

15. Heaven’s reward :

Example: “I worked and raised these kids and look what thanks I get”.

This distorted thinking style accepts pain and unhappiness because “those who do good are rewarded in the end”. You expect all your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there was someone keeping score. You feel hostile and bitter when the reward doesn’t come. In reality the reward is now. Your relationship, your progress toward your goals, and the care you give to those you love, should be intrinsically rewarding. If not, you need to rearrange your activities to provide some here-and-now reward, dropping or sharing the activities that chronically drain you – Heaven is a long way off and you can get very tired waiting.


The best way to practice identifying Thought Distortions in everyday life is to take particular notice of one of the distortions for one day, and notice whenever it is used – by others or by yourself! Frequently, several Distortions are combined in a statement, or a statement fits into several categories of Distortion. These are commonly rationalizations – i.e. seemingly plausible explanations, excuses or justifications, which in fact are ignoring or fudging the real issue. For example. “I don’t need to work hard on this job because no one else will,” is an assumption, a generalization, negative thinking, tunnel vision, projection, and so on.

Unclear Thinking

Without us being aware of it, the way we usually think serves to riddle our minds with inconsistencies and irrationalities. This unclear thinking then leads to the Thought Distortions listed above. This occurs because language is a representation of human experience and not the experience itself. Language is an abstraction and in many cases a person will delete, distort or generalize in his verbal thoughts or statements about the actual experience. We can’t speak all of the meaning underlying our thoughts or every statement would be too long and pedantic but there is a danger in simplifying our thoughts too much. This is usually done to avoid confronting the whole truth about a situation. A situation can be seen as final and fixed rather than ongoing and changeable, so that responsibility is avoided and nothing can be done about it. For example:

I’m angry“. About whom? About what?

That’s not right“. What specifically is not right?

I realize I’m stupid“. How specifically do you realize you’re stupid?

I want love“. Who do you want loving from?

Nobody loves me“. Who specifically does not love you?

I have to clean the house before my husband gets home“. What would happen if you didn’t?

It’s impossible to talk to my boss“. What stops you?

My wife makes me angry“. How specifically does your wife make you angry?

I handled that meeting badly“. Badly compared with what?

I know he dislikes me“. How do you know he dislikes you?

It’s wrong to love two people at the same time“. It’s wrong for whom to love two people at the same time?

“I have a bad memory“. What do you have trouble memorizing and how do you go about it?

I can’t relax“. What prevents you? What would happen if you did?

I can’t cry“. Is that can’t or won’t?

“Without us being aware of it, the way we usually think serves to riddle our minds with inconsistencies and irrationalities.” The idea is to shift one’s state of being to at least acknowledge the possibility of choice, and to revise one’s fixed ideas. This is not to say one should question one’s every word, but if you find yourself feeling dissatisfied, look out for what you are deleting, distorting or generalizing about your experience, and how are you reducing your choices.

Each day, take one of the above Thought Distortions and spot when you find yourself or a person you are talking to using the Distortion. Also note on TV when this occurs. Just recognizing it as such – i.e. that it is an irrational thought – will enable you to be free of the Distortion or will enable you to better understand your fellow man.

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