Front cover of the book, Do you suffer from the blues from time to time? In his book, “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,” David D. Burns, M.D., compares blue moods to the scratchy music coming from a radio that is not properly tuned to the station.

In this article, I will explore how to “tune” your own radio and escape the blues using a technique called distanced self-talk.

Distanced Self-Talk

Distanced self-talk is a method that helps you gain a more objective perspective on your thoughts and emotions. It involves creating a mental “coach” who addresses you by your name or uses the second-person pronoun you.  This practice helps you detach yourself from the situation, enabling your “coach” to ask questions that reveal the cognitive distortions underlying your blue mood.

 

The Ten Cognitive Distortions Listed by Dr. Burns

Below are the ten cognitive distortions identified by Dr. Burns. I will explain its nature, provide an example, and discuss how your “coach” can help you overcome it.

⚫⚪ 1. All-or-nothing thinking

😥 2. Overgeneralization

👓 3. Mental filter

⬇️ 4. Disqualifying the positive

🔮 5. Jumping to conclusions

🔍 6. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization

😨😖😔 7. Emotional reasoning

👉👉👉 8. “Should” statement

🏷️ 9. Labeling and mislabeling

🧑10. Personalization

⚫⚪ 1. All-or-nothing thinking

All-or-nothing thinking is common among perfectionists. They view situations in black and white, often allowing a single mistake to ruin everything in their mind. They also fear others finding flaws in their work, preventing them from sharing it with the world.

gingerbread cookieExample: You bake fifty cookies and 49 turn out well, but one gets burned. If you’re a perfectionist, you can’t stand having one burned cookie and may end up throwing away the entire batch.

🤔 What can your coach do?

When you notice that you’re discrediting yourself due to one mistake, your coach can ask you, “Are you letting one mistake ruin everything you’ve done so far? Are you using all-or-nothing thinking here?”

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😥 2. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization involves drawing conclusions based on a single instance, experience, or example.

Example: You apply for a job but don’t get it, leading you to believe you’ll never find employment. Or, you ask someone out, and they say no, causing you to conclude you’ll never find a partner.

a scientist working on research studies in a labScientists are required to do a certain number of research studies to prove something. They don’t just do one study and draw a conclusion. 

🤔 What can your coach do?

When you’re about to draw a conclusion from one unfortunate example, your coach can ask you, “OK. You didn’t get the job this time. Will this one incident prove that you’ll get the same result again and again? Think like a scientist!”

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👓 3. Mental filter

A mental filter is a personal lens through which you interpret events. The same event can be positive for some and negative for others, depending on the filter they use. 

sunglassesWhen you’re upset or feeling negative, you tend to view everything through a negative filter.

Example: Imagine you receive feedback on a work project. If you’re in a positive mindset, you may view the feedback as constructive and an opportunity to learn and improve. However, if you’re feeling upset or negative, you might interpret the same feedback as harsh criticism, believing that your work is inadequate and that your efforts are not appreciated. In this scenario, your negative mental filter affects your perception of the feedback, even though the feedback itself hasn’t changed

🤔 What can your coach do?

Your coach can ask you, “What kind of filter are you using to view this event? Are you using a magic wand called ‘negative effect’ and converting all the color photos to black-and-white photos?”

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⬇️ 4. Disqualifying the positive

Pharmacy, Pharmacist, Chemical, Alchemy, Portion

Dr. Burns describes the tendency to transform neutral or positive experiences into negative ones as “reverse alchemy.” When something goes wrong, you dwell on it, but when things go well or someone compliments you, you disqualify the positive by attributing it to luck or good timing.

Example: You receive praise for a job well done on a presentation, but instead of accepting the compliment and acknowledging your hard work, you brush it off by saying, “I just got lucky” or “Anyone could have done it.” By doing so, you downplay your success and prevent yourself from internalizing the positive experience.

🤔 What can your coach do?

If you tend to reverse engineer anything positive into negative, your coach can ask you, “Tell me exactly what happened. Are you transforming a positive into a negative in your mind?”

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🔮 5. Jumping to conclusions

Jumping to conclusions involves making negative assumptions without sufficient evidence. Dr. Burns refers to this tendency as “mind reading” and “fortune-teller errors.”

a crystal ball fortune tellerExample: You send a message to a friend asking if they want to have lunch in a few weeks. They don’t reply for a long time, leading you to believe they don’t like you anymore and causing you to decide never to speak to them again. However, they may simply be too busy to check or reply to the message.

🤔 What can your coach do?

Your coach can ask, “Is your conclusion justified by a fact, or are you trying to read their mind or being a fortune teller?”

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🔍 6. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization

 

The word Magnification involves blowing errors, fears, or imperfections out of proportion, making them seem huge and overwhelming.

A person is surfing inside raindrops on leaf: a miniature effect photographyMinimization, on the other hand, involves diminishing your strengths or accomplishments, making them seem insignificant.

🤔 What can your coach do?

When you are distressed about a tiny mistake, your coach can ask, “Are you holding a magnifying glass and making one small mistake huge? Put down the magnifying glass. Now what do you see?”

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    😨😖😔 7. Emotional reasoning

    Emotional reasoning occurs when you let your emotions guide your actions.

    Example: You might avoid going to a party, learning something new, or exercising because you feel anxious, incapable, or tired. However, you often end up enjoying these activities when you give them a try.

    A party with a lot of plates and glasses. Even if you don't feel like it, if you just go, you often end up having a good time. 🤔 What can your coach do?

    Your coach can ask you, “Tell me about the time when you ended up having a good time when you overcame your hesitations or fear. Can you think about the time when your emotional reasoning turned out to be incorrect?”

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    👉👉👉 8. “Should” statement

    You use should and shouldn’t statements when you aren’t meeting your standard or others aren’t meeting your expectations.

    Example:
    You might think:

    👉“I should be more productive instead of wasting time doing nothing.”
    👉“I should be able to do this easily by now.”
    👉“I shouldn’t be this slow. What’s wrong with me?”

    Toward others, you might think,

    👉 “He should agree with me.”
    👉 “Are they insane? They should just listen to me!”
    👉“Friends shouldn’t act like that.

    The should and shouldn’t statements make you feel upset, guilty, or angry. They cause a lot of agony in your life. 

    🤔 What can your coach do?

    Your coach can help you notice every time you use a “should” or “shouldn’t” statement. They can suggest removing the “should” or “shouldn’t” from the sentence and seeing if you feel better.

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    🏷️ 9. Labeling and Mislabeling

    Labeling and mislabeling are extreme forms of overgeneralization. Instead of acknowledging a specific mistake, you define yourself or others based on that mistake.

    Example: You make one mistake and you label yourself based on that. You might say, “I am a loser” instead of saying, “I made a mistake.” 

    🤔 What can your coach do?

    Your coach can ask you, “Are you labeling yourself based on one thing you did? Do you label yourself as a glutton if you overeat once at a party?”

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      🧑10. Personalization

      Personalization involves blaming yourself for negative events, even when you were not primarily responsible.

      Example: You’re an instructor whose students take your class to pass a certification exam. After the class, some students pass, but others don’t. You blame yourself, thinking you’re a bad instructor. However, you can influence others, but you can’t control them.

      🤔 What can your coach do?

      Your coach can ask you, “Are you trying to control things you don’t have control over?”

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      🚀 Take Action Now!

      When you notice you are feeling down about yourself, try using distanced self-talk. Clone yourself mentally and make the clone your coach. Then, let your coach ask you questions by addressing you by your name or the second-person pronoun you to help you recognize and analyze your cognitive distortions, ultimately improving your mood.