Depressive thoughts are unfair and unrealistic. They are distorted because they are inaccurate reflections of how the world is or how you are. The table below (and continued on the next page) describes some common forms of distorted thinking in depression1:
In this kind of depressive thinking, you only look at the bad, never the good. Because all you see is the negative side, your whole life appears to be negative. But realistic thinking equally considers positive and negative aspects of your life.
In this kind of depressive thinking, one negative event seems like the start of a never-ending pattern. If one friend leaves, they all will. If you fail the first time, you’ll fail every time. But realistic thinking recognizes that one disappointing situation does not determine how other situations will turn out.
All or Nothing Thinking.
You see the world in terms of extremes. You are either fat or thin, smart or stupid, tidy or a slob, depressed or joyful, and so on. There is no in-between. Gradual progress is never enough because only a complete change will do. “Who cares that I did half of it? It’s still not finished!” But realistic thinking sees people and events as falling somewhere between the extremes, towards the middle, where most things are found.
A small disappointment is seen as though it were a disaster. For example,
you were slightly late in completing
a small project, so your entire month is ruined: you react to the imagined
catastrophe (a terrible month) rather
than to the little event (a late project). But realistic thinking sees events
in their true importance, not
overemphasizing negative events.
You talk to yourself in a harsh way, calling yourself names like “idiot”, “loser”, or whatever the worst insults are for you. You talk to yourself in a way you would never talk to anyone else. But realistic thinking doesn’t use these kind of insults because they are not fair, you wouldn’t talk to anyone else that way, and they are unnecessarily discouraging.
You feel as though you know what others are thinking about you, and it’s always negative. So you react to what you imagine they think, without bothering to ask. But realistic thinking recognizes that guessing what others think about you is likely to be inaccurate, especially when you are depressed.
You feel as though you know what the future will bring, and it’s negative. Nothing will work out, so why bother trying? But realistic thinking recognizes that you don’t know how things will turn out: by staying open to the possibility of positive results, you’ll be more hopeful and more likely to make things better.
It’s only good enough if it’s perfect. And because you can’t make most things perfect, you’re rarely satisfied and can rarely take pride in anything. But realistic thinking gives credit for accomplishments, even if the result is less than perfect. Few of us reach perfection in what we do, but our achievements are meaningful.
You think that you know how the world should be, and it isn’t like that. You know what you should be like, and you aren’t. Result: You are constantly disappointed and angry with yourself and with everyone around you. But realistic thinking understands the limitations of the world and of yourself — trying for improvement but also accepting how things are.
There are other types of depressive thinking, but these are some of the most common ones. When you catch yourself thinking depressively, it can be useful to look at this list to see if you are using one of them.
1 These types of distorted thinking are described in an excellent book, Feeling Good by David Burns (Avon, 1992).