Realistic Thinking

Spot Depressive Thoughts

Here are the most common types of depressive thinking:

All or nothing

You see situations as totally one way or the other. If you’re having trouble with math, that means you’re never going to understand it. If your friend just says hi quickly in passing, that means she doesn't want to spend time with you. One version of this is perfectionism, where you think that you have to be the best in the situation or it means that you failed. But the fact is that very few situations are completely one way or the other. Most situations fall somewhere in between.

It’s more realistic to think about situations in shades of gray, not black and white. Having difficulty with math is a problem that will require getting assistance, not a total disaster.  Your friend may be unhappy about something, so you'll need to talk it over with her, but that doesn't mean she never wants to see you again. As for perfectionism, since nobody can reach the top-level performance all the time, set your expectations at a level that is challenging but not superhuman.


Based on one negative event, you expect that things will continue to go wrong; or based on one negative fact, you assume that everything else in the situation is negative. You do poorly on one exam, so you expect to do poorly on all the exams coming up. You hear that one student is mad at you, so you assume that all the students in your class are mad at you. But it’s more realistic to look for extra information to decide how things are rather than rely on one little fact.  Doing poorly on one exam doesn’t mean you can’t do well on later exams in that subject if you study more, or on exams in other subjects. Instead of assuming that all the students are mad at you, check it out.


You talk to yourself in a harsh way, calling yourself names like “loser”, or whatever the worst insults are for you. You talk to yourself in a way that you would never talk to a friend or almost anyone. But this kind of self-labeling is unfair. All it really accomplishes is to make you feel discouraged and overwhelmed. Stop putting bad labels on yourself and instead encourage yourself to try things and praise yourself for what you achieve. You’ll feel better and accomplish more.


You exaggerate risk and expect the worst possible thing to happen. If you’re going to a party, you expect that everybody will ignore you and you’ll have a horrible time. Or you don’t sign up for any activities like music or sports because you’re convinced that you’ll be useless at it and you’ll be humiliated. But this kind of thinking exaggerates the likelihood of something horrible happening. It makes you feel much more discouraged than you need to be and it often will stop you from trying new things you might enjoy.


You imagine that other people are criticizing or rejecting you, even when you don’t have any real reason to think that. When you do this, you’re acting as though you could read someone else’s mind. If you’re introduced to a new girl who doesn’t say much, you immediately assume she doesn’t like you or want to talk to you. But it’s more realistic to check it out, to spend some time finding out what the other person really thinks. She probably doesn’t feel about you as negatively as you imagine, maybe even feels positively about you. You don’t really know until you check it out, and what you imagine is usually worse than the reality.


You only pay close attention to events that are disappointing or to critical comments from others. Negative events are given a lot of importance. When something positive happens, you ignore it. When someone praises you, it makes you feel uncomfortable and you treat it as unimportant [“he was just trying to make me feel better”]. But it’s more realistic to pay attention to both kinds of events; in fact, positive events or positive feedback are often more important, because they tell you what you’re doing right. Building on what you do right is a great strategy for making life better.

Do you use one of these kinds of depressive thinking? If so, write a depressive thought you have.

Based on the list above, what type of depressive thinking is it?