Twelve types of thoughts: A classification that helps in choosing your own self-talk

Frequency Rating Version

One of the biggest discoveries in mental health is that people can improve their lives through consciously choosing what to say to themselves. The result is called “cognitive therapy.”

Here are twelve types of thoughts that people very often use. They are all useful at various times. People often make themselves feel bad by “overdoing” the first three.

Please rate, for each of these, how frequently you use this type of thought or self-talk.

0=Never or almost never

2=Quite seldom

4=Not very often

6=From time to time, sometimes


10=Very often

  1. _____Awfulizing. This is telling yourself how bad a situation is that you’re facing. Examples of not overdoing it: “This course isn’t going well. I’m in a lot of danger of failing.” “Looks like the event I was looking forward to is cancelled; I don’t like that one bit.” Examples of overdoing it: “I can’t stand this – I can’t take it. This is just too horrible for me. [Because of this] I hate my life!”

  2. _____Getting down on yourself. This is telling yourself that you have messed up, made a mistake, are unskilled at something, or are deficient in some way. Examples of not overdoing it: “I was rude to that person. I wish I had thought more before acting.” “I got lazy and didn’t study, and that’s why I failed that test.” Examples of overdoing it: “I’m a worthless person.” “I’ll never amount to anything.” “I’m just not likeable and that’s why people will never like me.”

  3. _____Blaming someone else. This is telling yourself about the badness of someone else’s actions, or of their personality. Examples of not overdoing it: “This person often tells people things that aren’t true, in a very harmful way. The person is dangerous because of that.” “This person has tried to take advantage of me several times, in a very selfish and uncaring way.” Examples of overdoing it: “That ____ _____ (blanks are filled in with obscene swear words).” “That person is a worthless loser, and ugly as well.”

  4. _____Not awfulizing. This is not just the absence of awfulizing. It is specifically reminding yourself that the situation can be handled. Example: “I may not like this, but it’s not the end of the world. This will take some time and money to fix, but it can be fixed.” “This is a bad situation, but it’s not so bad that it will defeat me. I can handle this.” “I’ll bet if I put my mind to this, I can figure out a way to make things better.”

  5. _____Not getting down on yourself. This is not just the absence of getting down on yourself. It’s specifically telling yourself that you have better ways to use your time and your mind than criticizing yourself – even when you’ve made a mistake. Example: “I’ve made a mistake, but there’s nothing to be gained by continuing to beat myself up about it. I can use my mind in better ways, and I will.”

  6. _____Not blaming someone else: This is not just the absence of blaming, but specifically telling yourself that you have better ways to use your time and your mind than going over how bad someone else is. Example: “I wish they wouldn’t do that. But I don’t want to just keep going over and over in my mind how blameworthy they are. I want to use my mind in a more constructive way than that.”

  7. _____Goal-setting. This is identifying what you want to accomplish in this situation. Examples: “That person did a bad thing, but my goal is not to get revenge or to teach the person a lesson. My goal is to make things turn out as well as I can, with me coming across as reasonable and with no one getting hurt.” “My goal is to figure out how to do really well on the next test I take.” “My goal is to relax and cool off for a while, and then think about the next step I should take.” “My goal is to use this time well, so that not only am I not bored, but I get to feel good about what I’ve achieved.”

  8. _____Listing options and choosing. In this, you make a decision about what to do. You think about the different possible actions you could take, probably think about their pros and cons, and try to pick the one that will work out best. Example (when someone has criticized something I’ve done): “If this criticism is helpful in any way, I could say thanks. I could tell the person I’ll think about it. I could agree with it in part rather than defending myself. I could ask the person to explain more. I could just reflect back what I heard the person say, to make sure I understand. I could say nothing. In this situation the criticism is not helpful, so I think I’ll not reinforce the other person, but will just give them a curious look and say nothing.” Doing this well means thinking of very wise options and making wise choices, which is often not easy.

  9. _____Learning from the experience: This is telling yourself what you’ve learned that may be helpful the next time you are in a situation like this. You can learn from good experiences as well as from bad ones. “I learned from this that when I want to get some support for a problem I want to pick someone else other than this person.” “I learned from this that when I’m giving a performance in front of people, it’s really worth it to practice a whole lot beforehand – that really paid off for me, and will in the future.” “I learned from this experience that if I want to invite someone to do something with me, I get better results if I don’t wait until the last minute; I can learn from this success!”

  10. _____Celebrating luck: This is thinking about the goodness of a situation that wasn’t a result of what you or someone else did. Examples: “Wow, how lucky it is that it didn’t start raining until I was ready to come inside!” “I’m glad I happened to be born in a place where there isn’t warfare going on all around me.” “How lucky that I happened to run across such a helpful book, with such good information in it.”

  11. _____Celebrating someone else’s choice: This is thinking about the goodness of someone else’s action or actions. Examples: “That person was really nice to me!” “That person didn’t have to do that for me, but they did!” “I’m grateful to these people for making and furnishing the things I need.” “I’m grateful to the persons who invented the vaccines for this bad illness.”

  12. _____Celebrating your own choice: This is taking the time to say “Hooray” or something like that when you have made a good choice and have done something smart or good. Examples: “Yay, I did some good work, I really accomplished something.” “Yay, I did a kind act, and I think I made the other person feel really good!” “This was a tough situation, but I made a good choice of what to do. Congratulations, self!” “I made a mistake, but at least I was able to talk about it openly. Hooray for my honesty triumph!” “Other people tried to get me to get drunk, but I wouldn’t go along with them. A self-care and courage celebration!”

Suppose you imagine a bar graph, with 12 bars. The height of each bar represents how frequently you think each of the 12 types of thoughts. Sometimes when people are depressed, they do a huge amount of getting down on themselves and very little celebration of anything. Sometimes when people have anger control problems the bar for blaming someone else is very tall and the bar for listing options and choosing is very short. Sometimes with anxiety the bar for awfulizing is very tall and the bars for not awfulizing, listing options and choosing, and celebrating your own choice are short. You can over time change what the heights of the different bars look like. Sometimes such a change results in a huge improvement in the quality of life!

In the “twelve thought exercise,” you practice making up an example of each one of these thoughts about the same one situation. This teaches your brain that there are lots of different ways to think about any situation. If you can pick the thoughts that are most useful to you, rather than just using reflex habit, this too can result in a huge improvement in the quality of life.

In the “four thought exercise,” you practice a smaller set of thoughts: not awfulizing, goal-setting, listing options and choosing, and celebrating your own choice. If you can make these four types of thoughts the “default reflex” for provocations or anxiety triggers, you can perhaps make great gains in anger control or anxiety reduction just by doing this.