Some Basic Concepts About How Maladaptive Thoughts Appear And Are Organized

In this article I'll quickly explain some concepts about maladaptive thoughts regarding the forms they can take when they appear, and the "layers" behind them. As with some other articles in this section, I'm summarizing bedrock ideas from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. (Of course, other types of therapy may describe the same things through their own lens and terminology.) I won't talk about the actual content of the thoughts. That's covered in the articles on cognitive distortions and attributional styles.

How maladaptive thoughts can appear in the moment

Psychologists have identified a few common forms they take:

Negative Automatic Thoughts

When we're in certain situations we'll have counterproductive thoughts that pop into our mind so quickly and automatically that we often don't even notice them. More importantly, we usually don't question them, so they're free to have a detrimental effect on our mood and self-confidence. For example, if a student passes some classmates in the hall he may reflexively think, "They hate me", and then start to feel sad and discouraged.

Some sources refer to them as Negative Automatic Thoughts, or NAT's. Some people, including myself, don't like the word "negative" as it's not really about whether a thought is positive or negative, but if it's accurate and helpful to have or not. Still, that's a commonly used name, so I included it here.

Repetitive maladaptive thoughts

Unhelpful thoughts can appear in the form of self-defeating statements that play over and over again in a loop. For example, a shy woman in a conversation with some people she's just met may keep thinking, "I'm too boring to think of anything to say. Why can't I speak up?"

The inner critic

The inner critic is that voice in your head that provides running commentary and opinions on everything you do. Ultimately it's there because it's trying to help, but in some people becomes too harsh, negative, and perfectionistic. It's more like a grumpy little league coach than a patient, understanding mentor - "Ugh, why did you say that!? Wow, look at how everyone is staring at you now. What are you going to say to recover? Can't think of anything? What a surprise."

The deeper beliefs underlying maladaptive thinking

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy theorizes that in-the-moment counterproductive thoughts flow out of deeper beliefs we have about ourselves and how we think the world works. If someone has uncharacteristically pessimistic or unhelpful thoughts about something, they likely have maladaptive schemas and unflattering beliefs about their core worthiness as a person.

These deeper beliefs often originate in unpleasant childhood experiences. If something bad happens to an adult they have the mental faculties to put it in perspective. Children can't do this, and are much more likely to arrive at broad, inaccurate conclusions based on one or two incidents. For example, if a kid is teased for being fat in elementary school, rather than simply thinking, "Some people are jerks", they may develop the belief "I'm fundamentally different and flawed", or "Other people are cruel and untrustworthy".

Maladaptive Schemas

A schema is a kind of "map" or set of beliefs that determines how someone interprets and acts on certain aspects of the world. For example, one person may have a schema for "new people" that says they're friendly and usually open to having others join their social circle. A second person's past may have led them to develop a "new people" schema that says they're closed off, rejecting, and hard to please. Those two are going to think and act very differently if they go to a friend's house and are introduced to a group of guys they don't know.

Negative Core Beliefs

Negative Core Beliefs are succinct phrases like, "I'm unlikable", "I'm too weird to succeed in life", "I'm incompetent", or "I'm helpless". Someone may never have articulated those statements to themselves, but by looking at how they think and act, it's clear they feel that way. Negative Core Beliefs are tough to eliminate completely because they seem to reside in a deeper, more emotional part of our brain that's resistant to logic or evidence. For example, someone may have a ton of friends and be one of the most well-liked people at their school, but not be able to shake the feeling that they're still a loser deep down.

(Of course, the disclaimer from above about the word "negative" applies to this concept as well.)