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Four Step Reality Equation for Testing Dysfunctional Thoughts

In a previous blog I discussed Dysfunctional Thought Patterns and how they participate in keeping you stuck, unhappy, anger ridden and anxious.  They are typically products of thinking or the baggage that we pick up when we have experienced a dysfunctional family background.  So how do you turn these patterns around?

Learning to dispute your dysfunctional thoughts is the key. This does not mean sugarcoating things or living in denial of some sort, but using your mind logically and rationally to examine what you are thinking and why it is causing you distress. Studies show that learning to argue against your pessimistic thoughts in an effective manner relieves depression and it is as effective if not more so than anti-depressant medications. There is also less chance of relapse.

Although this is typically one of the topics that would be covered if you were engaged in therapy with a professional, it is not always necessary to have someone else point out your dysfunctional thoughts. This equation will help you test yourself, something you can do on an ongoing basis. As you get comfortable with the process you will feel better and be able to assess personal situations more effectively.

By using a cognitive model to dispute your negative or dysfunctional thoughts and distortions, you can alter your reactions. Remember that every thought you have also has a physiological response, T=PR.  If you think something scary, you are going to feel those unpleasant feelings of dread in your stomach, increased heart rate and changes in skin temperature. If you feel scared or threatened in some way you are going to behave and react differently than if you have interpreted the situation differently. Simply put, you are going to learn to question these thoughts and do some investigative work into your mind based on the answers to these critical four questions:

  1. What just happened-What is the exact event or situation that has occurred?
  2. What was my first thought-What was my initial interpretation of what was going on?
  3. How do I feel right now-Am I scared, angry or sad? Does my body feel these things?
  4. Is it reality-Did I interpret this correctly or did I have out my crystal ball and predict things I had no way of knowing? Did I interpret the situation using some belief or bias of my own that may not be accurate?

Here are a few examples of how this works from an easy one to more complex:

Example 1

1 Event =You are standing in line and someone steps on your foot.

2 My first thought = This guy did this on purpose because he wanted to get to the front of the line; people are selfish and think only of themselves. You have also projected an internal attribution to the event (purposeful behavior, rather than external circumstances).

3 How do I feel right now? I feel angry; I want to shove the guy into next year. I also feel angry in general that people are such selfish jerks. I am disappointed in the human race and feel negative toward them in general. I will stand in line and fume, and in fact may relive this moment over and over all evening to the detriment of my good time. I will ruminate on what a jerk he is all night. I will also consume my mind thinking of all the things I should have said to him, causing me further anguish. I will be in such a negative state that no one will be able to stand to be around me all evening. The toxic feelings that have developed in my body feel terrible.

4 Is it reality? I really don’t know that he did it on purpose. I have no evidence to suggest this. In fact the person in front of him may have bumped into him causing him to lose his balance. He may be dizzy or lightheaded from medication that he takes. He may have just lost his balance for no particular reason.

I feel better and the anger is dissipating. I really don’t care anymore about the guy, and I will give it no more thought. I will go on with my evening and have a great time. My negative or pessimistic thoughts have been neutralized, calming my bodily process and allowing me to go on in a constructive manner. I have thought it through logically and rationally, and I believe and accept my new thoughts. I didn’t just try to change my thoughts by saying something like, “Oh, Mr. Nice Man stepped on my toe. What a great guy!”

To take it a step further, at this point you would be also operating from an internal locus of control where you decided to take an event and handle it yourself in a positive manner and not let it control you. You were presented with an adversity and decided to change the way you felt because you did not like your current feelings. You did not just wait for something else good to happen to counter or replace the negative feelings.

Example 2
1 Event = My significant other seemed distracted at dinner. He/she did not show much interest in our conversation or in me in general.

2 My first thought = They must be tired of the relationship and is getting ready to end it. I will be financially strapped without their income and will have to get an extra job. I will also have to buy new furniture. I knew I was unlovable when the last relationship that I had ended; I should never have gotten into a new relationship. They are probably having an affair.

3 How do I feel right now? I feel scared for my future. I now can’t eat my dinner. I am thinking about all the bad things about this person so I can soften the blow when they ultimately end this. I will have thought of enough stuff to convince myself it doesn’t matter because they aren’t that great anyway. I am lonely because I am now detaching from this person to prevent more pain. I am feeling very defensive, and I may try to pick a fight in order to end the waiting and just get it over with. I am angry that they are cheating on me. I am going to pick a fight for sure now.

4 Is it reality? I have zero evidence that they are thinking of ending the relationship. In fact, I have more evidence to
the contrary. When we spoke today, everything seemed okay. Everything in general seems to be okay; they haven’t voiced major concerns about the relationship and we have been talking long-range plans. I know they are experiencing work/family/ health/financial concerns right now that may have come to the forefront this afternoon. I will just ask, “What’s the matter?” and take it from there. I need to quiet these thoughts and enjoy dinner right now. If the behavior continues, we will need to work it out, or maybe this isn’t the right person for me. I must be somewhat loveable as I have enjoyed other relationships.

I now feel better, and I was able to focus on dinner and the moment at hand. I quelled my panicky thoughts, which allowed my body to get back to normal. I relaxed, became more open and conversational, and attempted to get the person to discuss their day. If nothing else, I am not going to let this screw up my evening out. Also, my attitude of examining this relationship from the point of view of whether it meets my needs puts me in a position of control over myself and my destiny.

Example 3
1 Event = I did very poorly on a test today.

2 My first thought = I am stupid. Now I will not enter graduate school and be caught up in a menial job the rest of my life.

3 How do I feel right now? I feel sad, depressed and much self-hatred for being stupid. I am not even going to bother to try again. I think I will go eat/drink/use whatever other poor coping strategy I can think of. I feel as though my future is now very limited.

4 Is it reality? I guess I am really not stupid. I passed all the requirements to get into college to begin with. I have no evidence of actual low intelligence. I did well on the SATs and that takes some level of ability. What really happened was that I allowed myself to get distracted from my studying by my social life, and I wasn’t as prepared as usual. I can change this by not allowing that to happen again. One bad score is not going to result in being removed from school or prevent me from getting into graduate school. It’s not ideal that this happened, and I am not going to let it happen again, as repeated failures will result in negative consequences for my future.

I feel better, more in control, and not as pessimistic about my future. My mood is lifted again, and I have the motivation back to try harder and control my circumstances.

You get the idea.

When mastered, the concepts of examining and changing your underlying beliefs, modifying dysfunctional thought patterns and evaluating the attributions you make to the world around you are already enough to see you on your way to feeling better. Most likely, you are able to see where a lot of your unhappiness may have stemmed from these learned thought processes. Remember, you were not born with these. You now have the opportunity to change them.

Four Step Reality Equation for Testing Dysfunctional Thoughts

Audrey Sherman, Ph.D.

Dr. Audrey Sherman is a licensed psychologist, coach and the author of the book Dysfunction Interrupted-How to Quickly Overcome Depression, Anxiety and Anger Starting Now. Her expertise is in defining, describing and transforming dysfunctional behavior and thought patterns learned in childhood or beyond that keep you anxious, depressed, angry, stuck in unhappy and unproductive relationships, jobs and more. Dr. Sherman developed the Dysfunctional Patterns Quiz and other free resources to help you determine the effects of these on your life. She works with individuals, conducts live and online workshops and trains others in her programs. To learn more about Dr. Sherman, you can visit her website.

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APA Reference
Sherman, A. (2017). Four Step Reality Equation for Testing Dysfunctional Thoughts. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Nov 2017
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