Maladaptive Thinking – A Guide

Human psychology is a rather complex area of study because in as much as the world’s leading psychologists think that they have it all figured out, hence capable of providing solutions through therapy and therapeutic process, there are many new things that sprout out of human behavior each day.

What is means is that the experts of the human brain and behavior are always on the lookout for more information to fill in the gaps and to help the rest of humanity be the best versions of themselves by dealing with what’s plaguing them and the thoughts that they string along.

One of the areas of human psychology that needs a deeper understanding is the area that deals with maladaptive thinking.

Whether you’ve heard about or read about maladaptive thinking in the past or are coming across this concept for the first time here, this article will offer essential insights into everything you need to know about maladaptive thinking.

What is Maladaptive Thinking?

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Maladaptive thinking represents one of the integral aspects of the human cognitive behavioral model that suggests the existence of three unique layers of cognitive dysfunction in the minds of individuals that find themselves struggling with either psychological and/ or social problems.

These layers include automatic thoughts, an individual’s intermediate beliefs, as well as their core beliefs. Out of these three, our focus is on the automatic thoughts since this is where the maladaptive thoughts exist.

As a result of this structuring of the mind, specifically the layer of the cognitive dysfunction, the maladaptive thoughts are also referred to as the maladaptive automatic thoughts.

So, what are they? Well, the maladaptive thoughts refer to the distorted reflections of situations, where these reflections are often accepted as true. The automatic thoughts, on the other hand, refer to the brief stream of thoughts that we have about ourselves and also about others.

These thoughts largely depend on and apply only to specific events and/ or situations that we come across throughout the day, especially as we appraise our environment, ourselves, and the future we hope for ourselves. Often, we remain unaware of these thoughts even though they directly affect the emotions we feel.

Therefore, the maladaptive automatic thoughts end up being the real-time manifestations in our lives, of the dysfunctional beliefs that you and I have about ourselves, the rest of the world, and the kind of future we picture for ourselves.

Often, these dysfunctional beliefs we have about ourselves would be exaggerated or even triggered by the different psychiatric states, for example, depression and anxiety.

Through maladaptive thinking, one lives in a state where their thought fails to reflect reality accurately, and this often leads to the initiation and the encouragement of counter-productive behavior(s).

Given the weight of the maladaptive automatic thoughts, successful/ good therapy relies on a keen identification and the understanding of the maladaptive thoughts.

Besides the maladaptive thoughts, it’s important also to explore the intermediate and the dysfunctional core beliefs that affect CBT.

The intermediate beliefs refer to the rules and the attitudes followed by an individual because they apply across various typical situations. They are not situation specific thoughts, and they are created by constant assumptions and information that they get from their environment. These thoughts often influence behaviors.

On the other hand, the dysfunctional core beliefs are the beliefs that drive automatic thoughts and other dysfunctional rules.

Often, the core beliefs are formed at childhood, and these thoughts solidify over time because of how you perceive different experiences.

Basic Concepts of Maladaptive Thoughts

Wondering how maladaptive thoughts appear and how they are organized?

With these negative thoughts as the bedrock of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an understanding of the basic concepts about how these thoughts would appear and their organization is essential.

  • Negative Automatic Thoughts

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In most cases, we find ourselves in situations where we have negative thoughts racing through our minds. These thoughts often pop very fast, and most of the time, they go unnoticed.

Therefore, despite the existence of these thoughts, we hardly notice question them, meaning that these thoughts are free to affect your mood, as well as your self-confidence in a detrimental manner.

What this means is that the next time you notice a coworker passing you without saying hello, you may, albeit reflexively think that your coworker hates you (whether that is true or not), and that would eventually and unconsciously leave you feeling sad, sappy, and discouraged, and just low-spirited.

  • Repetitive Negative Thoughts

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These maladaptive thoughts represent the negative thoughts appearing as self-defeating statements that feel as if they are on repeat/ loop on your mind.

An example of these repetitive negative thoughts is thinking to yourself, ‘I’m not good enough, and I could never measure up.’ in just about every conversation you have with friends, family, or strangers.

  • The Inner Critic

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We all know that inner voice, the small, persistent voice in our heads that offers a running commentary and endless opinions for and about everything we do. That, ladies and gentlemen, is your inner critic.

While the ultimate role of your inner critic is to help, this inner critic for some people is too negative and too harsh, even a perfectionist to the extent that it feels like the little league coach who was ever grumpy, rather than your patient mentor.

Your inner critic is the voice that makes you want to slap yourself, pinch yourself, or pull that rubber band harder against your skin because some part of your brain believes that you shouldn’t have said that and because you did, everyone else is looking at you, no staring at you, and you have to figure out a smarter response to recover.

What Causes/ Drives Maladaptive Thinking?

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Psychologists and CBT experts theorize that the negative thoughts, specifically the automatic thoughts, often flow from some of the deeper beliefs and values we may have about ourselves and also how we think/ believe the world works.

Accordingly, if someone has uncharacteristically unhelpful/ negative thoughts about someone or something, then it’s likely that they have maladaptive schemas, as well as some unflattering beliefs about their worthiness (at the core) as human beings.

As mentioned above, the core beliefs often stem from deeper, unpleasant beliefs that are reinforced in childhood. Therefore, if you go through something bad as an adult, your pre-established thoughts and experiences would put the new sad experiences into perspective.


At the end of the day, beliefs that are biased inaccurately, negatively, and are rigid play a significant role in the development of anxiety and other mood disorders. However, these interpersonal beliefs and beliefs could be changed through cognitive behavioral therapy.

It’s also important to know that the negative core beliefs are tough and almost impossible to eliminate because these beliefs lie deep in the individual’s mind and also in the most emotional part of the brain, the one that often resists evidence and logic.

Changing such deep-seated beliefs would require replacement of the existing beliefs, loads of therapy, and even more patience and understanding.