Cognitive Therapy & Ruminative Self-Focus

Know thyself


- Socrates

Some attributes of negative emotional states

  • Depression is generally associated with slowing down, while anxiety is generally associated with speeding up [e.g., pounding heart, sweating].
  • Depressed individuals may lack the energy of motivation to do things they should do, while anxious individuals avoid doing things they should do.
  • The cognitive events of depressed individuals tend to be negative, hopeless, and self-critical, while those of anxious individuals tend to focus on threats, worries and catastrophic imagery.
  • Both depression and anxiety are maintained by ruminative thinking patterns. The focus of the former is the past, the focus of the latter is the future.
  • Your beliefs determine your emotional reactions to the things that happen. The resulting emotional state distorts state--dependent phenomena such as perception and appraisal of alternatives. The stronger the mood, the greater the distortion.


Pathological depression, anger, and anxiety have similar cognitive structures.  The primary thinking strategy of each is: Ruminative self-focus [RSF], in which the focus of attention is the self, how one feels, and why one feels that way.  It is ruminative in the sense that one goes over the same thoughts and images without achieving a resolution or plan of action. It masquerades as a problem-solving orientation, but very little problem solving actually takes place.  As a rule of thumb, when the content of the rumination is the past, a depressive disorder is the diagnosis; and when the future provides the content, the rumination is called worrying and shows up as generalized anxiety disorder. Because of its recursive structure, ruminative self-focus maintains itself and can diminish the quality of an entire biography.

Julius Kuhl’s research on conditioned helplessness* shows that when people fail, their focus shifts from figuring out how to be successful (problem solving) to perseverant thoughts about themselves, how they feel and why they feel this way (ruminative self-focus). This turns out to be a poor strategy because the rumination consumes cognitive resources that are then unavailable for problem solving. Kuhl found that conditioned helplessness appears to be maintained by the reciprocal relationship between failure and ruminative self-focus: Failure leads to ruminative self-focus and ruminative self-focus impairs performance, which increases the likelihood of failure.

Recent research on depression and the quality of social performance** shows that negative mood leads to self-reflective rumination, and self-reflective rumination leads to negative mood. Moreover, the ruminative self-focus, and the depressed emotional state it engenders, is found to impair subjects’ social problem-solving abilities and to decrease their self-efficacy regarding their social skills, both of which impair social performance. Poor social performance, in turn, may result in loneliness and other negative consequences, which set up higher level recursive structures.

Happiness as Escape from RSF

When I ask clients what they want out of life, or what they hope would happen if they could become free of their addictive trap, they often tell me they "want to be happy." There has been a lot of research on happiness and paths to achieve it. Perhaps the most sophisticated view of this topic*** suggests that happiness is freedom from RSF.

For individuals who become emotionally attached to outcomes, or who are judgmental toward themselves, any attempt to improve the self comes with the tendency to evaluate and criticize the self thereby evoking a recursive trap.

Reflection Vs RSF

But self-focus does not have to promote self-sabotage. In fact, later in this course we will focus on doing Personal Research to learn about the cause-and-effect principles that apply to you. This kind of attention differs from RSF in that it reflects an openness and curiosity about cause-and-effect relationships that pertain to the self and what is meaningful to the self, whereas the self-attentiveness associated with RSF is motivated by perceived threats, losses, or injustices to the self.

The objective is to take advantage of the information we can learn from studying the self without the judgment and self-criticism that usually goes along with exposure to information about success and failure. Both the experiential methods described in this section and cognitive therapy promote this latter kind of self-focus, though their approach to thoughts is different. The goal of experiential exercises is to change one's relationship to subjective experience, whereas cognitive therapy seeks to change the beliefs that influence subjective experience.


* Volitional Mediators of  Cognition-behavior consistency:  self-regulatory processes and action versus state orientation, Julius Kuhl Chapt 6.  In: The Psychology of  Action. 1996 The Guilford Press: New York - P. Gollwitzer and J Bargh Eds.

** Distinct Modes of  Ruminative Self-Focus: Impact of  Abstract Versus Concrete Rumination on Problem Solving in Depression Ed Watkins & Michelle Moulds -Emotion © 2005 by the American Psychological Association September 2005 Vol. 5, No. 3, 319-328

***Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row. ISBN 0-06-092043-2



An Exquisite Irony > >

^ Back to Top