Maladaptive Assumptions in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and How to Identify Them

Maladaptive Assumptions in CBT

Maladaptive assumptions (also called underlying assumptions, intermediate beliefs, dysfunctional beliefs) in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, are, as the names suggest, maladaptive/dysfunctional beliefs underlying automatic thoughts.

They are simply the rules behind our automatic thoughts.

As you might remember, CBT mentions three levels of cognitive distortions.

Automatic thoughts are the most superficial of all three, thus the most easily accessible ones. Sometimes, we do not even have to search for them as they readily surface themselves:

“I am having a heart attack.”.

Underlying/Maladaptive assumptions, on the other hand, are the causes underlying automatic thoughts. A maladaptive assumption is the reason why we have that particular automatic thought.

For the same case, it might be:

“A physical symptom is always a sign that I am ill.”

We have these kind of assumptions for both ourselves and others. In fact, we have assumptions about everything in our world.

We even have assumptions about our assumptions, don’t we?

By-product of the way our brains work, these rules are short-cuts to our reasoning and behavior, telling us what to do in all kinds of different scenarios.

Thus, indeed, they are, in some way, helpful and indispensable.

However, some assumptions we hold are more harmful rather than helpful.

Let’s consider this one:

“I have to succeed at everything I do.”

Holding onto this assumption will indeed motivate the person to try harder and do more. This person might actually succeed at everything he/she does.

However, this assumption sets a very high standard for the person to achieve. It is almost impossible to live up to this standard, and it is probably more disadvantageous than it is advantageous.  

It requires the person’s life to be all about success.

No permission for any mistakes at anything.

Exhausting, isn’t it?

Thus, the purpose of examining and challenging a maladaptive assumption in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is to find a more realistic, more logical, and more adaptive version our assumption.

In order to be able to do this, first, we must identify our maladaptive assumption.

How to Identify Maladaptive Assumptions in CBT

One Way: Searching for a Rule-Book

Since our underlying assumptions form our rule-book , they usually include “should”, “must” or “if-then” statements.

Then, simply looking for “should”, “must”, “if-then” statements in our thinking will help us identify our maladaptive assumptions.

However, most of the time, this is not easy. The reason is that the more strongly we believe in an assumption, the more difficult it is to query it.

Instead, we usually accept these kind of assumptions as FACTS, and act on them automatically.

For this reason, while trying to identify maladaptive assumptions, it is usually quite helpful to think about and focus on a specific incident where we had some unpleasant feelings, and accompanying automatic negative thoughts.

Another Way: Identifying Maladaptive Assumptions Using A Specific Incident

Trying to identify underlying maladaptive assumptions, in fact , we are trying to understand the reason/motivation behind our negative automatic thoughts.

For this reason, we can use our automatic thoughts and feelings in a specific situation for helping us on reaching our maladaptive assumptions.

1. Identify Your Automatic Thoughts in a Particular Time and Situation

  • Try to identify your unpleasant feeling first, and then try to remember the time when your mood changed. You can think about the last time you felt this way, any time or the time your feelings were most powerful.

Where are you?

What are you doing? Washing the dishes? Did anything interrupt your action, like a phone ring, or a door bell?

What happened?

Just imagine your actions. As you think more about the details, it will get easier to find that particular moment when it all started.

What are you thinking?

Are there any images in your mind?

If we had a camera that can show everything that is going on inside your head, what would we see? What would we hear?

Are you telling anything to yourself?

  • Sometimes, it is not easy to go back and imagine oneself in that situation again. If this is the case, we can try imagining someone else being in the same situation:

Imagine a person is in the same situation as you are/were. He/she has a speech bubble above his/her head.

What is written there? What is he/she thinking? What is he/she saying?

2. Question the Meaning of the Situation

Question the meaning of the situation or your automatic thought by using the vertical descent technique in CBT. To do this, use questions:

What does it mean ? …and that means …and that means?

So what?

What would happen then? 

If so, then what?

How would this interfere with your life?

An Example

Having OCD, Claire has compulsions involving checking the stove over and over again. Just after she checks it, and ready to leave the kitchen, she is having thoughts:

“I’d better check again. What if I left it on?” 

We can ask her:

“What happens if you don’t check it for one more time?”

“The house might burn down”

“What happens if the house burns down?”

“It will be my fault.”

Then, in this case, “if the house burns down (anything bad happens), it will be my fault.” is one assumption underlying Claire’s automatic thoughts.

Even though, she is the one checking the stove a hundred times a day.

3. Use the Feeling in Order to Reach Maladaptive Assumptions

  • If your feeling is SADNESS, ask yourself:

What does this all tell about me? 

What does it mean that I lost (my job) ?

What does it mean that I no longer have… ?

What happens if …?

  • If your feeling is ANXIETY/ FEAR, ask yourself:

Why is this so terrifying?

What is the worst possible thing that can happen?

  • If your feeling is ANGER, ask yourself:

What does it tell about other people?

What did they do that they shouldn’t have?

What is it that my husband/sister/others should/shouldn’t do?

  • If your feeling is GUILT, ask yourself:

What is it that I shouldn’t have done? 

What is it that I should/ shouldn’t do?


Guess this is all for today.

If you have identified the maladaptive assumption, now, you might be interested in challenging and modifying it.

For that purpose, you can use the techniques in our next article: “How to Challenge Maladaptive Assumptions in CBT“.

Thanks for reading.


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