"Discounting Positives" is the persistent tendency of some depressed individuals to transform neutral or even positive experiences into negative ones.

This is not simply a case of ignoring positive experiences, but cleverly and swiftly turning them into their opposite.

Discounting positivesIt's what David Burns calls "reverse alchemy". But, rather than a method of transmuting base metals into gold, a depressed person develops the 'talent' for doing the exact opposite: transforming golden joy into emotional lead.

Most of us are conditioned to respond to compliments by telling ourselves, "they're just being nice", or by throwing on cold water with, "Oh! It was nothing, really".

Discounting positives is one of the more destructive of the cognitive distortions. We all have negative experiences from time to time, but the more we dwell on the negativity, we are likely to conclude, "That proves what I've known all along", and the less able we are to appreciate the good things that happen.

Burns gives an example of a woman who was hospitalised and suffering from severe depression. She told him: "No one could possibly care about me because I'm such an awful person. I'm a complete loner. Not one person on earth gives a damn about me." When she was discharged from the hospital, many patients and staff members expressed great fondness for her.

But she negated all of this: "They don't count because they don't see me in the real world. A real person outside could never care about me".

Burns then asked her how she reconciled this with the fact that she had numerous friends and family outside the hospital who did care about her. She replied, "They don't count because they don't know the real me. You see, Dr Burns, I'm absolutely rotten. I'm the worst person in the world. It would be impossible for anyone to really like me for more than one moment!"

By disqualifying positive experiences in this manner, she could maintain a negative belief which was clearly unrealistic and inconsistent with her everyday experiences.

Ignoring genuinely positive things that have happened to you removes much of life's richness and makes things appear needlessly bleak.


Techniques for 'un-distortion'

Robert Leahy has suggested the following techniques for challenging the tendency to discount positives:

  1. Rate the degree of your belief and identity and rate your emotions
  2. Identify exactly what you are discounting
  3. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis
    a. Do you think that being strict and demanding you will motivate you or others?
    b. Do you think being "moral" or "standing up for what's right"? Where did you get this rule?
    c. If you didn't discount the positives, how would your thinking, feeling and behaviour c?
  4. Examine evidence for and against discounting positives.
  5. What is the quality of the evidence that supports discounting positives?
  6. What cognitive distortions are you using to support your belief? Are you using dichotmous thinking, negative filters, labelling, "should" statements, a judgment focus?
  7. Are you using all of the information available or limiting your search to information that supports your belief? What is the consequence of this way of thinking?
  8. Would everyone see it this way? Why not?
  9. What is your underlying assumption? Complete this sentence: "These things don't count because…"
  10. What if we made your view that these things don't count a universal one for everyone? What would be the consequence?
  11. If you really loved someone or cared about him or her, would you count these positives? Why? What would be a reason not to count them here?
  12. Keep track of your positives (or the other person's positives) every day for a week. What does this record tell you?
  13. Every time you or someone else does something positive, praise yourself or the person. Will this praise increase or decrease the positive behaviour?