Monthly Archives: February 2022

Thirteen Definitive Cognitive Distortions

Dr. Robert F. Mullen

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are irrational thought patterns involved in the perpetuation of depression, anxiety, and especially social anxiety disorder. Cognitive distortions cause us to perceive reality inaccurately and reinforce negative thoughts and emotions. We distort reality to avoid or validate certain behaviors or justify our inability to effectively pursue our goals and objectives. Cognitive distortions twist our thinking. They paint a false or inaccurate picture of ourselves and the world around us. We convince ourselves that these thoughts are rational when they are often very far from the objective truth.

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The number of cognitive distortions listed by various experts ranges substantially. The following thirteen are comprehensive and sufficient. You will note similarities and overlaps among these distortions, even in this abbreviated list. 

Filtering. When we engage in negative filtering, we selectively choose our facts. We filter out all the positive information about a specific situation, only allowing in the negative information. In other words, negative filtering is focusing on the negative and discounting the positive, which only aggravates our negative self-image and ability to think reasonably. We view ourselves, our life, and our future through a dark lens. Filtering increases feelings of hopelessness and helplessness because it induces a pessimistic outlook. A dozen people in your office celebrate your promotion; one ignores you. You obsess over the one and feel inadequate.

Polarized Thinking. In polarized thinking, we see things in black-or-white, all or nothing. We register emotionally only in extremes. We are either brilliant or abject failures. Our friends are either for us or against us; there is no middle ground. We do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes. People with this unrealistic expectation do not see gray areas in most situations; hence, we feel frustrated, bitter, and disappointed. Polarized thinking is very detrimental to relationships; we refuse to give people the benefit of the doubt. I failed my last exam; I fail at everything I try. I’m a loser.

Overgeneralization. In this cognitive distortion, we draw a broad conclusion or make a statement about something or someone unjustified by the available evidence. We make blanket claims that cannot be proved or disproved. The whole world knows Suzie is a liar. To imply that the entire world thinks Suzie is a liar is a profound exaggeration absent consensus. A few colleagues may share our opinion, but not the whole world. It is a false and irrational conclusion. Overgeneralization supports our negative self-beliefs and image without foundation. I just said something stupid. Everyone thinks I’m an idiot.

Shouldas. Statements like I ought to do this, and I should’ve done that evade a full commitment. They allow us to change our minds, procrastinate, and fail. Should, would, ought, and must are pressure words because they incur guilt and shame if we do not fulfill what we said we might do. I should start my diet means, maybe I will and maybe I won’t. (We are either on a diet or will be on a diet.) In this distortion, we operate occasionally from a list of inflexible rules about how we and other people “should” act. Rules are established by our negative intermediate beliefs. “Shoulds” and “aughts” are major contributors to anxiety. I should be happy!

Blaming. Like Control Fallacies, we see ourselves as either helpless or all-powerful. One of the most common cognitive distortions, external blaming involves holding others accountable for our actions, rather than accepting responsibility for the consequences. Internal blaming is taking responsibility for things over which we either have no control or for which we have no accountability. We perceive everything as our fault and feel shame and guilt when things go wrong.

Blaming. External blaming is when we hold other people responsible for our actions, rather than accepting responsibility for the shame, guilt, and consequences. Internal blaming is taking responsibility for things over which we either have no control or for which we have no accountability. We perceive everything as our fault and feel shame and guilt when things go wrong.

Control Fallacies. There are two ways we can distort our sense of power and control. We can see ourselves as helpless and externally controlled, or as omnipotent and responsible for everyone around us (internal control).

External control persuades us we cannot manage our own life. The world has it in for us; we are victims. We cease searching for solutions because we have given up. We blame our unsatisfactory lives on society, gender, race, sexuality, weight, age, etc., using them to avoid taking personal responsibility. There’s no point in trying, the world is against me.

Internal control tells us we are responsible for everything, even things over which we have no control. We feel responsible for everything and everybody. We carry the world on our shoulders. We must right all wrongs, fill every need, and balm each hurt. And when we invariably fail, we blame we feel guilty and self-blame.

Fallacy of Fairness is the unrealistic assumption that life should be fair. We become angry and resentful when things do not go our way, especially when they logically shouldIt’s not fair I have social anxiety disorder. The word fair is a disguise for personal preferences and wants. We all have our own ideas of how we like to be treated and feel deeply hurt when we believe we are mistreated. What we want is fair, what the other person wants is bogus. Fairness is so often subjective. In personal interactions, fairness is a subjective assessment of how much of what we expect,  need, or want is provided by the other person. The trouble is that two people seldom agree on what is fair. The fallacy of fairness is often expressed in conditional assumptions: ‘If he loved me, he’d come home right after work.”

Always Being RightWhen we engage in this distortion, we convince ourselves our opinions supersede those of others. I’m right and you’re wrong. Being right is more important than the truth or the feelings of others. I don’t care what you say, I know I’m right. I read it on the internet. In social situations, this is an irrational and nonproductive way to compensate for our perceptual lack of positive personal qualities, e.g., competence, intelligence, desirability… We aren’t interested in the possible veracity of a differing opinion, only in defending our own. Our opinions rarely change because we, symptomatically, have difficulty embracing new ideas and concepts that challenge our core and intermediate beliefs.

Jumping to Conclusions. These are opinions/conclusions unsubstantiated by fact. We jump to conclusions when we assume to know what another person is feeling and why they act the way they do. It’s an excellent example of how we express our ANTs. No one will like me, I’ll say something stupid, no one will talk to me. It’s irrational and self-destructible, often leading to poor or rash decisions that can be harmful. There are multiple forms of Jumping to Conclusions including: 

  • Fortune telling assumes we know exactly what will happen in the future. 
  • Mind reading assumes we accurately know what other people are thinking (especially prevalent in SAD)
  • Labeling is making assumptions about people, based on stereotypical behaviors.

Emotional Reasoning. My gut tells me…  Emotional reasoning is feeling without thinking – relying on our emotions over objective evidence. We use our mood or attitude to define what is going on around us. This emotional dependency dictates how we erroneously relate to the world. At the root of emotional reasoning is the belief that what we feel must be true. If we feel like a loser, then we must be a loser. If we feel guilty, then we must have done something wrong. All the negative things we feel about our self, others, and the world must be true because they feel true. It’s a form of Filtering because we filter out the intellectual appraisal of our emotional feeling, which leads to a polarized evaluation.

Personalization is the tendency to relate everything that happens back to ourselves. Like children, persons with SAD, lack the ability to appraise things accurately from the perspectives of others. Our fears and anxieties are so formidable, that we assume everything that happens is our fault, and everything derogatory someone says is a reference to us. We constantly compare ourselves to others’ achievements rather than taking pride in our own. When we come up short, our sense of inferiority triggers self-criticism, negativity, and anxiety. I have social anxiety disorder because I am I was unattractive as a child or because I couldn’t play sports. It’s very self-indulgent, bordering on narcissism because, by personalizing, we are also taking credit for another person’s accomplishment. 

Labeling is a cognitive distortion in which we reduce ourselves or other people to a single — usually negative — characteristic or descriptor, like “stupid” or “failure.” we generalize by taking one characteristic of an individual and applying it to the whole person. Because I failed a test, I am a failure. Because she exaggerated or embellished a story, she is a liar. As a result, we view the entire person (or ourselves) through the label and filter out information that does not fit the stereotype, which is deceptive, demeaning, and prejudicial. It is an emotional reaction rather than an intellectual evaluation. If someone is curt with you, they are a jerk. Once we have labeled someone or ourselves, we Filter out anything that does not fit the label. The person who is curt may have a serious matter to attend but we have personalized it, making a broad assumption based on one isolated piece of business, that is almost always inaccurate.

Personal labeling is creating a negative self-image or descriptor out of a sense of our own inadequacies.

Catastrophizing is an irrational belief something is far worse than it is. When we engage in catastrophizing, we anticipate (welcome) disaster. We imagine the worst and select or exaggerate the truth to support our theory. We create self-fulfilling prophecies. Catastrophizing is a good definition of our ANTs. We anticipate, sometimes days or weeks prior, that something will go wrong in a Situation, carry this anxiety into the Situation, then blow the consequences out of proportion and obsess about them after. Catastrophizing is similar to Overgeneralization as well as Polarized Thinking, generated by our self-oriented negative self-beliefs, which fall under one of the following categories. We feel:

  • Helpless (I am weak, I am incompetent)
  • Hopeless (nothing can be done about it)
  • Unlovable (no one will Ike me)
  • Worthless (I don’t deserve to be happy).

WHY IS YOUR SUPPORT SO IMPORTANT?  ReChanneling develops and implements programs to (1) moderate symptoms of emotional dysfunction and (2) pursue personal goals and objectives – harnessing our intrinsic aptitude for extraordinary living. Our paradigmatic approach targets the personality through empathy, collaboration, and program integration utilizing scientific and clinically practical methods including proactive neuroplasticity, cognitive-behavioral modification, positive psychology, and techniques designed to reinvigorate self-esteem. All donations support scholarships for groups, workshops, and practicums.

Resolving Our Negative Moral Emotions

Dr. Robert F. Mullen

Dr. Mullen is doing impressive work helping the world. He is the
pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity utilizing DRNI—deliberate,
repetitive, neural information.  WeVoice

We retain an abundance of destructive information, formed by our core and intermediate beliefs ― information seemingly impervious to uprooting due to its resistant or repressive nature. A lot of this negative information is from the unresolved moral emotions of shame and guilt. These often lead to internal or external blaming, determined by who we choose to be accountable. While each is a natural response to things that negatively impact us, when left untreated, they encumber our neural network with negative energy and obstruct the process of recovery. 

Whether or not we chose to be accountable for our actions determines how we attribute blame. If we are unwilling or unable to accept responsibility, we resort to external blaming. Internal blaming is taking responsibility for things over which we either have no control or for which we have no accountability. Both are irrational and cognitively distorted attributions.

Recovery from disorders like social anxiety and depression requires restructuring our neural network – feeding it positive stimuli to counter the years of toxicity. Unresolved shame and guilt impede the flow of positive neural input unless and until we evict the bad tenants.


There are three basic types of transgressions: Those inflicted on us by another, those we inflict on another, and those we inflict on ourselves. By not resolving these conflicts, we remain both victim and abuser. We are victimized by holding onto the transgression against us. We are abusers when we transgress. Our shame for either act victimizes us. Self-transgression and blaming are both abuse and victimization, neither conducive to recovery. 

There are volumes of psychological treatises on guiltshame, and blame. The following brief overviews focus on their impact on social anxiety, depression, and comorbidities. 


Shame is the stomach-churning feeling of humiliation and distress that comes from the sense of being or doing a dishonorable, ridiculous, or immodest thing; the feeling that we are unbefitting and undesirable. A pioneer in shame study, psychologist Gershen Kaufman described the emotion as “sudden unexpected exposure coupled with blinding inner scrutiny.” Shame is painful, incapacitating, and inescapable, embracing every aspect of the human experience. It negatively impacts our psychological and physiological health, eroding our self-image and our relationships with others. We feel powerless, acutely diminished, and worthless. We want to become invisible. Failing that, we often become hostile and aggressive. 


Shame says I am a mistake; Guilt says I made a mistake

Guilt is a psychological term for a self-conscious emotion that condemns the self while conscious of being evaluated by another person(s). Guilt is the painful awareness of having done something wrong, coupled with the innate need to correct or amend. The moral emotion of guilt causes us to self-deprecate and invites condemnation from those who witness our actions.

We feel guilt for harming another, and for being the type of person who would cause harm. We feel guilt for harming ourselves. We guilt ourselves for things over which we have no control.

Unless resolved, we carry the emotional baggage of guilt and shame throughout our lives, adding to the negative self-beliefs generated by our disorder(s). It is unhealthy and non-conducive to recovery and self-transformation. Retaining this toxicity of adds to our anxiety and depression, and can compel behavioral obsessiveness, avoidance, and other personality shortfalls that impact our self-esteem. When we hold onto these feelings, we construct our neural network with anger, hurt, and resentment. 


Symptomatically, we feel shame and guilt for our self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. These negative moral emotions are irrational. Social anxiety, like most disorders, is the result of childhood disturbance that interferes with our optimal physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development. The disturbance can be real or imagined, intentional or accidental. Social anxiety sense this vulnerability and onsets in adolescence. Cumulative evidence that a toxic childhood is a primary causal factor in lifetime emotional instability has been well-established.

Both shame and guilt have their usefulness. They can be revealing, cathartic, and motivational, encouraging emotional and spiritual growth, and broadening self-awareness. That may mitigate their emotional impact, but it does not address their toxic impact on our neural network if left unresolved. They are both self-focused but highly socially relevant, supporting important interpersonal functions by, for example, encouraging adjusting or repairing valuable relationships and discouraging acts that could damage them. 

Forgiving is the only rational response. The irrational response is blaming. When we want to escape from the toxicity of our negative moral emotions, rather than rationally challenging them, we resort to blaming. 


Blaming is the act of censuring, holding responsible, or making negative statements about ourselves, another, or a group. We condemn their action(s) as wrong, and socially or morally irresponsible. Holding ourselves or others accountable for harmful behavior is a justifiable response. Holding onto that anger is self-destructive. Cognitively distorted blaming falls under one of two categories. External blaming involves holding others accountable for our actions, rather than accepting responsibility for their consequences.  Internal blaming is taking responsibility for things over which we either have no control or for which we have no accountability. We perceive everything as our fault and feel shame and guilt when things go wrong. 

Self-blaming is a toxic form of emotional self-abuse prevalent in social anxiety disorder. We irrationally blame ourselves for our behaviors and our perceived character deficits caused by our disorder. SAD thrives on our self-denigration, self-contempt, and other hyphenated forms of self-abuse. We blame ourselves when we avoid interacting with someone out of our fear of rejection. We have something noteworthy to share in class but are afraid to raise our hands. We want to join a conversation but are afraid our nerves will expose us. Then, adding insult to injury, we beat ourselves up because our symptoms get the better of us causing us to self-characterize as stupid, incompetent, or unattractive. SAD negatively impacts our core sense of self and our ability to behave in socially constructive ways. 

Blaming becomes irrational when left unresolved; it is irrational to self-harm. The resolution is forgiveness. We cannot hope to function optimally without absolving both ourselves and others whose behaviors contributed to our negative thoughts and behavior. This willingness and ability to forgive is a necessary component of the transformative act and indispensable to recovery. By withholding forgiveness, we deny ourselves the ability to function optimally.

Our resentment and hatred are divisive to our emotional wellbeing and disharmonious to our true nature. Inner harmony is impossible unless we heal the anger within ourselves. The inability or unwillingness to forgive impedes the flow of positive thought and action necessary for recovery. Forgiving is the only way we expel the hostility. Of unresolved and irrational guilt, shame, and blame., Forgiveness is the rational response; social anxiety disorder is the epitome of irrationality. 


Forgiveness is the goal, forgiving the process. This forgiving, which underscores the attributes of courage, compassion, and self-reliance, is indispensable to the revival of our self-worth. 

Forgiving those who have harmed us. It is important to recognize that forgiving is not forgetting or condoning. Our noble self forgives; our pragmatic self remembers. The actions of another may seem indefensible, but forgiving them is for our wellbeing, not theirs. We forgive to promote change within ourselves and, as forgivers, we reap the rewards. 

Forgiving ourselves for harming another is accepting and releasing the guilt and shame for our actions. It’s important to recognize that transgression against another is a transgression against ourselves. Our shame and guilt can only be resolved by accepting responsibility, making direct or substitutional amends, and forgiving ourselves. The act of self-forgiveness accepts and embraces our imperfections and evidences our humanness. 

Forgiving ourselves for self-harm. Transgression against the self is self-sabotage. It belittles, undervalues, and condemns us. Self-pity, self-contempt, and other hyphenated forms of self-abuse devalue our inherent character strengths and virtues. Forgiving ourselves is challenging because our self-harm is generated by our deficit of self-esteem.

Why is it difficult to forgive?

Our anger and resentment physiologically sustain us. We have acclimated to the neurotransmissions of the hormones that reward the negativity of our unresolved moral emotions. We label our anger, righteous indignation. We persuade ourselves those who have harmed us are devastated by our hostility notwithstanding they are (1) unaware they injured us, (2) have forgotten, or (3) take no responsibility. The only person affected is us, the injured party. 

The benefits of forgiveness

Forgiving begins when we conclude that the disconnectedness, brought on by our unwillingness to confront our hostility, becomes so fundamentally discomforting that resolution is essential for emotional survival.

The act of forgiving relieves us of all that has happened before and offers a future that is unencumbered by the past, giving us room for new possibilities. The act of forgiving resolves animus and restores us to equal footing by eliminating the other’s influence. Forgiving ourselves for allowing our perception of victimization stops us from paying that victimization forward. 

In a group session, Jimmy L. claimed he couldn’t forgive his parents, their injustice was so severe. “If you knew what they’d done to me you wouldn’t ask me to forgive them.” He was unwilling to relinquish his parents’ negative hold on his psyche, much like a cancer victim refusing chemotherapy. Nonetheless, his awareness of the physiological ramifications of holding onto anger and resentment bodes well for the future.

WHY IS YOUR SUPPORT SO IMPORTANT?  ReChanneling develops and implements programs to (1) moderate symptoms of emotional dysfunction and (2) pursue personal goals and objectives – harnessing our intrinsic aptitude for extraordinary living. Our paradigmatic approach targets the personality through empathy, collaboration, and program integration utilizing scientific and clinically practical methods including proactive neuroplasticity, cognitive-behavioral modification, positive psychology, and techniques designed to reinvigorate self-esteem. All donations support scholarships for groups, workshops, and practicums.

Broadening the Parameters of the Psychobiography

“Broadening the Parameters of the Psychobiography. The Character Motivations of the ‘Ordinary’ Extraordinary” in C.-E. Mayer, P. Fouche, R. van Niekerk, Psychobiographical Illustrations on Meaning and Identity in Sociocultural Contexts, Palgrave-MacMillan, 2022.


For over a century, psychobiography has focused on the eminent individual who has achieved historical or social recognition. Ignoring the character strengths of the ‘ordinary’ individual who has reached a significant and noteworthy personal milestone is a disservice to psychology and those who might benefit from this research. Some experts claim that embracing a psychobiographic focus on the ordinary individual would pervert the process, some open the door to innovation, and others have, unwittingly, provided templates. The psychological benefits seem apparent if consideration of the character strengths and virtues of the ordinary extraordinary supplement psychobiographic research. Their motivations are no less extraordinary or worthy of consideration than those of the accomplished individual who has achieved historical or social recognition; each complements psychological research both generally and topically.

Keywords Psychobiography · Motivation · Maslow · Positive psychology · Human potential

13.1 Introduction. 

The purpose of this paper is fourfold. It suggests that the psychobiography limits its potential to study the character strengths underlying motivation, persistence, and perseverance by restricting its concentration to the significant individual who has achieved historical or social recognition (the ’eminent extraordinary’). It recommends expanding that concentration by adopting a partnering focus on the ‘ordinary extraordinary’ who has achieved a significant and noteworthy personal milestone. It supports the implicit theory of positive psychology, humanism, and mentor Abraham Maslow (1943) that all individuals are extraordinary by their humanness, each possessing the potential for significant personal achievement. It disputes the notion put forward by Alexander (1988), Knight (2019), McAdams (1988), Schultz (2005), and Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) that the examined life-narrative [of a psychobiography] should be on a ‘finished’ life, arguing the character strengths of the evolving ‘ordinary extraordinary’ could greatly assist in the psychological study of human motivation and development. It is a fundamental principle that actions are motivated to achieve individual needs; it is the role of psychology and the psychobiography to research what character strengths generate that motivation, whatever their source. 

    The psychobiography is “usually” (du Plessis 2017: 218; McAdams 1988: 2) concerned with the extraordinariness (Cilliars and Mayer 2019; Mayer and May 2019) of accomplished individuals who have achieved historical or social recognition (Alexander 1988; Burnell et al. 2019; Carlson 1988; du Plessis 2017; Kőváry 2019; McAdams 2001; Ponterotto 2014; Runyan 1984). This can be interpreted as contradicting Schultz’s (2005: 3) description of the goal of psychobiography “as simply as ‘the understanding of persons” (du Plessis 2017: 217). 

    Filling the eminent extraordinary ranks is the accomplished artist, scientist, philosopher, activist, and politician (Burnell et al. 2019; Carlson 1988; du Plessis 2017; Runyon 1988). Emerging with Freud’s (1910) pathographic study of Leonardo DaVinci’s childhood, subjects include Hitler (Murray 1943), Robespierre (Gallo 1971), Stalin (Tucker 1973), Turkey President, Ataturk (Volkan and Itzkowitz 1986), Bertrand Russell (Brink 1989), Margaret Thatcher (Abse 1989), Gandhi (Erikson 1993), Virginia Woolf (Bond 2000), King Herod (Kasher 2007), Napoleon (Falk 2007) and, more recently, Paulo Coehlo (Mayer 2017), Goethe (Holm-Hadulla 2018), Frederick Douglas (Gibson 2018), Charlize Theron (Prenter et al. 2019), cult leader, Jim Jones (Kelley 2019), and Thomas Jefferson (Holowchak 2020). 

    Howe (1997: 236) believes the purpose of a psychobiography is to generate “ideas about possible motives and conflicts that may drive a person towards undertaking various activities.” Analyzing the character strengths of the ordinary extraordinary who has achieved a noteworthy personal milestone would significantly enhance psychological understanding of motivational character development. Broadening the psychobiographic perspective would open new avenues of study that would benefit research into the character strengths, virtues, and attributes that facilitate motivation, persistence, and perseverance. Examples of the ordinary extraordinary who has reached a significant and noteworthy personal milestone might include the nurse who has committed his life to children with cancer, the high school teacher who has ‘reached’ her students, the writer who has finally published. Have they not, through trial and error, attained a recognizable personal plateau of achievement? Are their character strengths, objectives, and motivations any less significant than those of the acclaimed actor or heart transplant surgeon? 

    ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger’s goal was to play for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. Undersized and undervalued, he was relegated to the scout squad. On November 8, 1975, Rudy was put into a game against Georgia Tech and, memorably, sacked their quarterback on the game’s last play. He was the first man in Notre Dame history to be carried off the field by his teammates. Not only would a psychobiography of Rudy’s days at Notre Dame be a respectable character study of motivation, but psychology could benefit from the determination of many unheralded persons who have achieved significant and noteworthy personal milestones. Expanding current study could generate a more in-depth understanding of the qualities and characteristics that motivate any individual to achieve, or overcome adversity of any nature. 

    Embracing the ordinary extraordinary does not impinge on the psychobiography that has been the mainstay for over a century. It merely adds a species to the psychobiographic genus within the psychological family. A bus and a bicycle may be distinct modes of transportation, but they can both transport to a conclusion. 

13.2 Supporting Arguments

The psychological knowledge gathered by the psychobiography provides general and specific applications. Universal themes of the character strengths that generate motivation, persistence, and perseverance are particularized by topical relevance. The psychobiographies of Coleridge (Weissman 1990), Poe (Krutch 1926), and Emily Dickinson (Cody 1971) have their inter-relevance; those of Lincoln (Clark 1933), Nixon (Volkan et al. 1999), and Obama (Falk 2010) have theirs; as have those of Jesus (Caldwell 1976), Joseph Smith (Anderson 1999), and Muhammed (Sina 2008) theirs. Kelley’s (2019: 363) interest in the “motivational dynamics that undergird religious leaders’ often Januslike relations to their followers,” for example, supplements the latter group.   

13.2.1 Implicit Superiority 

The assumption that the motivational character strengths of the eminent extraordinary are more desirable to psychological study suggests an implicit arrogance towards those of the ordinary extraordinary. Society often justifies arrogance in academics, politics, the arts, and other ventures when it leads to and supports achievements (Whitbourne 2017). The academic swayed by the intimate relationship of knowledge and power is not an oddity. So, a relevant question might be: does the eminent extraordinary provide a better source of psychological motivations than the ordinary extraordinary, or are the historically accomplished more biographically interesting? Analyzing the motivational characteristics of the eminent extraordinary is valuable to psychological research and study, but academic idolization warrants consideration.  

13.2.2 Eminent as Exemplary?

It is safe to claim that not every eminent extraordinary who meets psychobiographic criteria is an exemplary role model. Many are psychologically dysfunctional, prone to clinical narcissism, megalomania, perfectionism, suicidal ideation, disconnectedness, substance abuse, hostility, and aggression. Artists Van Gogh and Pollack, philosophers Nietzsche and Rosseau, politicians Trump and Napoleon, and writers Plathe, Hemingway, and Poe are sustained by moral and physiological dysfunctions that do not comfortably fall within Seligman’s classification of character strengths and virtues (al Taher 2020; Peterson and Seligman 2004).

   Successful persons are generally perceived to be passionate, continually trying to improve themselves, perpetually striving to be better. As Koulopoulos (2020: 2) noted “being successful is fundamentally about needing to win; the reasons vary, but the determination doesn’t. [Successful people] hate losing with an abiding passion.” The obsessive attention to detail and control of many successful persons are characteristics of perfectionism, and the unbridled compulsion to succeed is often diagnosable. Psychologists (Benson 2003; Flett and Hewitt 2002) have discovered that perfectionism and compulsion correlate with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, anorexia, suicide, and other mental health dysfunctions. Hallmarks of obsessive-compulsive disorders are perfectionism, the need for mental and interpersonal control, addiction to work and productivity, and a preoccupation with details (APA 2013). Peterson and Seligman (2004) define character strengths as the good qualities that people possess rather than a compilation of their faults and issues, while Ponterotto (2014: 379) affirms that a psychobiography “may represent the worst of human nature.” This paper recognizes that knowledge is acquired as much from the failure of a system or subject as from success and disputes the authenticity of generalizing the psychobiographic focus on the exemplary. The same argument could be made for ‘eminent,’ which is usually accepted as an adjective used to emphasize the presence of a positive quality. This argument does warrant precluding psychological research of the eminent extraordinary, but the acceptance of such interpretational awareness should bolster the argument for additional inclusiveness. 

13.2.3 Expanding Diversity

Fordham psychologist, Ponterotto’s (2014: 379) definition of psychobiography leaves little room for variation: “Psychobiography represents a specialty area that applies psychological theories and research tools to the intensive study of an individual of historic significance.” Cilliers and Mayer (2019 115) maintain that the  psychobiography is “based on the analysis of extraordinary individuals by using psychological theories . . . to gain a holistic view of the individual’s life.” Burnell et al. (2019: 180) look for “the characteristics and traits that indicate generative and exemplary lives.”

    To limit psychobiographic diversification by its solitary emphasis on a certain segment of society is counterproductive and discriminating, as is the assumption that motivational character strengths and attributes of the eminent extraordinary are any more formidable or psychologically relevant than those of the ordinary extraordinary. This recognition does not warrant precluding psychological research of the eminent extraordinary, but the awareness of counterproductivity and discrimination should bolster the argument for additional inclusiveness. 

13.2.4 Peer Relationships. 

Finally, evidence supports that the primary facilitator to character development is the peer relationships of the child/adolescent (Bandura 1985). “Peers are defined as belonging to the same societal group especially based on age, grade, or status” (Reitz et al. 2014: 6). Psychobiographical studies of the motivational character strengths and virtues of the eminent of a different stratosphere cannot hold the same comparative validity or relevance to those of the ordinary extraordinary. 

13.3 Psychobiography

In recent years, researchers have recognized the importance of a more unified and cross-disciplinary approach to study character motivation (Braver et al. 2014). There is broad support for expanding the psychobiographic focus. Atwood and Stolorow (1993: 9) campaigned for the use of multiple perspectives, promoting “a psychobiographic method capable of flexibly drawing upon the knowledge of all the different schools of thought, and also of devising new concepts as it goes along.” Runyan (1988: 320) concedes, “in further research, a number of other aspects of progress in psychobiography might be examined, such as progress in the range of persons studied.” Anderson and Dunlop (2019: 11) argue “Theory should open up, not close down; provide new questions, not easy answers; complicate, not simplify; produce possibilities, not reductions,” while the author (Mullen 2019: 4) adds “The [psychobiography] maintains its flexibility by drawing upon the knowledge of many schools of thought while devising new concepts as they become necessary for evaluation.” Kőváry (2019: 739) acknowledges that “contemporary psychobiography is constantly widening its focus.” Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000: 8) call for “massive research on strengths and virtues.” British psychologist Howe’s (1997: 241) article on the synthesis of psychology and biography in psychobiography entertains the following:

The benefits recede and the limitations become pressing when the aim is to understand individuals, especially if they are at all extraordinary, and even more so when their very uniqueness is a primary reason for taking an interest in them. 

Descriptors of personality studied in the normative sense, such as “traits, styles, types, motives, ideologies, attitudes, affective dispositions, and psychopathological categories” (Alexander 1988: 266), are relevant to the ordinary extraordinary as well as the eminent extraordinary. There are “a multitude of ways of measuring traits and attributes, and techniques for recording individual’s experiences, as well as various methods for analyzing qualitative data objectively” (Howe 1997: 240).  Perkins and Repper (2003) point to Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) six core virtues of character strengths to which every individual, ordinary or historically eminent, has access: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

13.3.1 Purposes of the Psychobiography.

For psychologist McCarron (2017), the psychobiography pursues “the salient themes of a life and the psycho-dynamics behind them in hopes of capturing the psychological ‘fingerprint’ of a person” (p. 1). Du Plessis and Stones (2019: 210) offer the rote psychobiographic motivation, “to understand the lives and personalities of exemplary individuals.” Howe (1997) sources eighteen distinguished psychobiographers who state psychobiography’s general purpose is to examine the growth of original thinking and creativity in individuals. Many psychobiographers define its purpose as learning why a person thinks and behaves as she or he does (Anderson and Dunlop 2019; Howe 1997), or “to generate theoretical insight into, and understanding of, the individual” (Knight 2019: 134). A coalescent vision might define the purpose of the psychobiography as (1) the study of the character strengths, virtues, and attributes that generate motivation, persistence, and perseverance towards achievement; and (2) to apply these understandings towards optimal functioning, and improving life satisfaction and the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and society as a whole.

13.4 Psychobiography, Positive Psychology, and Maslow

Mayer and May (2019: 165) inform “Over the past decade, the importance of positive psychology concepts has been emphasized in psychological research in general . . . but also recently in psychobiographical research.” The psychobiographic affiliation with positive psychology reinforces the justification to broaden the parameters of psychobiography to embrace the ordinary extraordinary. Positive psychology, according to Gable and Haidt (2005: 103), is the “study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions.” Mayer and May (2019) cite Schultz (2005: 165) in calling for more “positive aspects in the psychobiographical perspectives on the life of individuals.” Sheldon and King (2001: 216) define positive psychology as “nothing more than the scientific study of ordinary human strengths and virtues,” one that “revisits the average person.”

13.4.1 Positive Psychology

In their study of positive psychology, Mukund and Singh (2015: 201) write, “Positive psychology theory and research has been applied across many domains, from education to health to neuroscience.” Positive psychology is a relatively new field (since 1998) that ostensibly complements rather than replaces traditional psychology. Common elements of positive psychology include savoring, mindfulness, “gratitude, kindness, and pursuing hope and meaning” (Chakhssi et al. 2018: 2). Schrank et al. (2014: 103) write: “positive psychology serves as an umbrella term to accommodate research investigating positive emotions and other positive aspects such as creativity, optimism, resilience, empathy, compassion, humour, and life satisfaction.”

    Positive psychology’s ambition “to study, identify and amplify the strengths and capacities that individuals, families, and society need to thrive” (Carruthers and Hood 2004: 30) indeed welcomes any individual who has achieved. Psychology would benefit by including the “the positive, adaptive, creative and emotionally fulfilling aspects” (Mukund and Singh 2015: 197) of the ordinary extraordinary.

    Positive psychology is the science of optimal functioning. Cultural psychologist Levesque (2011) describes optimal functioning as the study of how ordinary individuals attempt to achieve their potentials and become the best that they can be. Like psychobiography, positive psychology researches the “experiences and positive character or virtues” (Mayer and May 2019: 160) that generate the motivation, persistence, and perseverance needed to cultivate the “potential for psychological well-being that lends itself to optimal functioning” (Carruthers and Hood 2004: 31). Optimal functioning is vital to sports, work, education, wellness, and everyday living. Like positive psychology’s attempts to understand human potential and Maslow’s hierarchy of natural human development, optimal functioning is a universal application.

13.4.2 Maslow

Extending the genealogy of positive psychology reaches the character developmental philosophy of Abraham Maslow. According to psychologist Nelson Goud (2008: 449), “the recent Positive Psychology movement focuses on themes addressed by Maslow over 50 years ago.” Cited as the tenth most influential psychologist of the 20th century (Haggbloom et al. 2002), Maslow introduced positive psychology in Motivations and Personality (1954). Described as the ‘third force’ in psychology after behaviorism and psychoanalysis, his humanistic approach stressed the importance of focusing on ordinary individuals’ positive qualities (Mukund and Singh 2015; Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000).

Fig. 1.1 Genesis of the psychobiography.

Maslow used the term metamotivation to describe self-actualized people who explore the parameters of their human potential. Self-actualization, “the full realization of one’s creative, intellectual, and social potential” (Selva, 2020b: 1), is the foundation of advanced human potential and a principal tenet of positive psychology (Mayer and May 2019). Self-actualization is achievable pending satisfaction of a hierarchy of physiological, cognitive, and other requisites of natural human development. Maslow (1943: 92) describes this penultimate level as “the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be,” the satisfaction of the need to know our role in the meaning of life. Selva, 2020a: 3) adds “Themes addressed by Maslow over 50 years ago . . . such as happiness, flow, courage, hope and optimism, responsibility, and civility” became central to the positive psychology movement.

    The implicit foundation of humanism and positive psychology is balance, inclusion, and human ability, development, and potential. Any aspect of discrimination, prejudice, exclusionism, or preferential treatment assaults their integrity.

13.5 Adapting the Psychobiography to the ‘Ordinary’ Extraordinary

Adopting psychobiography’s multiple strategy approaches could provide better access to the complexities of the individual personality. These strategies have been developed for the eminent extraordinary; it is, therefore, important to evaluate how they can be utilized in the study of the ordinary extraordinary. We are concerned, here, with the case study, history, hermeneutics, data collection, and narrative of the subject. 

Hermeneutic evidence of the ordinary extraordinary would, ostensibly, be easier to interpret from interviews than unavailable historical records as it requires”a degree of inter-subjective agreement and certainty that one has understood an expression accurately” (Polkinghorne 1983: 221). The narrative aspect of the psychobiography favors the ordinary extraordinary. According to Alexander (1988: 265), “the richest sources of data are those which deal with the spontaneous recollection from memory of various aspects of life already lived,” and no one is closer to a life already lived than the person living that life. The narrative of an ordinary extraordinary might lack in spectacularism but not creativity. Every individual’s life is distinctive, consisting of unique experiences, beliefs, and sensibilities that help convey “the coherence and the meaning of lives” (McAdams 2001: 102). Finally, a case-study is created through an in-depth psychological investigation to generate a reconstructive, clinical, and interpretive analysis of the subject “based upon the synthesis of all available evidence culled from all available sciences providing systematic analyses of information” (Erickson 2003: 40). The key is availability, be it historical, anecdotal, or in the next room. 

    The investigation methods utilized in psychobiography require modest adaptation to the ordinary extraordinary. More in-depth interpretation, inference, and speculation would compensate for any lacuna of known history and philosophical, ethical, and religious evolution found in studies of the full life of the eminent extraordinary. Evaluation of the character strengths and virtues of the ordinary extraordinary would come from autobiography, academic and clinical records, and the subject’s personal associations. None of these falls outside the purview of the psychobiographic process. Data and evidence of ordinary individuals are already available in analysis and research. Statistical research is abundant; comparative or correlational evidence supports conclusions. 

13.6 Conclusions

This paper addresses four issues with the psychobiographic approach which, for over a century, has focused on the character motivations of the extraordinary eminent who has achieved historical or social recognition. It argues that psychobiography limits its potential to study the character strengths that generate the character strengths, virtues, and attributes that generate motivation, persistence, and perseverance to achieve by restricting its concentration. It contends that consideration of the character motivations of the ordinary extraordinary would significantly enhance psychological study. It affiliates positive psychology and Maslowian humanism with contemporary psychobiography. It provides evidence that researchers have an interest in broadening psychobiography’s vision. Finally, this paper demonstrates that the psychobiographic approach is as relevant to the ordinary extraordinary as the eminent extraordinary. It is a fundamental principle that actions are motivated to achieve individual needs; it is psychology’s obligation to understand better the character strengths that generate and support that motivation by broadening the psychobiographic perspective.


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