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Social Anxiety: Talk to Someone

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Thirteen Definitive Cognitive Distortions

most relevant to social anxiety

Dr. Robert F. Mullen

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“Dr. Mullen is doing impressive work helping the world. He is the pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity utilizing DRNI – deliberate, repetitive, neural information.” – WeVoice (Madrid)

Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that perpetuate our anxiety and depression. In essence, we twist reality to reinforce or justify our toxic behaviors and validate our irrational attitudes, rules, and assumptions. Our attitudes refer to our emotions, convictions, and behaviors. Rules are the principles or regulations that influence our behaviors, and our assumptions are what we believe to be accurate or real. Social anxiety and other emotional dysfunctions paint an inaccurate picture of the self in the world with others. 

Consider this example. The entire office staff congratulates us on our promotion, except for one individual who looks the other way. Rather than embracing the support, we obsess over the shunner. That is Filtering – selectively choosing our facts to support our poor self-image by dwelling on the negative while overlooking the positive. While the number of cognitive distortions varies widely, there are thirteen that are primary. Jumping to Conclusions supposes we know what others are thinking. We are mind-readers. Emotional Reasoning is arriving at an emotional conclusion without considering other rational alternatives. When we engage in Personalization, we assume we assume that doings and events are directly related to us and that random remarks are personally relevant.

Understanding how we use cognitive distortions as subconscious strategies to avoid facing certain truths is crucial to recovery. SAD drives our illogical thought patterns. Countering them requires mindfulness of our motives and rational response. Because of their complexity and similarities, each cognitive distortion has its chapter. Our compulsion to twist the truth to validate our negative self-beliefs and image is powerful; we need to understand how these distortions sustain our social anxiety disorder. Cognitive distortions are rarely cut and dried but tend to overlap and share traits and characteristics. That’s what makes them difficult to clearly define.

SAD Symptoms, Fears, and Apprehensions

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. 

ALWAYS BEING RIGHT. Our need to be right protects the fragile self-image sustained by our fears of criticism, ridicule, and rejection. Being right is more important than the truth or the feelings of others. Thoughts or opinions that contradict are harmful to our emotional structure. 

The core and intermediate beliefs of a person living with social anxiety are rigid; we dismiss new ideas and concepts. Even when our belief system is inaccurate, it defines how we see ourselves in the world. If the facts don’t comport with our beliefs, we dispute or disregard them. When we decline to question our beliefs, we act upon them as though they are valid and reasonable, ignoring evidence that contradicts – even if we doubt the veracity of our claims. Our insecurity is so severe, our maladjusted attitudes, rules, and assumptions run roughshod over the truth and the feelings of others.

We store information consistent with these beliefs, which generates a cognitive bias – a subconscious error in thinking that leads us to misinterpret information, impacting the accuracy of our perspectives and decisions. Our low implicit and explicit self-esteem keeps us on the defensive and compels the need to compensate for our perceptual lack of positive self-qualities. We ignore or contest anything that poses a threat, especially information inconsistent with what we assert to be true. The need to always be right can also reflect the narcissism evident in the irrational belief that we are the center of attention in any situation.

Because of our neediness to always be right, we tend to ignore what others are saying. We avoid recognizing anything that might lead us to conclude we are mistaken. Even when we know we are wrong, we find it hard to admit it because it exacerbates our fears of ridicule and criticism. 

In situations where we are ill-advised to dispute our superiors or other authority figures, we subvert our need to be right. We bow to pressure and imply that we accept their truth, covertly convinced we are right, and they are not. This subservience forces us to give away our power, generating anger and resentment. We smile and agree with those who hold sway over us. but secretly envy their power, becoming irritated and bitter.

In our formative years, many of us were undervalued – subject to the circumstances of our childhood disturbance. Our parents may have been controlling or dismissive, our siblings overbearing. Some of us rarely experienced positive feedback or appreciation. As adults, we are driven to disregard thoughts and viewpoints that conflict with our own.

Always Being Right does not bode well for healthy relationships because we do not reciprocate shared issues or experiences. Counterfeit, ignoring, selective, and hostile listening devalues the relevance of others and inhibits the prospect of healthy connectivity. Being right is more important than establishing and maintaining friendships and intimacy. 

Recovery promotes considered and attentive listening skills – active communication where we value what is being said by the other. In empathic listening, we seek first to understand and then to be understood.

BLAMING. Blaming is a negative thinking pattern where we wrongly assign accountability. There are two forms of this cognitive distortion. External blaming is when we hold others accountable for our behaviors; internal blaming is assuming responsibility for the thoughts and reactions of others or beating ourselves up for behaviors that are SAD-provoked.

External blaming. The burden of responsibility for our negative thoughts and behaviors can be overwhelming. Our defense mechanism impels us to hold others responsible for things we are unable or unwilling to manage emotionally. We convince ourselves that others are responsible for the feelings and behaviors caused by our anxiety. “She makes me feel stupid” or “My roommate makes me feel inferior.”

Our adverse self-beliefs and image elicit an endless feedback loop of helplessness and hopelessness that, by their very nature, literally pleads for assistance. We put the onus on the other, and if they do not support us to our satisfaction, then they are to blame. 

Internal blaming, Social anxiety disorder comes with a mixed bag of irrational assumptions. Its symptomatic anticipation of criticism and rejection convinces us we have foreknowledge of the opinions and reactions of others. We are fortune tellers with the power to read other people’s minds. In fact, with our compulsion to self-fulfilling prophesize, we imagine we control their responses. Since those responses are subjectively negative, we have no one to blame but ourselves. That is internal blaming. 

Persons living with SAD have significantly lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to healthy controls. Our SAD-provoked negative self-beliefs lead us to project our character defects and problems onto others. We then assume responsibility for them. If our roommate’s behavior is self-destructive, it subjectively reflects on us and we are, therefore, responsible. 

There is another aspect of internal blaming, prevalent in social anxiety disorder, which is a  particularly insidious form of emotional self-sabotage. Even though we bear no responsibility for SAD onset, we blame ourselves for our behaviors and our perceived character deficits. SAD thrives on our self-denigration and other hyphenated forms of self-abuse. We blame ourselves when we avoid interacting with someone out of 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 convinced 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.

Until we devise rational responses to our fears and social avoidance, we tend to assign blame for our negative thoughts and behaviors. The ability to look at our actions through the prism of intellectual awareness is a necessary component of the transformative act and indispensable to recovery. Rational response allows the flow of positive thought and behavior necessary for recovery, eliminating the need to blame. Until we master recovery, we will continue to search for avenues to unburden ourselves of responsibility. 

CATASTROPHIZING. One morning, as Chicken Little was plucking worms in the henyard, an acorn dropped from a tree onto her head. She had no idea what hit her and assumed the worst. “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.” Catastrophizing is concluding the worst-case scenario when things happen to us, rather than considering more plausible explanations. It is the irrational assumption that something is far worse than it is. We prophesize the worst and twist reality to support our projection. If our significant other complains of a headache, we assume our relationship is doomed. When this happens again, our belief is confirmed.

A symptom of SAD is our tendency to expect negative consequences to things that happen during a situation. Because of our life-consistent negative self-appraisal, and inherent negative bias, we tend to assume the worst. Often, we justify our catastrophizing based on prior events, believing that catastrophe will ensue because we blew the former out of proportion. This is similar to Overgeneralization where one bad apple means the entire bushel is rotten. Our four horsemen of social anxiety disorder – helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and unworthiness aggravate our negative assumptions. Catastrophizing is often a consequence of our symptomatic fears of criticism, ridicule, and rejection. We take something we believe is inevitable and presuppose its actuality. We will be rejected and therefore, never find love. We will be criticized and, therefore, never be taken seriously. 

Catastrophizing is paralyzing. It limits our interactivity and social engagement because we avoid situations that posit the possibility of disaster. Our fatalistic obsessions prevent us from experiencing and enjoying life. We express it in our SAD-induced automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). “What if no one talks to me?” “What if they criticize my presentation?” “What if they find me unattractive?” Worrying about something that hasn’t happened is an exercise in futility and supports our sense of hopelessness. It can negatively impact our entire outlook in life, causing issues of motivation and self-esteem that lead to self-disappointment and underachievement. 

Considering the consequences of what can happen is a regular and rational part of determining our actions and activities. The compulsion to project the worst possible outcome, no matter how improbable, is self-destructive. 

When those of us with social anxiety disorder find ourselves in a situation where we dread being criticized, ridiculed, and or rejected, the smallest incident, like a failed attempt at humor, can trigger the belief that the entire evening is a personal disaster. This projection can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy because we are convinced of its inevitability. 

Catastrophizing is closely linked to anxiety, depression, and self-pity, and is prevalent among individuals who have generalized anxiety, social anxiety, panic, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Again, the obvious remedy is to become mindful of our susceptibility to this distortion, rationally assess the situation, and consider plausible explanations for the incident that triggered our catastrophizing.

CONTROL FALLACIES. A fallacy is a belief based on unreliable evidence and unsound arguments. As we discussed earlier, we cognitively distort to reinforce or justify our self-beliefs and validate our irrational attitudes, rules, and assumptions – how we perceive, think, and behave. 

Control Fallacy is the conviction that (1) something or someone has power and control over things that happen to us, or (2) we hold that type of power over others. We either believe events in our lives are beyond our control, or we assume responsibility for everything.

When we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as weak and powerless. We blame outside forces (fate, the weather, authority figures) for the adversity in our lives. We accuse our gender, race, sexuality, weight, income, and education rather than assume responsibility for our actions. A health scare becomes an act of god, the philanderer blames his wife for leaving him, and our failing grade is because our instructor has a personal grudge. 

Conversely, the fallacy of internal control is when we assume unrealistic responsibility for everything. We believe we have power and influence over other people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. We blame ourselves for their mishaps and misfortunes. It is our fault our friend turns to drugs because we weren’t supportive. Our supervisor suffers a heart attack because we continually miss deadlines. 

Both external and internal control fallacies correspond to our SAD-induced feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and worthlessness. 

We believe external forces control us because we feel powerless over what happens to us. Our sense of hopelessness tells us any effort towards remedy is futile. “They think I’m incompetent.” “She finds me unattractive.” “I don’t belong here.” We subsequently feel guilty for our inadequacy, and shame for our weakness. We wallow in self-pity, convinced that attempts at happiness are pointless. 

Our tendency to unjustifiably blame ourselves for our social anxiety disorder leads to internal control fallacies. Had we moderated our adolescent behavior, we claim, we could have prevented the onset. This leads us to believe we have control over other things we bear no responsibility for. “It’s my fault she’s unhappy.” “He drinks because I ignored him.” The belief we have let everyone down wreaks havoc on our emotional well-being and our sense of competence. 

These Control Fallacies inform us we are not assigning blame in the appropriate ways. We need to stop taking responsibility for problems we do not create and assume responsibility for our actions. That is only logical. Unfortunately, SAD subsists on our irrational thoughts and behaviors. Those of us living with social anxiety frequently use cognitive distortions because we feel trapped in its vicious circle, restricted from living a normal life. A fundamental component of recovery is learning how to identify our cognitive distortions to devise rational responses. 

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EMOTIONAL REASONING is the catalyst for many of the other distortions. The irrational thought patterns that underscore our cognitive distortions stem from the SAD-provoked convictions we are helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless (the SAD four horsemen). For example, when we engage in Filtering, we selectively ignore the positive aspects of a situation, because of our life-consistent negative self-beliefs. This unbalanced perspective leads to Polarized Thinking, where perceive things only in black or white. Because of our negative self-appraisal, we assume everything that happens is our fault, and anything said derogatorily is a reference to us. That’s called Personalization, which is very much like internal blaming. How our Emotional Reasoning relates to the cognitive distortions most relevant to our social anxiety will become more evident as we explore them, individually, throughout this book. We can safely state that Emotional Reasoning is the progenitor of all of our cognitive distortions as they are ruled by our emotions.

Emotional Reasoning is feeling without thinking – relying on our emotions over objective evidence. It is best defined by the colloquialism, my gut tells me…  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 ourselves, others, and the world must be true because they feel true. Emotional Reasoning is an oxymoron. In recovery, resolving this opposition is the primary task at hand. 

Emotions are the reactions that we experience in response to our situations. The type of emotion a person experiences is determined by multiple factors including our core and intermediate beliefs, experiences, and the situational fear that triggers the emotion. Emotions by themselves have little relevance to the truth of a situation. They are products of what we think or assume is happening.

We are hard-wired to hearken to our emotions. We consider them first because they are unconscious and automatic. It is more natural to base our conclusions on feelings than on facts. If we have distorted thoughts and beliefs, then our emotions will reflect those distortions. Emotional Reasoning is not only dichotomous but also irrational. When we pass judgments and make decisions based on our feelings without supporting evidence, we are likely misinterpreting reality. 

We are all susceptible to Emotional Reasoning, and not all decisions made are wrong or destructive. It is healthy to stay in touch with our feelings assuming they correspond with reality. A balanced perspective embraces instinct, feelings, and experience as well as evidence. The challenge to us is that our SAD sustains itself on our irrationality, and our negative core and intermediate beliefs lead us to ignore evidence that contradicts them, compelling us to make poor decisions. 

FALLACY OF FAIRNESS is the unrealistic assumption that life should be fair. It is human nature to equate fairness with how well our personal preferences are met. We know how we want to be treated and anything that infringes upon seems unreasonable and emotionally unacceptable. Fairness is subjective, however. Two people seldom agree on what is fair. The fact that those of us living with SAD are predisposed to personalize does not make things any easier. 

We have been at our job longer, but the newer arrival gets the promotion. It may be the better management decision but, to us, it is blatantly unfair. The school bully is selected for the varsity team while we are sidelined to the practice squad. The fact he is a better player does little to mitigate our belief in the unfairness of the coach’s decision. Needless to say, these unsupportive decisions lead to anger, frustration, and self-pity. Envy is a common emotional reaction, especially when we compare ourselves to others who are more successful and feel life or circumstance has treated us unfairly. 

The concept of fairness varies, based on our experiences, culture, and environment. It is a personally biased assessment of how well our expectations, needs, and wants are met by others, institutions, and nature. When real life goes against our perceptions of fairness, as it often does, it generates negative emotions.

The belief that all things in life should be based on fairness and equality is a noble but unrealistic philosophy. We can strive for such things, but life’s vicissitudes have a will of their own. The obvious reality is that much of life is inequitable. People are self-oriented, institutions alternatively focused, and nature indeterminate. Wanting things to work in our favor is normal; expecting them to do so is irrational. 

We all have our ideas of how we like to be treated In personal interactions, but reciprocation is governed by the other, and it rarely comports with our expectations. As a result, we blame others for any adverse response rather than consider their expectations and our self-centered assumptions of fairness. 

The problem is exacerbated in those of us living with social anxiety because it subsists on our irrational thoughts and behaviors, which means that our expectations are often irrational as well. Ironically, we are not surprised when they are not met because we symptomatically anticipate and project negative outcomes. This does not stop us, however, from blaming ourselves or others when our negative prophecies are fulfilled.

The Fallacy of Fairness is often expressed in conditional assumptions. “If my teacher knew how hard I studied, she’d give me a passing grade.” Conditional conclusions allow us to avoid delegating true accountability. Studying does not always lead to comprehension, and our teacher bases grades on test results. ”If my parents had treated me better, I wouldn’t have social anxiety disorder.” The direct cause of emotional dysfunction is indeterminate, and blaming our parents or ourselves is irrational given the evidence.

It is advisable to stand outside the bullseye – to emotionally extract ourselves from an undesirable situation and evaluate it from multiple perspectives. Fairness is subjective, based on personal beliefs and experiences. Mindfulness of the needs and experiences of others is a product of recovery. Moderating our fears of social interaction allows us to entertain other points of view, and reveals the narrow-mindedness of fairness, which is just a state of mind. 

FILTERING. Our negative core and intermediate beliefs form in response to childhood disturbance and the onset of our emotional dysfunction. Core beliefs are more rigid in those of us living with social anxiety because we tend to store information consistent with negative beliefs. Our intermediate beliefs establish our attitudes, rules, and assumptions. These beliefs govern our perceptions and, ostensibly, remain as our belief system throughout life. Even if irrational or inaccurate, our beliefs define how we see ourselves in the world. When we decline to question these beliefs, we act upon them as though they are real and reasonable, ignoring evidence that contradicts them. This produces a cognitive bias – a subconscious error in thinking that causes us to misinterpret information and make irrational decisions. 

To compound this, humans have an inherent negativity bias. We are genetically predisposed to respond more strongly to adversity, which aggravates our SAD symptoms. We anticipate the worst-case scenario. We expect criticism, ridicule, and rejection. We worry about embarrassing or humiliating ourselves. We project unpleasant outcomes that become self-fulfilling prophecies. It is not surprising that we readily turn to Filtering and Polarized Thinking to justify our irrational thought patterns. 

When we engage in Filtering, we selectively choose our perspective. Our tunnel vision gravitates toward the negative aspects of a situation and excludes the positive. This applies to our memories as well. We dwell on the unfortunate aspects of what happened rather than the whole picture. 

A person who consistently filters out negative information is someone with an excessively cheerful or optimistic personality. Conversely, a person who emphasizes gloom and doom is unhappy or defeatist. Those of us living with SAD tend to mirror the latter. We filter out positive aspects of our life, choosing to dwell on situations and memories that support our negative self-image. This creates an emotional imbalance due to the exclusion of healthy thoughts and behaviors. We view ourselves, the world, and our future through an unforgiving lens.

Negative filtering is one of the most common cognitive distortions in anxiety because it sustains our toxic core and intermediate beliefs. Our pessimistic outlook exacerbates our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. We accentuate the negative. A dozen people in our office celebrate our promotion; one ignores us. We obsess over the lone individual and disregard the goodwill of the rest. By dwelling on the unpleasantness, we reinforce our feelings of undesirability and alienation. 

To effectively challenge our tendency to filter information, we need to identify the situation(s) that provokes our anxiety and the corresponding ANTs (automatic negative thoughts). From there, we analyze the unsoundness of our reaction and devise a rational response. Initially, the conversion process is exacting, but with time and practice, it becomes reflexive and spontaneous. Cognitive behaviorists call it ARTs – automatic rational thoughts. 

The term maladaptive behavior was coined by Aaron Beck, the pioneer of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It is prevalent in social anxiety disorder. Maladaptive means we tend to adapt wrongly (negatively) to situations. We must remain mindful that our symptoms encourage a negative perspective and adjust accordingly.

HEAVEN’S REWARD FALLACY is when we put other people’s needs ahead of our own with an expectation of reciprocation. Contrary to others who share this cognitive distortion, SAD persons are not seeking heavenly reward in the afterlife, but acknowledgment in this one. 

We continually say yes to others while denying ourselves, We tell ourselves our motives are selfless, but we do it out of neediness and loneliness. We are consummate enablers trying to compensate for our feelings of undesirability and worthlessness. Rather than setting boundaries, we allow ourselves to be bullied and taken advantage of, seeking respect and appreciation. When we are denied, our disappointment leads to bitterness and resentment.

You are an exemplary office worker – always on time, and willing to go the extra mile. When your co-workers fall behind, you always offer to pick up the slack even if it means staying late or working on the weekend. Your desk is organized, you dress for success, and complete your assignments with diligence and efficiency. You eagerly anticipate a promotion at the end of the quarter. 

The management hires someone from without the organization. Your disappointment turns to anger and resentment. When the company distributes the annual bonuses, yours does not reflect the recognition you think you deserve. Colleagues move on to better employment, but you have spent so much time ingratiating yourselves with management, you have not considered viable alternatives. You mire yourself in The Fallacy of Fairness and your resentment turns to sullenness and hostility. 

People who engage in Heaven’s Reward Fallacy undervalue their worth and significance and have poor self-awareness. It is easier to take on the needs and responsibilities of others rather than face our fears and anxieties. Our actions are self-serving rather than noble. True altruism does not expect reciprocation.

Recovering our self-esteem is an essential element of recovery and cannot be second-tiered. Due to our disruption in natural human development, we are subject to significantly lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to healthy controls. Our negative core and intermediate beliefs stemming from childhood disturbance and onset are directly implicated. Our symptomatic fears and anxieties aggravate this deficit.

We rediscover and regenerate our self-esteem through the integration of historically and clinically practical approaches designed to help us become mindful of our inherent strengths, virtues, and achievements, and their propensity to replace our SAD-induced negative self-beliefs and image.

JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS is when we judge or decide something without having all the facts to substantiate our conclusion. It is also fortune-telling and mind-reading. We jump to conclusions when we assume to know what another person is feeling or why they act the way they do. When we form our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) we usually jump to conclusions because the only evidence we rely on is our fears and anxieties which are abstractions based on perceptions rather than reality. When we overgeneralize or filter our information to conclude “no one will like me” or “they will make fun of me,” we are Jumping to Conclusions. It is irrational to decide, without a crystal ball, how others will react to us or feel about us.

While our conclusions may be based on prior experience, assuming it will repeat itself in similar situations, while possible, is an implausible conclusion. Yes, we may say something stupid, or experience physical symptoms, but we don’t know that beforehand; we merely prophesize it will happen because it happened before. This is a common assumption among those of us with social anxiety.

Many of our other cognitive distortions are formed by Jumping to Conclusions. When we overgeneralize, we draw a broad conclusion or make a statement about something or someone that is not backed up by the bulk of evidence. When we label someone because of a single characteristic or event, we are Jumping to Conclusions. Likewise, when we personalize or take responsibility for something that has nothing to do with us. 

A primary SAD symptom is the fear of situations in which we believe we will be negatively appraised. We jump to the conclusion we will be criticized, ridiculed, or rejected, usually in advance of the situation. This distorted thinking causes us to react defensively or to avoid the situation entirely. If we assume we are the center of attention, we are not going to let our guard down. Often, we predict a bad outcome to a situation to protect ourselves if it happens. It helps us avoid disappointment.

If our significant other is in a bad mood, we assume we did something wrong. If our manager slams the door to the office, we imagine it’s because we were talking on the phone. If a stranger passes us on the sidewalk, it is because we are unappealing.

When we jump to conclusions, we create self-fulfilling prophecies. We avoid interacting with others because we have predicted a negative outcome. We avoid relationships because we tell ourselves they will not succeed. We avoid recovery because we know it will come to naught. We expect the worst possible consequences of a situation because we jumped to the conclusion things will not end well. Over the years, SAD has convinced us we are helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless. It isn’t much of a leap for us to conclude that we are.

LABELING. When we label an individual or group, we reduce them to a single, usually negative, characteristic or descriptor based on a single event or behavior. As a result, we view them (or ourselves) through the label and filter out information that contradicts the stereotype. Labeling others leads to false assumptions, prejudice, and ostracizing. “Because he talks about his neighbor, he is a gossip.” 

Our SAD symptoms compel us to label others to support our preconceived notions about how others perceive us. Our conversational inadequacy might make us label the group as rude and dismissive. If we expect rejection, they are cold and untrustworthy. Because we feel like we are the center of attention, our social failure could lead us to label the entire room as mean or arrogant.

Labeling is common to SAD persons because we resent our symptomatic fears and anxieties, causing us to project our frustrations on those close to us. Labeling a friend or significant other can destroy relationships, especially when the label is for unintentional behavior. If we feel unsupported at a social event, we might label our companion cold or indifferent. In a similar vein, if a parent criticizes us at the dinner table, identifying them as cruel or hateful would not be inconceivable. Polarized Thinking, Filtering, Emotional Reasoning, Jumping to Conclusions, and Overgeneralization lend themselves to Labeling. 

We know how distressing it can be when someone labels us. When we-self label, we sustain our negative self-beliefs. “I didn’t meet anyone at the party; I am unlikeable.” Negatively labeling ourselves invariably results in thoughts that support our self-image. “I gave the wrong answer in class; I am stupid.” Self-labeling like inadequate and incompetent supports our sense of hopelessness and undesirability, and we often find our subsequent behaviors support those labels. 

Labels are irrational and myopic because they emerge from a single characteristic, behavior, or event and ignore the whole person or situation. Arbitrarily evaluating someone based on one isolated incident or behavior is almost always inaccurate. One negative behavior or incident does not define someone’s entire character. Rather than focusing on the specific element that generated the label, it is important to value the positive contributions of the person or group. We can observe ourselves and others with compassionate insight, recognizing the diversity of human thought and experience.

OVERGENERALIZATION. When we engage In this cognitive distortion, we draw broad conclusions or make statements about something or someone that are unsupported by the available evidence. We make blanket claims that can’t be proven or disproven. Everyone knows Suzie is a liar. To imply that everyone thinks Suzie is a liar is an exaggeration without consensus. A few colleagues may share our opinion, but not the whole world. We overgeneralize if our conclusion is based on one or two pieces of evidence while we ignore anything we know about to the contrary. 

Overgeneralization supports our negative self-beliefs and image. Our self-doubt is so intense if someone rejects us, we assume everyone will reject us. Because we persuade ourselves it is unlikely anyone would be interested in getting to know us, we avoid situations where that might occur. That aggravates our SAD-induced fears of interacting or talking with strangers and avoidance of social situations.

Our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are usually overgeneralizations. “No one will like me.” “I’m a failure.” “She called me stupid.” “Everyone thinks I’m an idiot.” These self-defeating thoughts are based on our fears and anxieties rather than the available evidence. An example of overgeneralization would be the false assumption that, because you failed a test, you will never be able to pass the course.

We justify our prejudices by overgeneralizing. One bad apple in a group means everyone in the group is rotten. We make broad and inaccurate assumptions about that group based on this one person’s behavior. Overgeneralized thinking can cause us to wrongly judge entire groups of people, which is harmful to self and society.

This distortion inevitably leads to avoidance, limiting our willingness to experience things because we have self-prophesied what will happen based on it happening before. Similar to Filtering, where we ignore the positive and dwell on the negative, and Polarized Thinking, where we see things in black or white, overgeneralization is based on assuming the worst. Keywords that support this cognitive distortion include allevery, none, never, always, everybody, and nobodyOvergeneralization often tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy and is associated with generalized anxiety, social anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and OCD.

The rational response to overgeneralization is to (1) consider the accuracy of the statement and consider the available evidence, and (2) identify the situation, fears, and ANTs that compel the need to cognitively distort in the first place.

PERSONALIZATION. If someone says to us, “don’t take it personally,“ we are likely engaging in Personalization. When we engage in this type of thinking, we assume that doings and events are directly related to us and that random remarks are personally relevant. For those of us living with social anxiety disorder, Personalization is symptomatic as in our fear of being criticized or ridiculed, or our perception we are the glaring center of attention in a room.

Personalization is the stepping-stone to internal blaming and internal control fallacies where we wrongly believe we are responsible for things we have little or nothing to do with. As I cautioned earlier, cognitive distortions are not cut-and-dried but ambiguous and overlapping 

Did you ever walk into a room, and everyone suddenly stops talking? If you assume they were talking about you, you are exhibiting an acute case of Personalization

Those of us living with SAD have difficulty understand things from the perspectives of others. Our self-centeredness drives us to assume unassociated incidents involve us. We imagine the world revolves around us which only aggravates our fears of saying or doing the wrong thing and embarrassing ourselves.

Another aspect of Personalization is when we compare ourselves to the achievements of others. If a coworker receives a commendation, we feel inadequate because we were not honored. Our need to personalize is underscored by our concerns about how others think about us. If we do not receive the acclaim to which we think we are entitled, we believe we are being judged unfairly. The rational response to someone receiving a commendation is to recognize their achievements, but our low self-esteem makes us envious. 

As children, we believe the world revolves around us, and fail to consider the viewpoints of others. We are cognitively incapable of considering the other probabilities. We assume our parents fight because we did something wrong. Most reasonable people grow out of this self-obsession, but SAD subsists on irrationality which makes us feel underappreciated and misunderstood.

Much of recovery focuses on the regeneration of our self-esteem through the renewed mindfulness of our character strengths, virtues, and achievements. 

POLARIZED THINKING. One of the symptoms of SAD is our compulsion to overanalyze our performance in a situation, tormented by our mistakes, our inept interaction, or our poor conversation skills. We preoccupy ourselves – often for days on end – with everything we think we did wrong, obsessing over what we should have done better. We tell ourselves unless a thing is done to perfection, it is not worth doing at all.

Perfectionism is not just the desire to do well; it is the need to be infallible. If we can’t be perfect, there is little point in bothering. Perfectionism exacerbates our social anxiety. We worry about appearing vacuous or inadequate, fearing exposure to our imperfections. 

In Polarized Thinking, we see things as absolute – black or white. There is no middle ground, no compromise. We are either brilliant or abject failures. Our friends are for us or against us. We do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes. We refuse to give people the benefit of the doubt. Worse than our anxiety about criticism is our self-judgment. If we are not flawless and masterful, we must be broken and inept. There is no room for mistakes or mediocrity, “I failed my last exam; I fail at everything I try. I’m a loser.”

Like FilteringPolarized Thinking is selective. To remedy our dichotomous perspective, we identify the anxiety-provoking situation and examine our corresponding fears and automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). From there, we analyze their inaccuracy and initiate rational responses

It is important to consider the holism and multiple perspectives of life’s events and replace the myopia of Filtering and the rigidity of Polarized Thinking with the kaleidoscope of viewpoints, interpretations, and possibilities.

Words Have Meaning

Words have enormous power; they influence, encourage, and destroy. While positive words boost our self-esteem and self-image, the impact of negative words contributes heavily to our toxic neural input, which is counterproductive to our recovery.

It is not just the words we say aloud in self-criticism and conversations. The negative words we silently call ourselves are just as damaging. Those self-descriptions that SAD provokes us into believing, e.g., I am stupid, incompetent, ugly, useless …

We use them often. They are a part of our conditioning. By the age of sixteen, we have heard the word no from our parents, roughly 135,000 times. Statistics are fluid and ambiguous, but you get the drift. As best-selling author, Betty Eadie submits, “If we understood the awesome power of our words, we would prefer silence to almost anything negative.” The resultant neurotransmission of stress-provoking hormones impacts our neural network, affecting our logic, reasoning, and communication. Personalized negative words impair the parts of our brain that regulate our memory, concentration, and emotions. They are psychologically and physiologically destructive. Our brains are structured around an abundance of negative information.

Negative pronouns like no one, nobody, nothing, and nowhere substantiate our isolation and avoidance of relationships. Negative verbs like can’t, don’t, shouldn’t, and won’t support our sense of incompetence, while adverbs like barely, hardly, no, not, and never invalidate our commitment.

These negative words, whether in our thoughts or speech, impede recovery. A primary recovery objective is to deliberately feed positive information into our neural network to compensate for or overwhelm decades of negative information.

There are three categories of words important to recognize and eliminate from our thoughts and vocabulary: pressure words, negative absolutes, and conditional words.

Pressure Words like should and would equivocate our commitment. I should start my diet essentially means, maybe I will and maybe I won’t. Pressure words give us permission to change our minds, procrastinate, and fail. (We are either on a diet or will be on a diet.) The pressure comes from the guilt of having done nothing (I should’ve done that). 

I shouldn’t drink at the office party. I will not drink at the office party. 

Negative Absolute Words. The adverse impact of won’t and can’t is obvious. Our objective in recovery or empowerment is to replace or overwhelm toxic with healthy neural information – positive over negative. Consider the two statements: “I won’t learn much from that lecture” and“I will learn something from that lecture.” Which one offers the probability we will attend? Negative absolute words include never, impossible, and every time. “Every time I try…”

Hate is an extremely destructive sentiment. (I hate doing the dishes.) Do we really, or do we just dislike doing the dishes? Hate is an emotion; dislike is a feeling. Feelings quickly dissipate while emotions metastasize within us.

Conditional Words like possibly, maybe, might weaken our commitment. “Maybe I will start my diet” is not a firm commitment.  Conditional words originate in doubt and manifest in avoidance and procrastination. Other examples include ought, must, and have to. Qualifying or conditional words or statements give us an excuse to opt out. “I will not drink at the office party” is a more robust commitment than “I will not drink at the party unless I get nervous.” Qualifying or conditional words or statements are also pre-justifications for our failures. (I might have won if only … )  

These negative and conditional words impact the integrity and efficacy of our information. It is important to recognize the destructive nature of these words and eliminate them from our self-referencing thoughts and vocabulary as much as possible. 

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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 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 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 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 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), 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 toward 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 “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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