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How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step

Handling negative emotions

Restoration of a statueIn previous articles, I gave a general introduction to broken ideas and talked about how to detect them. In this article, we’ll take a look at a process that lets us repair broken ideas, removing obstacles to self-motivation and willpower.

Idea repair is serious medicine
In an array of psychological studies, idea repair (known in the literature as “cognitive restructuring,” “cognitive behavioral therapy” (CBT), and by other names) has proven effective against a wide variety of problems, including anxiety (including social anxiety), depression, repeat offenses by convicted felons, and many other issues.

Idea repair is not the same as “positive thinking”
Just to clarify what idea repair is and isn’t, I’d like to point out how it’s different from simply “thinking positively.” Positive thinking would direct a student who’s worried about failing a test to tell herself, “I will pass this test!” This may in some cases help with immediate mood, but it’s not necessarily any more realistic than the broken idea “I won’t pass this test.” Idea repair requires looking at situations realistically and in terms of what we really can do in our lives to make things better. If the student were to use idea repair, she might change the thought “I’m going to fail this test, and it will be awful!” to “It’s possible I’ll fail this test, and if I do, I’ll deal with it.”Assuming that she already knows whether she’ll pass or fail doesn’t do much to motivate her to improve her chances: instead, it tends to make the outcome look like it has nothing to do with her actions. Taking a realistic view, on the other hand, gives her the tools to face her situation and do something positive about it.

Identify the broken piece
In order to fix a broken idea, we have to first know how it’s broken. I go into this in some detail in the detection article, where I describe the 11 kinds of broken ideas. (You may sometimes hear a different count based on grouping them slightly differently; the list is based on Dr. David Burns’ cognitive distortion list, which is generally given as 10-15 items.)


  • “Everybody thinks my dancing looks stupid.” (mind reading)
  • “He’s just saying I’m a dedicated worker because he has to say something positive in the review.” (disqualifying the positive)
  • “I’m scared something will happen to him. He’ll probably be in a car accident.” (emotional reasoning)

Notice that these ideas aren’t necessarily impossible: they’re just assuming too much, in a way that tends to make it harder to take positive action.

Rephrase the idea in a strictly truthful way
When repairing a broken idea, it’s necessary to take out all guesswork, undo exaggeration, and include all the facts that matter. Restating a broken idea into a repaired idea is often a source of immediate relief, because it allows us to stop battling ourselves.

Repaired examples:

  • “I’m worried that other people may judge me negatively because of my dancing.”
  • “My performance review had some discouraging parts in it, but he did compliment my dedication.”
  • “Just because I feel scared doesn’t mean that there’s anything to be scared about.”

When repaired ideas break again
Repaired ideas tend to bring some immediate relief, but we tend to have some of the same kinds of broken ideas in many situations over time. Unfortunately, repairing a broken idea doesn’t mean that it won’t come back broken later. So what’s the point of repairing them?

There are at least two major benefits to idea repair even when broken ideas keep coming back. First, there’s the immediate relief in the situation in which the idea has been repaired. And second, repairing an idea over and over will eventually make the broken idea come back less often and less severely, and consistent effort has a good chance of getting rid of a broken idea permanently.

Photo by A Sheer Moisturizing Experience



  1. Jayden Thomas  •  May 1, 2010 @10:20 am

    Anxiety and depression is one hell of a nasty disease. even if you have everything but if you have clinical depression, you are still nothing.::~

  2. Carol Rayneau  •  Sep 17, 2010 @5:57 am

    I hear you. Career, family and everything can be perfect but if the head space is wrong it’s all wrong. You are not nothing tho. Keep reading and be prepared to do what it takes to change your thinking … you have the power!!!

  3. Aloha 808  •  May 23, 2014 @12:02 am

    Thank you so much, this was a very helpful read and created clarity and a calmness.

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