How To Use the Triple Column Technique to Defeat Negative Self-Talk


Negative Self-Talk

“Your mind believes what you tell it.” — Paul J. Meyer

Negative self-talk is a common problem.  The trick is to learn how to turn your inner dialogue from a critic to a coach.  The Triple Column Technique is a proven practice for improving your internal self-critical dialogue.

In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated, David Burns introduces the Triple Column Technique as a method for developing a more effective self-evaluation system.

Here are the key points:

  • Train yourself to write down your critical thoughts.  Train yourself to write down critical thoughts that run through your mind.
  • Identify distortions.  Learn why these thoughts are distorted.
  • Talk back to your distorted thoughts.  Practice talking back to them to develop a more realistic self-evaluation system.

Summary of Steps
According to Burns, the keys steps to use the Triple Column Technique are as follows:

  • Step 1 – Create the Triple Column Technique table.
  • Step 2 – List your self-criticism.
  • Step 3 – Identify cognitive distortions.
  • Step 4 – Identify rational thoughts.

Step 1 – Create the Triple Column Technique table
According to Burns, to create the table for the Triple Column Technique:

  1. Draw two lines down the center of a piece of paper to divide it into thirds.
  2. Label the left-hand column “Automatic Thoughts (Self-cricitism)
  3. Label the middle column “Cognitive Distortion”
  4. Label the right-hand column “ Rational Response (Self-defense)”

Step 2. List your self-criticism.
According to Burns, in the left-hand column, write down all the hurtful self-criticisms you make when you are feeling worthless and down on yourself.

Step 3 – Identify cognitive distortions.
According to Burns, in the middle column, write down the cognitive distortions. Using the list of 10 Distorted Thinking Patterns , see if you can identify the thinking errors in each of your automatic negative thoughts. The 10 Distorted Thinking Patterns are:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Overgeneralization
  • Mental filter
  • Disqualifying the positive
  • Jumping to conclusions (Mind reading, fortunate teller error)
  • Magnification or Minimization
  • Emotional reasoning
  • Should statements,
  • Labeling and Mislabeling,
  • Personalization.

Step 4 – Identify rational thoughts.
According to Burns, substitute a more rationale, less upsetting thought in the right-hand column. Don’t try to cheer yourself up by rationalizing or saying things you don’t objectively believe are valid. Instead, try to find a more objective fact. Your response can take into account what was illogical or erroneous about your self-critical automatic thought.

Example Triple Column Technique
Burns includes an example of a Triple Column Technique:

Automatic Thought (Self-Criticism) Cognitive Distortion Rational Response (Self-Defense)
I never do anything right. Overgeneralization Nonsense! I do a lot of things right.
Everyone will look down on me. Mind reading;
All or nothing thinking;
Fortune teller error
Someone may be disappointed that I’m late, but it’s not the end of the world. Maybe the meeting won’t even start on time.
This shows what a jerk I am. Labeling Come on, now, I’m not a "jerk."


My Related Posts


  1. As a Pennsylvania psychologist, I also highly endorse Dr. Burns’ book. It is an excellent resource for anyone committed to ensuring emotional well-being.

    In addition to questioning self-talk, meditations are invaluable ways to manage stress, in order to improve both emotional and overall physical health. Unfortunately, most people do not practice simple, effective meditation exercises.

    Although Light & Machines do help to induce effortless, deep meditative states, most people are unfamiliar with them or find them too costly. The “Virtual Light & Sound Machine” is FREEWARE that simulates the audio-visual stimulation (AVS) effect, on one’s computer monitor.

    For more information, and download the FREEWARE, in order to experience the meditative effect of AVS, visit

    Jerry Solfanelli

  2. Another way to bypass these negative thoughts is to accept them. Seems weird I know, but if you can accept both points of view and realize that whether something is “bad” is a judgement that’s separate from the actual label. There is nothing wrong with being a fool as we all show behaviors that could be considered foolish by someone.

    =====The resistance
    So the word “fool” for example. In the article is suggests that we say “I’m not a fool”. If in fact your behavior seems foolish to you and you can’t stop it immeidately, you waste energy trying to convince yourself otherwise and push push that label away. This assumes that you attach your behavior to who you are, which most of us to eventually. It does define us in the moment, though not necessarily in the future.

    Now even if you change the underlying evaluation and thought so as not to be a “fool”, that may not effect the way other people label and see you. As such you may be constantly reminded of something you don’t want to be.

    And as the saying goes. “What resists, persists”.

    =====The acceptance frees you
    A more effective way is to accept that you can be a fool. So what? That being a fool is bad is a judgement based on cultural norms. At the same time, look at the positive. There is evidence that you are “brilliant” as well. (What’s the opposite of a fool will vary for people. Find your own word). Accept that you are both at the same time and you are free to choose. You can then simply say “Yes, I can see how I could be called a fool”. There is nothing to fight against then. It’s a part of your personality in this moment and when it shows up, you aren’t attached to trying to disprove it.

    Many people spend their entire lives trying “not” to be something and it’s their main driver. Some don’t want to be poor. Some don’t want to be called dumb. They succeed because of this desire to be the opposite. But often, they lack choice and can never really enjoy what they’ve gained. They are always in fear of behaviors and signs that they might be this thing they hate.

    ======You have a choice now
    You begin to realize that there is no “truth” to any of these labels on either side. They are all evaluations that vary by the criteria that people use. You may want your behavior to shift, but you can decide that you want it to shift because it’s more effective rather than running from being something like “a fool”. You also don’t have to be controlled by people giving you positive feedback and manipulating you with it. Not everyone does this, but it can happen. Our attachment to any of these lables limits our freedom to chose our behavior.

    If however running from something is more effective for you (use the pain to get leverage on yourself as Tony Robbins says) then go right ahead and use it. But realize where you are. A danger here is that there is a tendency to hate others who exhibit behaviors and labels that you are trying to avoid. Projecting these dislikes onto others is a major cause of difficulty in relationships. You’ll find that being around people who you judge as “foolish” pisses you off because you are trying so hard not to be foolish yourself.

    =======A practice to free you
    This concept can be found in Debbie Ford’s “Dark Side of the Light Chasers”. It’s explained in great detail there with numerous examples.

    Having gone through several of her courses, there is an exercise I recall where people sit across from each other and use this technique using both “positive” and “negative” labels. People chose lables they have trouble embracing. It interesting because as people across from you mirror these words, something lets go after 5 to 10 minutes. You may say “I’m such a fool” and other people repeat back to you “You are such a fool” or “your the biggest fool in the world”, etc. After a bit, you don’t care anymore. You can see that it’s okay to be a fool or poor or whatever you are resisting.

    It takes a lot of energy to fight that when 3 people are saying it to you directly. You can really feel the resistance. If you let it happen, suddenly, you don’t care that you are a fool anymore. You can feel the weight lifted. This can occur with other traditionally “positive” labels like “sexy”, “smart”, “intelligent”, etc that people don’t want to be for some reason because it’s considered painful in some way.

    Now you can go back to resisting, but which makes more sense and gives you more power and energy? Having felt the difference, many people can feel why not to go back. If you want to change the underlying thoughts and patterns then you need energy to do that anyway.

  3. In response to RBoucher comment:
    What you are describing is exactly what the article is explaining how to do, but in a systematic orderly method. This in itself will help you pain a clearer picture of you thought patterns. What you are saying is you know what to do, what the article is saying is how to do it.

Comments are closed.