The Feeling Good Therapist - Let's Define Terms Technique

Let's Define Terms Technique with host, Richard Lam, LMFT, featuring Kevin Cornelius, M.A., LMFT

*This Technique was developed by Dr. David Burns, American Psychiatrist and Adjunct Clinical Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The video features a session with therapist Kevin Cornelius, discussing a technique called Let's Define Terms, created by Dr. David Burns. In this session, Kevin explains how the method helps combat negative self-labeling by helping you challenge unhelpful thoughts like I feel like an idiot or why am I so stupid, and other self criticism thinking patterns.

The method focuses on the concept of cognitive distortions, particularly labeling. He engages a hypothetical patient named Richard, who believes he's an idiot due to failing an important exam. Kevin guides Richard to define the term ‘idiot’. Through questioning, Richard realizes that the label is overly harsh and inaccurate, as everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Kevin helps Richard recognize how these irrationality and negative thoughts can be harmful and replace them with more realistic and self-compassionate beliefs, boosting Richard's self worth and confidence.

The video emphasizes the importance of challenging negative self-perceptions and offers viewers a practical approach to counter harmful thoughts, promoting self-compassion. Viewers are encouraged to explore similar CBT techniques on the channel to improve their mental health. 


Richard: Welcome everyone to the Feeling Good Therapist, where we learn different skills and tools that will help you in your private practice or even in your personal life. Today, we have Kevin Cornelius back again, teaching us another amazing method. Let's define terms, a technique created by Dr. David Burns.

Kevin: Thank you so much for having me here again today. I really appreciate it. Yeah, we're going to take a look at this method “Let's define terms”. Of course, if I were working with an actual patient in therapy, we would give that person lots of empathy and do some great agenda setting before we even begin to look at methods. But this would be a great method to help somebody who is labeling themselves something. I'm sure you've talked about cognitive distortions in your show before, and labeling is a powerful one. So this would be a great method for addressing labeling.

Richard: Great, I love that. Give us a situation to work with here.

Kevin: Sure, let's think about if you'll play the role of a patient in therapy who is really upset and down on themselves because they recently failed an exam that was really important in school. And they've been thinking, "I'm an idiot."

Richard: Yeah, I think that's a good one. Let's do it.

Kevin: Okay, great. I'll just call you Richard. Hey Richard. So I'm glad we're going to look at this thought, "I'm an idiot." And I'd like to introduce you to this method called Let's Define Terms. I'll tell you a little bit about it. This is a semantic method. We're going to be looking at the way that we use language when we're talking to ourselves when we're upset. And you noticed right away that that thought had labeling in it. So Let's Define Terms is a really great way to question the labels that we give to ourselves that cause us lots of shame or low feelings about ourselves, sometimes depression. Are you up for giving it a try?

Richard: Yeah, let's give this a try.

Kevin: Okay, so I'll tell you a little bit about how this works. The idea with this method is that the label that you're giving yourself in the thought, which would be "an idiot," right? That's the label that you're giving. It's not something that actually exists on the planet. That's going to be my challenge to you, to prove that even "an idiot" is something that exists. The way we'll do that is by having you come up with a definition for that term. Let's say there was a dictionary, a special dictionary that just defined all the different kinds of people in the world. If I was going to look up the term "an idiot," what definition would I find there? You're going to create that definition, but I'll let you know that probably what's going to happen is you won't be able to come up with a definition that actually applies to you. It may be something that applies to everybody on the planet, nobody on the planet, or it just may not be relevant to you. That's what I'm guessing is going to happen, but let's see if you can prove me wrong. Let's imagine I want to find out what's the definition of "an idiot." What would you say that is?

Richard: Well, I guess someone who kind of failed an exam.

Kevin: Okay, so someone who failed an exam would be someone who is "an idiot," is that right?

Richard: Yeah, okay.

Kevin: Now, help me out because I might be concerned that maybe I'm an idiot because I've failed exams sometimes. So would I have to fail every exam that I take, or would it just be one exam that would cause me to be an idiot?

Richard: Oh, I don't know. It kind of sounds like people fail exams all the time, so I definitely don't think you're an idiot. At the same time, it's also like what subject there is too. Someone gave me or gave you Nuclear Physics or something, and you're going to fail it continuously. Still, I don't think that makes you an idiot. So I guess that doesn't really make sense. I guess maybe another definition is someone who doesn't know how to do anything and doesn't understand anything.

Kevin: Okay, so someone who doesn't know how to do anything.

Kevin: Yeah, and isn't good at anything. I just want to say that when you said that just now, I felt a lot of compassion for you in that moment because I'm imagining that's kind of how you think of yourself right now when you're calling yourself an idiot. That you don't know how to do anything and that you aren't good at anything. But I'm wondering, do you think that's true? Is there nothing that you know how to do?

Richard: Well, I know how to do quite a bit. It's not like I failed other exams. I mean, I'm doing pretty good overall, but it's just that one exam threw me off. But I guess if we went by that definition, it wouldn't really apply to me. I guess.

Kevin: Yeah, that wouldn't apply to you because you do know how to do some things, right?

Richard: Yeah, okay.

Kevin: And also, is it true that you're not good at anything in your life?

Richard: Oh, I guess that's not true. I'm pretty good at doing my origami and also pretty good at playing tennis. So I guess it doesn't really apply to me. That one doesn't apply either.

Kevin: Okay, yeah. See, try one more time. See if you can come up with a definition for "idiot" that does apply to you. I'm curious.

Richard: To be honest, I can't really think of anything that would apply.

Kevin: Okay, yeah. And I'll share with you my thoughts on why that is. Okay, yeah. I would say it's because "an idiot" is not really a tangible thing that we could point to and say, "Okay, that's what an idiot is." It's more of an idea, a concept. You know, because it might be fair to say that most people have their strengths and weaknesses. They're good at some things and not good at other things. You were kind of touching on that earlier, right? Like if I was going to try and pass an exam on physics, I would definitely fail, and I might be kind of an idiot in that topic because I have no education in that area. But does that mean that defines me, that I'm completely an idiot in every way? Probably not. Now, what was that like for you to try and define the term "idiot" and see that it was actually hard to come up with a definition that holds water or that even applies to you?

Richard: Yeah, I guess that was pretty harsh to kind of give myself this label. And at the same time, it doesn't really apply to me or anyone, actually, because there are just so many different topics out there. And a big part of this too is I was kind of thinking, I can probably improve in a lot of areas where I'm not so good at too. So it kind of gives me an opportunity to improve. So I guess at the end of the day, no one, including myself, is an idiot.

Kevin: I just love everything that you just said, and I took some notes here. Tell me if I got this right. You said, "This term does not apply to me or really anyone. I have things that I can improve at and opportunities to improve. So it's just not true that I'm an idiot." Did I get that right?

Richard: Yeah, exactly.

Kevin: Okay, now let's imagine you write that down. So if you wrote that down on your mood log under positive thoughts, how much would you say you believe that between zero and 100%?

Richard: Oh, that's definitely 100% true.

Kevin: And if your positive thought is 100% true, now how much do you believe that you're an idiot?

Richard: Zero, definitely.

Kevin: Yeah, and then I love what you just did, and I'm curious, what does that feel like now? Do you notice that you feel a little bit differently about yourself now that you've kind of crushed your belief in that particular thought?

Richard: Yeah, I guess I feel a little more worthwhile. I kind of see things in a better light and definitely not feeling totally worthless anymore. More positive, for sure.

Kevin: Okay, well, that's Let's Define Terms.

Richard: Wonderful. Thank you, Kevin, for this wonderful technique. And if anyone else wants to learn more about Kevin, you can find him on our website or on the link below. And if you want to learn more about different techniques and methods, feel free to subscribe to this channel. Thanks, everyone.

Find A Therapist

Get matched with a therapist proven and vetted to help you feel better faster