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4 Instant Ways To Help Your Depressed Clients Harness The Power Of Detail

Why seeing the bigger picture can be disastrous for people with depression

Depressed Harness Detail
Find out the detailed steps your depressed client needs to take to feel better

Seeing, or believing you are seeing, the bigger picture isn’t always a good thing.

Sometimes you need to forget the bigger view and focus down on specifics.

For example:

  • The bigger view is that you want to ‘run a successful business’. The detail is in all the exact steps and things you need to do to get there.
  • The bigger picture is that you want to ‘write wonderful music’. The detail is in the steps you have to take to bring forth your harmonic brilliance.

People who only see the bigger picture wonder why their ‘dreams’ never come to pass. People who only see detail get lots done but tend not to blaze any trails.

But sometimes the bigger picture is actually worse than useless.

Big picture thinking can spell big trouble for depressive thinkers. It can make them turn very specific woes into a global disaster zone.

I once worked with a couple who told me how they had gone on holiday together, but the wife told me the “whole trip was ruined” because they’d had a row in the taxi back from the airport.

Two weeks of wonderful holiday ‘ruined’ by the tiny detail of an argument on the way home!

“My day was ruined (Big Picture) because that co-worker I said hello to snubbed me (Detail)!”

Confusing detail with big picture gets depressed people into trouble, and can make them feel hopeless. Here’s four ways to help you help clients not do that.

1) Tell them about ‘Big Picture Thinking’ and ‘Detail Thinking’

Yes, it really can be that simple.

Once clients see the pattern, they can challenge their own ‘globalizing’ when it happens. And sometimes, of course, it’s great to see the big picture.

Carefully describe the pattern of maladaptive Big Picture Thinking and make sure your client is able to see how and where they have been using it (if they have).

2) Help your client discover exceptions

A great antidote to negative (and unrealistic) thinking is actively looking for exceptions Click to Tweet

When you can do this for yourself it becomes an effective corrective to automatic depressive thinking.

So I asked the woman who’d told me that her entire two week holiday with her husband had been ‘ruined’ because of one row when they were almost home whether she had any good memories of the holiday.

“Yes, of course. Most of it was wonderful!”

“So is it fair to say that perhaps 1% was spoiled, and actually that row wasn’t even part of the holiday, because it happened when you got home?”

If I screw up some mental arithmetic (Detail), I might conclude that “I’m a complete idiot” (negative Big Picture) or I might look for exceptions:

“Okay, so I screwed that up, but I’m good at languages/sport/making people laugh/baking…” [complete as appropriate]

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You really want your client doing this (exception locating) for themselves.

3) Link ‘detail thinking’ to problem-solving and goals

Clients may come into therapy with unformed or unclear goals. They might have a sense that they no longer want to suffer in some way, but that could be as far as it goes.

Once you’ve helped them form a positive goal, take note of how ‘Big Picture’ or ‘Detailed’ it is from the way they describe it.

So they might say something like “I just want to be happy!”

There is no detail in this, no sense of what ‘happy’ will actually mean. So get detail.


  • what they’ll be doing when they are happy
  • how others will know when they’re happy
  • whether this will be a 100% permanent state of joy
  • or a general sense of background contentment

4) Get the detailed steps so big picture goals become real

Simon came for therapy and announced that what he really wanted was to “have a relationship” (not with me, I hasten to add!).

Simon had never had a relationship before, and when I asked him how he expected to enter a relationship, he replied that he hoped “it would just happen”.

I asked him if he’d ever wanted a cup of tea. He said that yes he had. I then asked him whether the tea had “just materialized” or whether certain steps had been followed in order to get that much desired cup of cha.

I then got him to list how many steps “getting a cup of tea” entailed.

What with filling the kettle with water, switching the kettle on, waiting for it to boil, finding a cup, putting a tea bag into the cup, pouring the boiling water on it, waiting for the tea to be the right strength, getting the milk out of the fridge, pouring it into the cup, and then adding sugar and stirring it, we had no trouble identifying ten steps to “getting a cup of tea”.

And that’s how detailed we’d need to be about getting a cup of tea, unless we have household servants to do our bidding.

A relationship is more complex than a cup of tea (mostly), so then it felt more natural for Simon and I to think about the possible steps he might need to follow to “get a relationship”.

This might sound almost too obvious, but we have all at one time or another wanted and needed things without really thinking about the detail of how to approach those goals.

Big Picture Thinking can be wonderful as an emotional motivator (when it’s positively orientated), and it’s also a marvellous first step before you get detailed.

But when Big Picture Thinking is used negatively in the place of detailed thought, it can fuel depression and pessimism.

Teaching your clients about this can help them no end.

You can learn more about how to challenging depressive thinking styles on my online course How to Lift Depression Fast.

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Download my book on reframing, "New Ways of Seeing", when you subscribe for free email updates

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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