The Power of Control

Power ThrustThe criminal thinker does not achieve satisfaction from using power responsibly. The responsible use of power is not exciting enough! In treatment programs, when an offender’s thinking or behavior is challenged, the automatic response is to attempt to exert control over the situation. This attempt to gain control and divert attention away from oneself is called a ‘power thrust.’  A power thrust is by definition an irresponsible and harmful thinking choice. Criminal thinkers will regularly fall back on this thinking tactic whether or not there is something to be gained from the situation. Manipulating others and putting oneself in a position of authority comes naturally to the criminal thinker and extends to every aspect of their lives including social, emotional, work, play, sex, crime, financial and even in their views of religion. Religious leaders are typically viewed as con men or fools by criminal thinkers and participation in religious activities is performed as a means to a financial or socially manipulative end.

Conquest predominates the criminal thinkers relationships and sexual thought. Sex is not seen as a form of intimacy but rather as another form of power, conquest, and control. Grandiose thoughts of being the boss, a king or the top dog pervade this error in thinking.  To the criminal thinker ‘leading others’ means controlling or dominating others which is why they often have difficulty in a legal work situation. A compelled need to be in control of every situation is a succinct definition of power and control thinking.

In order to begin the arduous task of replacing power and control oriented thinking with the responsible use of power, the offender must first realize the extent of his or her search for power and control. The numerous avenues that control are exerted over others, and its negative ripple effects must be painstakingly reviewed. The criminal thinker must begin to see that they do not have the right or ability to responsibly control people. In addition, leadership must begin to be seen as a form of servanthood and responsibility. Legitimate power brings with it new problems and burdens. Situations that used to be seen as opportunities to exert control should be viewed as avenues for service to others. Developing the habit of putting oneself in another’s shoes will also help to deter power and control oriented thinking which is critical to the thinking change process.

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Unique and Superior

UniquenessA common perception among criminal thinkers is the idea that they are different and better than others. Even when a criminal is repeatedly arrested for a violation, their ‘uniqueness’ in thinking leads them to believe that it won’t happen to them again. Common sense would dictate that if I am arrested multiple times for the same situation I should learn from those arrests and stop violating the law. However, uniqueness dictates that I am better than the average person who gets arrested and I can still beat the system.

Instead of using the arrest as a wake-up call to lead a responsible life, criminal thinkers see it as a violation of their personal space and freedom. Even when they are caught in the act of committing a crime they focus on the feigned brutality of the police or the lack of responsibility of their victim. I have heard it said by an offender that “if she would have held on to her purse tighter it wouldn’t have been stolen. I was doing her a favor by taking it so she will be more aware of her own personal safety.” In this scenario, the victim is to blame and the offender is providing a public service! It is no surprise that repeat offenders with this type of thinking continue to fill our jails and prisons.

The language criminal thinkers use to describe situations also flows from distorted thinking. Instead of an offender saying that they did something wrong that harmed others, they will say they got “caught up.” This type of language cognitively minimizes the role they played in the situation. Criminal thinkers believe the rules of society do not pertain to them and they think they are fully justified in their irresponsible actions. Self-esteem is not something the criminal thinker lacks.

Uniqueness is also a personal belief in the offender’s superiority which dominates their thinking. They do not believe they need to work hard to attain success. Even when a criminal thinker is experiencing the dreaded, but fleeting, zero-state of thinking, i.e. a feeling of complete worthlessness, their belief that no one has felt as down or depressed as they have is another example of the uniqueness thinking error.

The changing thinker must begin to see the commonalities they share with others. When others are sharing their own thoughts and problems they must listen and relate those stories to their own life. Feelings of uniqueness must be looked at from the natural consequences that have resulted in an offenders life. The healthy opposite of uniqueness is seeing how we are similar to others and not superior. The development of humility is a natural deterrent to thoughts of uniqueness and superiority. By replacing the thinking error of uniqueness the changing person will begin to develop a sense of belonging in a responsible society.

Access our free “Uniqueness” worksheet on

Fear Factor

Fear FactorOur stereotypical view of a “hardened” criminal is that they are fearless. Criminals are portrayed in the media, and often in movies, as callous, reckless, quick-tempered, ready to fight and angry. In reality, criminal thinkers have many fears. The primary fear is actually a fear of fear itself. Admitting fears would mean that the criminal would have to acknowledge they are not in control which is antithetical to their of view themselves and their way of life. Criminals have a compelled need to be in control of every situation including their emotions. In their mind, allowing fear to be present would mean they are vulnerable, weak and out of control.

In order to remove fear, the automatic response of a criminal thinker is anger.  Anger and bravado is a common mask for fear and the criminal thinker will go to many lengths to hide fears that are always bubbling under the surface. Fear of being put down or belittled is one of the most common observable fears in a criminal. Turning the other cheek is not an option for the fragile ego of an offender. Enduring putdowns reduces the fragile perception of themselves as all-powerful and in control. Since the criminals distorted self-perception is based on the illusion of being powerful and in control, being put down is an affront to their very existence.

A criminal lifestyle is filled with danger and the risk of being detected so the emotion of fear is regularly cut off or stifled. Alcohol and drugs are commonly used to reduce feelings of fear. Many rapes, robberies, and assaults happen under the influence of drugs since those chemicals reduce one’s natural inhibitions and fears that would normally deter the crime from happening in the first place. Cutting off and corroding fear does not mean it is not present. Cutting off fear is a distorted thinking habit that results in the continued victimization of others and ongoing risky behavior. If a criminal allowed him or herself to be influenced by their fears they would find it increasingly difficult to continue committing crimes, violating others and using or selling drugs.  For this reason, it is critical that the criminal thinker begin altering their thinking habits and beliefs about fear.

Fear is a natural emotion that results from the logical assessment of a risky situation. Instead of cutting off or reducing feelings of fear, the changing criminal must use fear as a guide.  That uneasy feeling we have just before doing something wrong is natures way of warning us to reconsider what we are about to do. When a criminals self-worth begins to shift away from distorted ideas of power, control, and superiority, fear will become more of an ally than an opponent.

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Objects to Possess

Under New OwnershipIn school, children learn the difference between a noun and a verb. Most of us will easily recall the grade school mantra of a noun as a ‘person, place or thing.’ For the criminal thinker, the definition attributed to the noun takes on a new and more distorted meaning.  Criminal thinkers perceive people, places and things as objects to possess. They have little to no regard for the ownership rights of others and minimize or ignore the negative ripple effect of their behavior.

Counselors regularly hear examples of this ‘ownership attitude’ in therapy groups when offenders describe their crimes of theft. They believe they have the right to take things that don’t belong to them because they “have to make a living somehow.” They fantasize about the big score and plan out in detail how they will “get their money.” Once they take an object or steal money they consider it theirs. Some will even go as far as to make a report to the police if the stolen money is stolen from them! This type of double standard is unwittingly played out in many areas of a criminal life. A criminal thinker will steal for a living but complain when something is stolen from them. They will belittle and decry the crimes of a sex offender, but minimize or ignore the hundreds of victims they have created themselves. They point out the inconsistencies and unfairness of probation and parole rules while breaking their own promises and the rules of a civilized society.

The attitude of ownership extends far beyond money and goods. Criminal thinkers also view other people, and especially sexual partners, as property. This type of thinking is codified into well-known rules of engagement for many outlaw biker gangs. Biker gangs are well known for their abuse of women. In some gangs, women are actually bought, sold and traded which is the epitome of an ownership attitude.

Changing an ownership oriented pattern of thinking involves discovering the consequences of ownership-oriented behavior. Crimes of theft need to be examined for the negative ripple effects they cause in the lives of victims and the also the victimizer. The criminal thinker must begin to look through the eyes of their victims and contemplate the injury they have caused others in their lives. Victim awareness must become a new habit in the life of the changing thinker. Ownership thinking creates endless examples of the double standards prevalent in a criminal’s life. Changing this way of thinking will result in a single standard of respect and acknowledgment of the human rights we all possess.

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The Solitary Confinement of Responsibility

Solitary confinement of responsible livingResponsible living to the criminal thinker is akin to solitary confinement. The perceived boredom and lack of excitement in a responsible life are worse than the possibility of jail or prison. The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that most criminals continue to re-offend after release from prison. This fact gives credence to the assertion that responsibility is an arduous pursuit. Criminal thinkers are unwilling to do anything they perceive as boring or disagreeable and responsible living is high on the boring list! The criminal thinker has a lifelong history of avoiding activities that require effort. Their aversion to delaying gratification is similar to the addictive behavior of an addict.

In treatment programs, where responsible behavior is expected and rewarded, the criminal thinker will continue their irresponsible thinking and behavior even towards responsible goals. A criminal thinker will cheat on tests while attempting to complete a GED. They will cut corners on house chores and attempt to manipulate staff even when there is no apparent reason to do so. If there is no immediate benefit for doing the right thing, positive behavior will be abandoned in favor of whatever is most expedient.

Changing the long pattern of irresponsible living is one of the most challenging aspects of recovery from criminal thinking. In order to begin living responsibly, the criminal thinker must act-as-if they want to live a responsible life. The act-as-if mode is a pattern of behavior that is required for changing several key thinking errors. Since there is no initial internal motivation to live responsibly, it is most effective to take on the attitude and behavior of someone who does want to change. The resistant offender will complain that we are suggesting that they “live a lie” with this approach. But, it is better to live a lie and do no harm than to live the truth [of criminal thinking] and return to jail!

Although the cognitive-behavioral approach to change implicitly begins with thoughts influencing behavior, behaviors can also influence thinking especially when one is not intrinsically motivated to do the right thing. By changing one’s behavior to coincide with a responsible life the benefits of change will eventually be revealed.

Access our free “Lack of Interest in Responsible Performance” worksheet on

“I can’t” means “I won’t”

I can't = I won'tThe criminal thinker is unwilling to do anything that is boring or disagreeable! This statement is considered an axiom among corrections professionals. The criminal thinker has boundless energy and interest in activities that are exciting, interesting or fun. But when it comes to basic responsibilities and actions that don’t result in an immediate payoff they lose interest or give up. The words “I can’t” become the mantra for the criminal thinker.

  • “I can’t get a job because I have a record.”
  • “I can’t stop using drugs because I already tried a hundred times before”
  • “I can’t go back to school because I’m too old”
  • “I can’t do these assignments because they are too hard”

In reality, “I can’t” means “I won’t.” In correctional treatment programs we often hear from offenders that they tried to stay sober, or they tried to get a job or they tried to finish a task on time, but something or someone prevented them from accomplishing the task. Our common response to criminal thinkers who “try” to do something is to stop trying and start doing.  Stop trying to get a job and do whatever it takes to get a job. Stop trying to stay sober and do whatever it takes to stay sober. Do whatever it takes to complete the responsible task at hand. And, by the way, you don’t know what it takes to live responsibly so ask for help and follow advice!

Pushing oneself to do the difficult is the key to criminal freedom. In fact, the best advice for someone early in the criminal thinking change process is to focus on the actions that they like the least.  If getting up early and doing house chores is the most disagreeable task at hand, that should be the first thing on the list to complete!  Criminal thinking change is an exercise in opposites.  A criminal thinker must begin to turn their thinking around 180 degrees. Instead of blaming others for their plight, they need to blame themselves. When doing something responsible seems boring, that is the time to perform the task.  Instead of saying “I can’t” say “I must.”  We don’t need to feel like doing something in order to do it. Responsibility, maturity, and growth are about taking consistent action especially during those times when we don’t feel like doing them. A babies behavior is based entirely on its feelings, mature men and women’s behavior is directed by responsible thinking and rational beliefs.  “Tell me you don’t feel like doing something right now and I’ll tell you that now is the time to do it then!”

Once a habit is formed by doing the disagreeable it becomes easier to do. If we make a consistent effort towards a responsible goal, its achievement begins to become a reality. The serenity prayer is a good source of inspiration for this thinking error of Lack of Effort.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Visit the website for a free worksheet on correcting the thinking error “The “I Can’t Attitude.”

The Mirror of Self-Disgust

Building self-esteem and developing a positive view of oneself is the goal of many therapeutically sound programs.  There are numerous assessment tests that measure self-worth, self-esteem and positive self-image including Rosenburg’s Self-Esteem Test,, and others.  Most people are taught at a young age to take pride in their accomplishments and are given praise and compliments for their successes. We begin to identify with numerous role models and are connected formally and informally to mentors who help guide our positive self-image and direction in life.

For the criminal thinker who is beginning the thinking change process, positive views of oneself is not a road to recovery.  The criminal thought process is so distorted that a normally positive idea in a responsible person life is actually a distortion of reality for the criminal. A criminal thinker who is donating money to charity or bringing flowers to their mother is avoiding and contradicting the reality of the extreme harm they are causing through their other arrestable and irresponsible actions.  Doing something good for someone while still maintaining active irresponsible or criminal thoughts only furthers their destructive lifestyle. For the criminal thinker, change is not about doing good things, it is about actively identifying, challenging and changing ones distorted thinking patterns.

Early in the change process offenders should focus more on the harm they have caused than on the good they have done.  Creating an honest balance sheet of their lives should result in a scale that is tipped strongly towards the negative.  Correcting the false view of oneself as a good person should be replaced with honest self-disgust which motivates change.

Positive self-perspective can be viewed on a continuum for the criminal thinker with self-hate on the far left and narcissism on the far right.  Self-disgust is the result of an honest and balanced self-assessment developed with the help of responsible ‘others.’  The change agents role should be to consistently hold up a mirror to the offender so they see a true and undistorted vision of themselves. The offender will begin to identify the thinking patterns that have caused others harm and the replacements to those errors in thinking.  As a result, they will begin developing the skills to hold up the mirror for themselves.  Over time, looking into the mirror of self-disgust will motivate change and begin replacing a distorted sense of self-worth with a healthy self-perspective. The negative ripple affects of a life of crime will begin to fade and new ripples of healing and hope will become stronger.


Next to ‘closed-channel thinking,’ victimstance is the most pervasive thinking error in irresponsible and criminal thinkers. Criminal thinkers continually blame others for situations they have caused themselves.

Victimstance thinking moves to the extreme in persons actively engaged in victimizing behavior. If a criminal thinker gets arrested they will claim they are victims of overzealous police actions. They will lie and deny doing anything wrong even when confronted with the obvious facts of their offenses. They will often blame the violence they have perpetrated on an addiction or drug and alcohol use.  When a criminal thinker enters treatment or therapy they will use their new found diagnosis to rationalize and excuse their behavior instead of using that knowledge to take the necessary steps to make meaningful change.

The common victim rationales used by the offender fall into four destructive categories including, psychological, sociological, an ex-con and genetic.  Examples of thinking distortions in each of these areas are as follows:


  • If drugs were legal like in Denmark this wouldn’t even be an issue.
  • Everybody steals and lies, I just happen to have gotten caught which is not fair
  • I couldn’t help it that my friend decided to rob that store. I’m a victim of circumstance.
  • If you would have left me alone this wouldn’t have happened.
  • It’s not my fault, I warned her that I get violent when she keeps nagging me.


  • I was raised in the projects. This is the only way I learned how to make money
  • I live in a neighborhood that is controlled by gangs. If I wouldn’t have joined a gang I would have been killed.
  • I am constantly being discriminated against because of my race so committing crimes is how I learned to cope.
  • If I was white I wouldn’t have even been arrested for this crime.


  • I can’t get a decent job now that I have a record so I have to sell drugs to survive.
  • There are no good options for someone with a criminal record.
  • Society has branded me a criminal so I might as well just accept it.


  • My parents were both incarcerated so I was bound to be a thug.
  • Drug addiction runs in the family, I don’t have a choice.
  • I just have bad blood.

The changing criminal must begin to accept the role they play in every negative consequence that they encounter. They need to identify the thinking errors that prevent them from taking personal responsibility.  By asking what they could have done differently to change the outcome of the situation they will begin to learn corrections to their distorted thoughts.  They must learn and document how they have been a victimizer more than a victim.  Even when they are truly victimized, their criminal lifestyle is usually what has caused them to become victims themselves. Police understand this concept well when they arrive at a crime scene and discover that the victims could easily be yesterdays victimizers.

Failing to Learn from Experience

The past and futureCriminal thinkers do not learn from the past and operate without regard for the future.  They are often described as failing to learn from experience and tend to see behavior and events as isolated incidents. You might be thinking to yourself, “this sounds like my teenager!” If it does sound like your teenager, or even your spouse, don’t be alarmed. We all have errors in thinking and our teens often have many of them at the same time. The difference is that thinking errors in criminals continue to expand into almost all areas of their lives and they regularly fail to deter their distorted thinking which results in regular violence and harm of others.

Failing to learn from experience is one of they key components of the thinking error, lack of time perspective. If we repeatedly fail to learn from experience we will continually spend our time in ‘quadrant one’ of Stephen Covey’s time management matrix. [See previous post “Important but not Urgent”] Quadrant one is comprised of actions in our life that have become urgent and important. It is filled with things that we can no longer ignore because they are now looking us in the face. Continually ignoring our bills will eventually result in actions that are now important and urgent. The debt collectors have handed over our bills to collection agents and the pressure to pay has increased.  Similarly for the ex-offender, putting off meeting with a probation or parole agent will make the next meeting “urgent and important” since it could affect our freedom.  The more we ignore our responsibilities and keep putting things off to tomorrow, the more time we will spend in a state of urgency, and even panic, addressing the things that have gotten out of control in our lives.

For the ex-offender it is critical that they develop a clear sense of time perspective so they don’t repeat the same pattern of thinking and behavior that contributed to their incarceration and victimization of others. Identifying the amount of time we are spending in the Quadrant One area of our lives will be a good indication of trouble we are having with the lack of time perspective thinking error.

A natural deterrent to lack of time perspective is goal orientation. Developing goals in  various areas of our lives will help us combat lack of time perspective.  In fact, just developing a goal in a single area will often help turn the tide and create a ripple effect of other positive actions.  For example, instead of setting a goal of getting a job, staying sober and paying off all fines, it would be better to set smaller step objectives to achieve those goals.  For the job goal, identify smaller steps that will help result in getting a job. For example:

  1. Meet with a career counselor, probation agent and/or mentor to identify strengths, weaknesses, potential contacts, job goals, references, etc.
  2. Create a resume
  3. Identify 5 primary sources for locating jobs
  4. Send out 5 resumes and/or make 5 inquiries a week
  5. Find out about 2 volunteer opportunities that would help me in my chosen field
  6. Ask a friend for an introduction to someone who can tell me about jobs in a given field.

In the field of Quality Improvement, smart goals are defined with an acronym:

S – specific
M- measurable
A – action-oriented
R – realistic
T – time-bound

In the job goal example above, making the smaller steps to the goal ‘smart’ would involve adding the final “T” or time-bound element to each one, e.g. I will identify 5 primary sources for locating jobs by next Thursday.

When an offender is released from prison they often have an astounding set of goals and hopes for the future.  However, when the first sign of adversity comes their way they give up and claim the victim role, blaming society for not giving them a job, their probation agent for setting unrealistic expectations, their family for being too controlling, their girlfriend for not being sympathetic, etc, etc. Setting smart goals and holding oneself accountable to them is the best deterrent.

Criminal Thinking Factoid: The number of arrests or convictions a person has are not a good indicator of how distorted their thinking has become.  Personal conviction and/or arrest numbers are more a result of the increased presence of police in a particular community and/or the ineptness of the particular offender.

Criminal Thinking Worksheet: Access the free “Lack of Time Perspective” worksheet on

Closed Channel Thinking

The essence of criminal thinking is the closed channel.  Criminal thinkers are closed off from being receptive, are closed to any interest in being self-critical and also shut down from disclosing the truth about their destructive behavior.  These three components of criminal thinking must be replaced with their natural corollaries, i.e. receptivity,  self-criticism and self disclosure.

Receptivity is being open and responsive to ideas, impressions and suggestions.  When a responsible person makes a suggestion about changing a bad habit or doing something that is positive, the recovering person must listen intently to what is being suggested.  They should practice active listening skills which have deteriorated with their destructive thinking patterns.  Active listening is listening to the message without interruption, clarifying the content of the message, restating what the person said to ensure you understand the message and being aware of your feelings and the sender’s feelings.  Changing criminals and even addicts must realize that they do not have the solution to their problems and must rely on responsible others for guidance, correction, and advice.

Self-criticism is pointing out the faults in your own behavior and thinking.  Criminal thinkers are skilled at pointing out the faults of others, but continually fail to see the harm in their own behavior.  An excellent exercise to promote positive change is to look at the role you play in every negative situation that has happened during the week.  What could you have done differently or thought differently to prevent the negative outcome.  Even in situations where the criminal thinker is truly victimized, they should focus on the lifestyle of crime, drugs or victimization that has allowed them to be victimized themselves. There are always people who have experienced more harsh conditions and life problems than ours, and still made positive choices that didn’t involve drugs, crime or abusing others.

Self-disclosure is another area of extremes for the criminal thinker.  Criminal thinkers relate minimal information about themselves and only do so when they can use that self-disclosure to take advantage of someone.  They gather information about others but don’t talk about themselves.  For true change to occur the changing criminal must begin to share their distorted thinking with people who can help correct their distortions and thinking tactics.  They are wise to take the advice of the 4th Step of AA which suggests that addicts “take a searching and fearless moral inventory” but they cannot do this by themselves.  Their distorted thinking will no doubt make the search superficial and less than fearful!

Access our free “Closed Channel Thinking” worksheet on

"An approach to the treatment of offenders which emphasizes the role of altering thinking patterns in bringing about change in an offender's life."