In my last post, I talked about how to uncover automatic thoughts. People often ask me during sessions why they continue to have upsetting emotions that they just can’t seem to get a handle on? They find themselves reacting more strongly to things than they would like? It’s a person’s interpretation of events that cause feelings and not the event themselves. An event triggers your thoughts which then produces feelings.
By changing your thoughts, you can change your feelings. While events are often outside of your control, you can learn to control your thoughts thereby creating more positive emotional experiences.
Let’s look at the characteristics of negative automatic thoughts to better understand their nature.
1) Believable no matter how illogical they appear.
Automatic thoughts have a believable quality to them and you tend to form your emotional experience based on these thoughts.
2) Catastrophic by nature and anticipates or assumes a bad outcome.
You automatically assume the worst-case scenario which creates upsetting emotions. Those catastrophic thoughts are often a major source of anxiety.
3) They are learned.
You form habitual patterns of automatic thoughts that are difficult to recognize and therefore change. You can’t change something you’re not aware of.
4) Involve statements like “should”, “must” or “ought.”
Statements that are framed with these words, particularly when directed toward yourself, can lead to feelings of self-blame, disappointment, guilt, anger and frustration. These words by nature are rigid and do not allow room for modification for situations that change.
5) They always make you feel bad about yourself.
These thoughts never leave you feeling good about yourself. You worry about not being good enough now and never feeling good enough in the future. This creates feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
6) They tend to be self-sabotaging.
When a negative thought creeps in, you begin to feel fearful or worried which impacts your behavior. One of two things can happen. You don’t take the action you need to take to achieve a good outcome because your fear has immobilized you. Or your actions are negatively impacted by the thoughts you have so the results are sabotaged which further reinforces your negative automatic thoughts. The nature of the cycle is vicious.
7) They are biased.
You tend to discount the positives and only highlight the negatives. Just because something you desired didn’t work out, doesn’t mean that nothing will ever work out.
8) It’s personal.
You personalize and assign blame to yourself for things that aren’t really your fault. Negative automatic thinking leads you to personalize and accept blame for things that are not entirely under your control.
9) It’s pervasive and persistent.
One negative thought typically leads to another negative thought unless it’s interrupted. You can either feed it so it continues to thrive or starve it by not continuing to give the cycle what it needs to survive.
Hearing your automatic thoughts is the first step in gaining control of your most intense emotions. Try to identify the thought you had prior to the onset of your emotions. What were you thinking just before and during the unpleasant feeling? Listen to your internal dialogue and hear what you’re telling yourself. You may find it helpful to start a thought journal to record your thoughts. This will help you to better understand the role your thoughts play in your emotional experiences. After some time, you’ll begin to distrust your automatic thoughts and start to question how valid and true these thoughts are. To decrease the frequency of painful emotions, you need to listen to what you think and ask yourself how valid these thoughts are. Remember, what you think ultimately creates what you feel.