Out of all the things we have no control over in life, our brain isn’t one of them. No one knows 100% what we’re thinking – never have, never will. It’s actually kind of cool. We all have this secret space entirely to ourselves, where we can think whatever we want with no spectators, no punishment, no reward, no judgment, no boundaries. With endless ideas and concepts and room for growth and imagination, we can literally think about millions of things.
So it’s super cute that the things we often choose to think about are rooted in the same foundational concept: “I suck.”
I recently wrote an article for I AM THAT GIRL called, “When You’re Your Own Bully,” and today I want to get deeper into that topic. The article focuses on the negative thoughts we have about ourselves and the ways that these thoughts influence our lives. Negative thinking is a common struggle for lots of people, and dissecting that thinking is a typical practice in therapy.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is one of the most well-known and research-backed psychotherapy approaches. It focuses on the connection between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Each of these things influence each other – what we think affects how we feel, which then prompts particular behaviors. How we behave then affects how we feel, which shapes the way we think.
It makes sense, then, why it’s so crucial that we carefully manage our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They work together to create our mood and shape our quality of life. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, clients work with a therapist to identify their negative thought patterns and find ways to reframe those thoughts, encouraging healthier behaviors and comfortable emotions.
The first step of recognizing negative thought patterns is becoming familiar with our automatic thoughts. After an event occurs, into our brain pops an automatic thought, so quickly that most of the time we don’t even stop to think about it. Automatic thoughts aren’t always bad, but for the sake of this blog post we are going to talk about negative automatic thoughts.
So for example, let’s say the event in question is that you come into work and your (usually friendly) boss makes eye contact with you but doesn’t smile. Immediately, the anxiety-prone will have an automatic thought: Oh shit, she’s mad at me. I did something wrong. You’re then left feeling worried, scared, or maybe even defensive.
These negative automatic thoughts are often not based in reality. They aren’t facts, and they aren’t supported by concrete evidence. They are often what psychotherapists call cognitive distortions, which are unrealistic ways of thinking that we are prone to when we’re stressed, depressed, or anxious.
I made a graphic to show four common cognitive distortions that my friends, my clients, and I tend to gravitate towards. If these ways of negative thinking don’t resonate with you, check out this list of some other common cognitive distortions (there are, unfortunately, plenty to choose from).
Learning about cognitive distortions is so important because it puts us back in the driver’s seat. If we learn to slow down, catch our negative automatic thoughts, and recognize them as cognitive distortions, we are putting ourselves back in control over our thoughts. Our negative thinking patterns can’t have power over us if we recognize our thoughts as exaggerated, fueled by anxiety, and based in nothing but assumptions.
Identifying cognitive distortions takes self-awareness and a whole lot of practice. And it’s not always easy – we can be really convincing when we tell ourselves all the reasons we suck and all the ways our lives are gonna be shitty forever. But by learning to recognize our go-to cognitive distortions, we are setting ourselves up to challenge those thoughts and replace them with healthy, positive, and rational ones.
In a future post, we’ll get into detail about challenging negative thoughts and cognitive distortions. For now, just practice noticing your automatic thoughts and whether they are negative or positive. Are your automatic thoughts cognitive distortions? What type? When do you notice distorted thinking coming into play – when you’re anxious? Depressed?
And hey, this week let’s try to tell ourselves that we don’t suck. Okay?
Thumbnail photo from Elizabeth Lies.