Hundreds of thousands of thoughts run through our minds each day. Some are random and entertaining while others are disturbing or upsetting. Often we are not conscious of our specific thoughts but, strangely enough, our thoughts can still have an impact on our mood and behavior whether we are aware of them or not. This is one reason why it is so important to be aware of our thoughts and, even more, to make sure what we are thinking is accurate. What if I told you that all your thoughts are not fully based in reality? It’s nothing personal. We all believe and think inaccurate thoughts. One of my favorite sayings is, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Here is why:
All of us have a particular lens through which we view the world. That lens gets colored and distorted based on different experiences we have. For example, if I had a really mean teacher in elementary school, the way I perceive school or teachers might be more negative. I will make assumptions that are not necessarily based on facts but on my previous experiences. We all do this in one way or another. Sometimes it’s harmless and sometimes it can really get in our way.
A widely used form of therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), focuses heavily on our thoughts and how they affect us. One of the most impactful concepts I learned from CBT is that we do not have feelings about events or situations themselves. We have feelings about our perceptions about the event. For example, if someone does not say hi to me when I pass them in the hallway, I might assume they are mad at me then I will feel anxious or even angry back. If instead I think, “Hmm, maybe they have a lot on their mind.” Or, “Maybe they didn’t see me”, my feelings will be much more neutral. From my feelings then flow my actions. If I am angry, I will behave differently towards that person than if I feel neutral.
Being aware of our thoughts and whether or not they are accurate has a powerful impact on how we feel and how we behave. When we have negative feelings and unhealthy behaviors you can almost always track them back to a negative thought. Of course there are bad things in the world and certain situations where sadness or anger is a very normal response. But the problem with unconscious, inaccurate negative thoughts is that they make us suffer for the wrong reasons. Life is already hard enough, we don’t need untrue, negative thoughts making it even harder!
I assist clients in installing a “gatekeeper” in their minds that checks each thought and determines if it is true and if it is allowed to take up mental space. They learn to put their thoughts on trial, questioning if they are true and why. This limits the amount of distorted thoughts which limits the amount of unnecessary emotional suffering.
When I teach my clients about their thinking and how it impacts their mood, I follow the same general steps each time. Keep reading to learn how to start checking your thoughts and developing a more healthy and truthful thought life.
Step 1) Identify what types of unhelpful thinking styles you use
The fancy word for wrong ways of thinking or unhelpful thinking styles is cognitive distortions. Basically distorted thinking. There are multiple types of cognitive distortions: all or nothing thinking, catastrophizing, generalizing, minimizing, discounting the positive, emotional reasoning, mind reading, magical thinking and personalization. We all engage in some of these in our daily lives. The key is noticing when we are generalizing, catastrophizing or stuck in another form of distorted thinking. When we realize we are doing this, our distress lowers and those thoughts have less power over us.
A tell tale sign you are having distorted thoughts is the presence of absolutes such as “always” or “never”. These statements are almost never true (yes I see the irony in that statement!). One of my personal favorite thinking distortions is what I call “spiraling” which is a combination of jumping to conclusions and catastrophizing. It’s where you start with something small like, “I missed the bus and am going to be late to class.” Then you think, “I’m going to fail this class, then I’m not going to finish college, then I’ll have to take some lame job to pay the bills, then my whole family will judge me, then I’ll never meet someone, then I’ll die alone and unfulfilled!” (Whew!) I am slightly exaggerating, but not much. We can catastrophize and make up some pretty wild stories based on very little evidence. What is great is that when you know you are in a “spiral” you can catch yourself and stop the spiral from getting out of control.
Step 2) Identify your Core Negative Beliefs
We all have automatic negative thoughts as well as what therapists call negative core beliefs. These are the headwaters for all other automatic negative thoughts. Some themes for common core negative beliefs are:
-Not good enough (I am incompetent or unlovable)
-Don’t know/Wrong (I can’t get it right, I am a mistake)
-In danger/unsafe (I am helpless, I am unsafe, the world is unsafe)
-Unwanted/Different (I don’t belong, no one wants me around, I don’t matter)
-Defective/Bad (I am bad, I am a failure, I don’t deserve to be loved, there is something wrong with me)
-Powerless (I can’t do it, I am a victim, I don’t have a choice, I am a loser)
To identify your core negative belief or beliefs, think of all the negative thoughts you have. Do they have a theme? Is it safety? Low self-image? Performance or abilities? Notice situations that rile you up more than you think is reasonable. When we react way stronger to something than seems logical, it is often because our beliefs about that situation seem to justify our core negative belief. If you believe that you are forgettable or unimportant, you may react intensely to someone forgetting to call you back. You may become incredibly angry or depressed. On the other hand, someone who does not have this core belief might be annoyed but will probably not react in the same way and will not take it as personally. When you notice strong emotional reactions, trace the emotion back to the thought. Ask yourself, “What about this situation is so upsetting to me? What does this experience make me think about myself?” This can help you uncover your core negative beliefs.
Once you know your core negative beliefs, you can be aware of when they are getting “poked”, take a step back and change the way you interpret the upsetting experience. This can be the difference between reacting in ways that damage your relationships and responding in ways that enhances them.
Step 3) When feeling more upset than you think is reasonable about something, ask yourself, “What thoughts are contributing to my feelings?”
This step is similar to identifying your core negative beliefs. The difference is that while you think back over times when you had a strong emotional reaction to figure out your core negative beliefs, here you look for your automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) in the moment. If you can see your ANTs in the middle of a situation you can empower yourself to respond thoughtfully rather than being controlled by your negative feelings. Again, simply being aware of what the distorted thought is immediately sucks power out of it. It doesn’t make everything better right away but it vastly improves your mental and emotional state.
Step 4) Look for evidence for and against that thought
Once you know what your negative thought is, put it to the test. Ask yourself, how do I know this is true? Is this a distortion (catastrophizing, all or nothing thinking, etc.)? Is there any evidence AGAINST this belief?
I had a teen client who said, “I am not smart.” I knew this was not true. She talked about how hard she worked on her homework, was in advanced classes and got good grades. So I said, “Really? I thought you said you were getting mostly A’s.” She smiled and said, “Yah…I mean I’m not smart in math.” I replied, “Oh, okay. That’s very different! What makes you think you’re not smart at math?” She went on to talk about how she will understand something in class but then by the time she gets home to do her homework, it doesn’t make sense to her anymore. While its true that math does not come as easily to her as other subjects, she is still a very intelligent person. Asking more questions, helped take us from this general negative belief that could easily spiral and get out of control (I can’t do this! I’m gonna fail, I don’t even want to go to school anymore!), to a very manageable issue: needing more help with her math homework.
Step 5) Replace the distorted thought with a more accurate statement
My next step with the above example would be to replace the original distorted thought with a more accurate one. This is not sugarcoating, spinning or ignoring reality. If something is bad, we can acknowledge that. The problem is that people often make things much worse in their minds than they actually are. With the above client I suggested, “So you have a harder time with math than other subjects.” She agreed. This is still true but its removing the unhelpful negative feelings that come with, “I’m not smart at math.” I explained to her that sometimes not being good at something has nothing to do with your intelligence. It’s more about how your mind takes in and processes information. This new thought empowers her to get help with math while the previous though is disempowering, hopeless and could easily lead to thoughts like, “Why even try? I am just not smart and I’ll never get it!” When our thoughts are accurate, our emotions calm and we can more clearly see a path forward. There may still be an issue or challenge but chances are it will seem much more manageable without the extra hype of distortions.
Step 6) How is this similar and how is this different?
When our distortions are based on previous experiences we might automatically jump to conclusions about a current experience that seems similar. For example, if your last significant other cheated on you and there were times before you found out that he or she didn’t answer their phone, you might assume the same thing is happening when your current significant other doesn’t answer their phone now. How is the current situation similar? He/she isn’t answering his/her phone. How is it different? We have a more open and vulnerable relationship than my last one. He/she does a lot to make me feel special and like I matter. My last partner didn’t do that, etc. Doing this helps us get out of our perception that we are in a never ending loop where the same bad thing happens to us over and over. It is possible that the same thing is happening to us again, but it is better to question and respond to the current situation rather than assuming it’s a repeat from the past.
It is important to know that our automatic negative thoughts and core negative beliefs are not who we are. They are symptoms of our wounds that we have accumulated over our lives. Our false beliefs come from our false self and not our true being. Identifying, challenging and replacing our distorted thoughts enables us to come back to our authentic selves. It also allows us to experience the world and our loved ones as they truly are.
Our distorted thoughts usually have at least a hint of truth. That is what makes them so hard to detect and refute sometimes. Most of the time, it is much easier for an outsider to see your distorted thoughts than it is for you to realize them. We are so used to our thought patterns, we are slower to question them. As a therapist, I point out when my clients are using some form of distorted thinking and help them challenge and replace it in session. Overtime, they no longer need my help and can do it on their own. Sometimes you need some help getting started and that is why I do what I do. Reach out to me today if you want support in developing these healing, life changing skills!