Most of us have experienced it – the terrible feeling of negative thoughts creeping into our heads telling us things like ‘you are not good enough’, ‘you are so awkward and annoying,’ or ‘you are such a failure.’
These hurtful and unwelcomed thoughts that pop into our heads are known as “automatic negative thoughts.” According to the father of cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck, it is these types of thoughts that attack our best self and cause us to spiral into a cycle of emotional pain and suffering. This cycle starts with a mindset that is anxious, unhappy or angry and leads into automatic negative thoughts (ANT). The ANT then feeds back into our mindset, ultimately perpetuating the unpleasant cycle.
So, how do we break this cycle?
While it may not be easy at first, the first step is learning how to recognize ANT. This means when a negative thought pops into our head we must take a second to pause and think, wait a minute…where is this thought coming from? Is this true or is this my inner critic speaking?
When we get stuck in negative cycles, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the negative thoughts. By stopping to test these thoughts, we can seek out another point of view – the opposite of our inner critic, our inner supporter.
For those of you who are familiar with RuPaul, you’ll recognize his famous line ‘If you can’t love yourself, then how the hell you gonna love somebody else?’ when you really think about it, he’s right! Instead of tearing ourselves down all the time and listening to our inner critic, we need to give our inner supporter a chance to weigh in.
When you really think about it, he’s right. Instead of tearing ourselves down all the time and listening to our inner critic, we need to give our inner supporter a chance to weigh into the conversation.
Maybe you just joined a running group and you catch your inner critic screaming ‘you are so much slower than the rest of the group, you should just quit running!’ Okay fine, inner critic that’s your opinion…but what do you think inner supporter? After thanking you for finally letting it speak up, your inner critic could counter ‘well sure, maybe you aren’t the fastest runner on the trail but if you keep at it, you are bound to improve. And besides, exercise is exercise regardless of the pace!’
It’s all about challenging those automatic negative thoughts and considering another perspective.
Need some help getting started? Here’s a list of categories where automatic negative thoughts tend to hang out in:
- Black and white thinking – Grey areas exist. Don’t force yourself into the “if I can’t do it, I am an utter failure”
- Mind reading – Assuming you know what other people are thinking is dangerous because it is very likely that your speculations are not based in truth. “She thinks I’m so annoying”… Does she really think that or is that what you are telling yourself?
- Over generalizing – Making overly exaggerated statements “No one will ever love me again!”
- Discounting the positive – Discrediting yourself for things you are good at “I received top marks, but so do the entire class so I’m not that smart.”
- Self-blame – Assuming things are your fault “He’s not having fun, it must be because of me.”
- Catastrophizing – Thoughts such as “Now the entire day is ruined” after you spilled coffee on your shirt in the morning.
- Name calling – Calling yourself or others “stupid” is not helpful.