Thinking may seem like a deliberate process, but in reality, much of it happens automatically. And that can be a good thing. Without automatic thinking, our day would grind to a halt. It’s what allows us to drive to work without pulling out a map every time, for example. We are on autopilot, defaulting to knowledge we have previously learned.
Problems arise, however, when what we have previously learned includes negative ways of thinking about ourselves. Where do these thoughts come from? A perfectionistic or critical parent, classmates who reject or bully us, or “ideals” of beauty or success as portrayed on TV or through other media are all known to contribute to these negative thoughts.
Without a conscious effort to take our thinking off autopilot, we can become trapped by negative beliefs without ever realizing it. We assume our thoughts represent an objective view of reality and react accordingly. A person might decline a party invitation, for example, because she has learned to think of herself as socially inept. Because of this belief, she doesn’t attend the party and never has the chance to find out that it is not true.
How can we sidestep such thought traps and open ourselves up to our true potential? The techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) provide a helpful place to start. CBT encourages identifying automatic thoughts, teasing out the distortions and replacing them with more accurate and realistic ways of thinking.
For example, the woman mentioned above could challenge her belief in her ineptness by recalling times when social situations went well. By doing so, she would likely realize it’s not true that she is always socially awkward, and there is no reason to assume things would go poorly at the party. Rather than being stuck in distorted thinking, she would then be able to realistically assess her social strengths and weaknesses, and feel more confident about future interactions.
The goal in this type of analysis is not to try to balance out negative patterns of thought with mindless cheerleading, but to approach our beliefs about ourselves much as a good detective might: by seeking the facts rather than defaulting to assumptions. In this way, unhealthy patterns are broken, expectations become more positive and self-esteem rises. We can help ourselves in this task of self-discovery by keeping these things in mind:
- Beware the all-or-nothing mindset. Pay attention when you find yourself using words such as “never,” “always” or “every.” This is a clue that you are thinking in black and white rather than recognizing life’s many shades of gray. After an unsuccessful job interview, for example, you might find yourself thinking you “always” blow it when the more accurate reality is that, this time, things didn’t go as well as you’d hoped.
- Don’t rush to judgment. The negative thoughts we harbor about ourselves can lead us to misread situations. Rather than make the leap from “My co-workers didn’t invite me to lunch” to “They don’t like me,” for example, keep an open mind about what might have been behind the action until you know the facts.
- Calculate the odds. You’re convinced your prospects are doomed because you didn’t get into the college of your choice. Or you see the end of a relationship as proof you’ll be alone forever. Ask yourself what the chances are of this really happening. Successful people come from all backgrounds, for example. There’s no reason to suppose you can’t be one of them. And while the end of a relationship can be painful, it doesn’t follow that you are unlovable.
- Realize that our minds love to label. Through each moment of each day, we are constantly categorizing everything we experience and think. It’s easy to see these as truths rather than recognizing them for what they are – often, imperfect attempts to make sense of our world.
- Be your best friend, not your worst critic. You don’t have to convince yourself that you’re perfect when challenging your automatic thinking; you just have to remind yourself that no matter what weaknesses you believe that you possess, you are worthy of the same support and kindness you extend to others.