It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that it is the nature of our minds to do a lot of thinking. But how many of us stop to think about our thinking habits themselves, and the effects of these habits (including our habitual interpretations, judgments and assumptions) on our health and happiness? Yet our automatic thinking habits, like other habits (how we eat, drink, breathe and move) have a huge effect on creating and maintaining how well —or unwell— we feel.
First, a little about the brain. Our brains include both “control” and “automatic” processes. “Control” processes are used to learn new skills. They require our focused, conscious attention and effort—think of the effort and concentration it took for you to learn to read or to drive. But through repetition, a new skill (or any regular behavior) becomes an “automatic” process: that is, it becomes a habit.
And it’s a good thing our brains can put so many behaviors “on automatic,” because this frees our energy, concentration and focus for things that actually require it. But as all of us have experienced, there are both beneficial and destructive habits that take hold when the conscious mind turns its attention elsewhere.
The same is true of our thoughts. Since “thinking” itself is a behavior, our thoughts are as subject as any other behavior to going “on automatic,” and they do. We acquire many “thought habits” in the course of our lives: characteristic ways thinking about ourselves and the world, some of which were passed on to us by our early caregivers, and some of which we developed on our own as ways to explain events and emotions, or otherwise to cope. As with other habits, many of these thought habits are beneficial. But many others are like shoes that once fit our small feet, but were never replaced when our feet outgrew them. Now, because they are “too small,” they cause pain, injury, and stunt our growth.
While the list of common, injurious thoughts is long, psychologists who specialize in the effects of thinking habits on our mood states and happiness have identified what’s been called the “Big Four” types (visit www.cognitivetherapyguide.org for the longer list). These include:
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. Example: “I have to do things perfectly, because anything less than perfect is a failure.”
2. Negative Philosophizing. Example: “Life is just one disappointment after another.”
3. Negative Self-Labeling. Examples: “I’m a failure.” “If people knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me.”
4. Catastrophizing. Example: “Whatever’s around the corner is probably going to be bad!”
And though it may seem to make sense (and is sometimes recommended) to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, the danger is that we will just exchange one kind of distortion and judgement for another, which is what always happens when we decide “how things always are.” Eventually, that “positive spin” will turn out to not be “always true” either…which may just seem to prove that we were “right” in our old thinking.
A more useful and effective practice is to begin to identify your own automatic thoughts (or as they’re also called, “self-talk”) as you move through your day. Specifically, when you feel anxious or angry, ask yourself, “what are my thoughts as I experience this feeling?” Some people find it useful to actually start a written list, simply noting the automatic thoughts that come to mind in a given situation.
And because many of us mis-label “thoughts” as “feelings,” it can be helpful to become familiar with the difference. “Sad,” “angry,” “anxious,” “tired,” “excited” “disappointed,” “longing,” are all feelings; pretty much everything else (explanations, judgements, or other attitudes connected with the feeling) are actually thoughts. “I feel like a failure,” for instance, is actually a self-blaming “thought” (“I must have done something wrong”) used to explain the feeling of “disappointment.”
Once you begin to become aware of your thoughts by taking them off “automatic” and putting them back on “manual” for awhile, you can start to consider other, less negative ways of talking to yourself. Instead of “I feel like a failure” or “I screwed up again,” for instance, how about trying the neutral thought, “Well, that didn’t go the way I’d hoped!” and leave it at that. This acknowledges the feeling, but skips the part where you or someone else gets blamed.
But as I’ve written in this column before, don’t take my word for it: try it, and see if you like the results. As they say in AA (I know, I’ve quoted this before, but I love it): “You have nothing to lose but your misery!”