Identifying automatic thoughts and reframing
Have you heard of automatic thoughts? You’ve very likely experienced them without even realising.
Automatic thoughts are ones that just pop up in response to a trigger (we’re hearing this word a lot recently). For example, you stub your toe and then automatically think, ‘Why did I leave the chair there, I’m so stupid!’ or you’ve messaged your mate about meeting up for a drink but they don’t reply for donkey’s years and the automatic thought might go something like this, ‘OMG I’ve definitely done something wrong, why haven’t they replied yet?’.
The good news is, if we can identify these types of thoughts we can learn to change them, or reframe them into more encouraging ways of thinking. But how?
Identifying automatic thoughts
Automatic thoughts are those negative self-talk thoughts, the inner monologue that highlights our insecurities immediately without us even being aware of a thought forming. Here are some examples:
“Nobody likes me”
“I’m terrible at my job and everyone will find out, and I’ll get fired”
“Everything is always my fault”
Now, we’ll all have different versions of automatic thoughts, because they usually relate to our life experiences, our fears, and the messages we’ve internalised probably for many years - also known as core beliefs (what we believe to be true, like reaching the top of the career ladder means success in life). The issue rises when these thoughts are negative, like the above examples, and we can recognise this by the effect it has on how we feel.
Our emotions are a result of our thoughts, so if we’re battling difficult automatic thoughts, ones that tell us we’re not good enough or we don’t look nice in that new outfit, they can make us feel down, frustrated, perhaps guilty, sad or anxious. It’s not a pleasant feeling but when we identify these thoughts we can reframe them.
When you notice yourself thinking negatively (it’s totally normal, pretty much everyone does it and some more than others), pause. Take a moment to ask yourself ‘Is this true?’ ‘Why do I think this?’ ‘What evidence do I have?’ So for example:
You get a new project at work that requires you to do a presentation in front of your bosses - eek!
Negative thought occurs: “I’m terrible at public speaking, I’m going to mess this up!"
Is this true? Why do I think this? What evidence do I have?
Think back to a time where you had to speak in front of people, how did it go? Were you really terrible or just nervous? Perhaps you could’ve done a bit better, now’s the chance to improve! How do you know you will mess this up, do you have evidence? (hint: if it’s a future thing there’s no evidence yet, and just because it’s happened before doesn’t automatically mean it’ll happen again).
When we get automatic thoughts that make us doubt ourselves or our abilities, make us feel bad or not good enough, they can hinder us. So next time you notice these types of thoughts pop up - pause, ask yourself these 3 questions: Is this actually true? Why do I think this? What evidence do I have?
Reframing automatic thoughts
Once we have identified these thought patterns, we recognise they have a challenging effect on our emotions, we can begin to reframe them. We can change our narrative to be more helpful. So we’ve got this project and we’re freaking out. “I’m terrible at public speaking, I'm going to mess this up!”
We’ve asked ourselves the above questions and recognised this may not be true. These thoughts are often definitive before we’ve gathered the evidence so when they crop up they feel very overwhelming - taking a deep breath as you pause can be helpful.
Are you really terrible at public speaking or do you find it difficult? Personally, it terrifies me but have I actually ever messed up? Not really, not yet at least *begins sweating*.
So we might reframe these thoughts in this way:
“I’m terrible at public speaking.” becomes “Public speaking is daunting, but if I practice I’ll be better.”
“I’m going to mess this up.” becomes “I’ll take some deep breaths, stay calm, and even if I trip over my words it won’t ruin the whole thing.”
“I am not good enough.” becomes “I have worked hard to get where I am, I know about this topic, I am good enough to do this - otherwise they wouldn’t have asked me.”
This is just one example, but when we notice these unhelpful thoughts and change the narrative, we will find the emotions don’t sting so much, we’ll feel better equipped to rise to the challenge, and cope with the outcome. That friend who hasn’t texted back - “They don’t like me”... becomes… “Maybe they’re busy, if I don’t get a reply this evening, I’ll call tomorrow”.
Next time a pesky automatic thought pops up ready to ruin your day, pause, ask yourself what’s true about it, and change the narrative to be more helpful.
Challenge the narrative: it’s not always easy identifying and reframing thoughts, having awareness is something that requires a bit of practice. So if it doesn’t work immediately don’t beat yourself up. Pause, breathe, try again. Although the word ‘negative’ might have us falsely believe something is inherently bad, negative emotions are absolutely normal and are to be felt, looked at and even challenged, not ignored.