Thoughts matter, especially when they are erroneous and cause you misery. When you have screwed up, for example, irrational thoughts can flood your mind, drowning you with harsh self-retributions.
For example, you forget to attend an important meeting. Somehow you missed putting it on your schedule or it was there but you were distracted and didn’t see it. The first thought that automatically comes to mind is
“I am such an idiot for forgetting that meeting. My life is totally out of control. I cannot live this way!”
If you then become reflective, you may find yourself saying, “I cannot believe I was thinking that!” You know that these thoughts are out of character with who you really are as a person but they come anyway, resulting in feeling badly throughout the day.
In this posting I will show you how you can take back control of your automatic thoughts and in so doing, relieve you of this unnecessary misery.
The next time negative, automatic thoughts threaten to ruin your day, consider taking the time to reflect:
1. First, acknowledge that automatic thoughts have seeds of truth in them. You did after all miss an important meeting.
2. Then, recognize that you have not given yourself permission to make mistakes. That is, by being so hard on yourself for missing the meeting, you are giving yourself the message that you have to perform perfectly and if you don’t, you have failed.
3. Further, consider that you may be “catastrophizing” by letting these automatic thoughts continue into spinning a “worst case” scenario; for example, “My boss will think I missed her important meeting because I don’t care about her or the issues being raised at the meeting.”
4. Finally, ask yourself if you are imposing a regimen of unreasonable “shoulds” on yourself. “You should…” sometimes reflect inflexible rules about how you and others should act. For example, rule breakers make you angry. When you break the rules you feel guilty.
Taking Back Your Automatic Thoughts
Thoughts matter because they can make you miserable and less productive, especially when they are irrational, destructive, or simply not true. Here is how to defuse these thoughts and get yourself back on an even keel:
1. You might try a possible counter thought like: “My schedule has been crazy today, no wonder I forgot the meeting. I feel embarrassed, but really, this does not happen to me on a regular basis.” In so doing, you identified and replaced the negative, automatic thought with a more reasonable, accurate assessment.
2. Replacing automatic thoughts with rational ones is a skill that must be learned, then practiced. Remember, your automatic thoughts may be a strong, even lifelong, habit. Give yourself time to learn new ways.
3. Don’t try to suppress the negative thought. Rather, learn to see it for what it is, then replace it with a more balanced, reasonable thought. Suppressing unanalyzed thoughts can make you feel worse because you’re not dealing with the problem.
4. Step back and analyze what you are doing; e.g., “I am catastrophizing” this situation.”
5. Break the pattern of your thoughts by altering the rhythm of your life. Going to the gym, hiking in nature or attending a concert not only distracts you but also refocuses your life on rejuvenating activities.
6. Bring yourself back to a centered state by discussing these thoughts with a trusted friend who can help you do some reality testing.
7. Realize that you are especially susceptible to these thoughts when you are stressed out, tired, or generally in a bad mood. At such times, put out a “thought watch” so that pesky mental messages do not come out of the blue.
Automatic, negative thoughts are not necessarily true thoughts. We can learn to control these thoughts by seeing them for what they are and replacing them with rational assessments and self-compassion.
When you change these thoughts you change your life.
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