Automatic thoughts are just what the name implies. They are the thoughts that occur constantly as our minds seek to narrate what is going on around us. The limbic system is the area of the brain that controls our immediate response to situations, and this is where our automatic thoughts are born.
It assesses what is going on quickly and makes a snap judgment based on the information at hand. This is very helpful in situations where a quick response is desired, like an emergency or crisis.
In other situations, though, it would be better for us to slow down and wait for more information and not react to situations based on our limbic system’s messages alone. If left unchecked, automatic thoughts may lead to emotional wellness concerns like anxiety, depression, and stress and sleep difficulty.
Everything we think is an automatic thought. A problem arises when our automatic thoughts manifest as cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are automatic thoughts that are based on deeply ingrained core beliefs, and they are irrational reactions we habitually have to situations.
We often don’t even know that we see the world in terms of these cognitive distortions. Just as the name implies, they are based on faulty reasoning. There are several types of common cognitive distortions.
As we go through life, we learn from our experiences. It is a natural process of trial and error. Problems arise when we lump all similar experiences together and decide that all experiences of a certain nature will always turn out the same way. See the uses of the words “all” and “always” in that last sentence? That’s a hint at over generalization. If Jane got dumped by her first boyfriend and decided from then on that she is destined to always get dumped, she’d be making an over generalization.
This thinking doesn’t take into account the different factors that affect every situation, though. Instead of assessing why she got dumped by her first boyfriend and learning from the actual experience as it happened, she simply decided to learn a general lesson about the nature of relationships.
This can obviously lead to trouble. As she goes through relationships later in life operating under this assumption, she’ll be much more likely to act in ways that will fulfill her fears. She won’t be able to open up and communicate in her relationships because she won’t be comfortable. This will lead to more experiences of getting dumped, and if she continues to overgeneralize, this will just reinforce the assumption. It will also prevent her from learning about the subtle intricacies of her experiences.
Labeling is similar to over generalization. It can take the form of making sweeping over generalizations about a group of people based on the actions of only a few of them. It can also manifest as self-labeling. Self-labeling can have extremely negative effects. If a person gets a bad grade on a math test and automatically says, “I’m a bad math student,” they won’t take the steps necessary to improve their math skills. “Bad math student” is a label that they’ve applied to themselves, and it most likely is not true.
With further study, this person would be able to figure out what they did wrong and how to do it right. Instead, by labeling themselves as a “bad math student,” they don’t have to take responsibility for doing the work to learn about math. These labels are self-defeating, and they often lead us to create the very situation that is causing us problems.
Often we assume that we know what people are thinking about us, even if their actions are neutral or indicate the contrary. This is referred to as mind reading. Everybody knows that we can’t really read minds. If we’re having a conversation with somebody and they correct us about something, we are likely to automatically think, “Oh, no, they think I’m an idiot!” This is probably not true; we are much more critical of ourselves than others are of us. In fact, they probably didn’t even think anything at all about our mistake.
Yet we will let what we assume they think about us affect our behavior for the rest of our conversation with that person, and this might make for some negative outcomes if we hadn’t assumed that they thought the worst of us.
When we assume that we know what will happen in the future, we’re fortune telling. Dave is looking for a job. Every time he sits down to send out resumes, he thinks, “There’s no way I’m even going to get considered for these jobs.” He sends out the resumes anyway, but never follows up with a phone call or tries to set up any interviews. Because he’s automatically assumed that he won’t get the jobs, he doesn’t try very hard to stand out from the other applicants. He’s convinced they’re better than him. His fortune telling in this situation prevents him from putting forth any effort.
Not surprisingly, he doesn’t get the jobs, but it’s because his negative fortune telling is controlling his behavior. Often we try to predict the future in situations without any evidence to support our claim, and sometimes we even try to predict an outcome when there’s evidence to the contrary. Negative fortune telling without proper objective evidence sets us up for failure because we’ll be much less likely to give the situation the chance it deserves.
As we’ve seen, sometimes our automatic thoughts are based on irrational assumptions. If we stop and think about them rationally, breaking them down based on solid evidence, then we see them as irrational and replace them with new, more rational viewpoints.
If we analyze them with emotional reasoning, though, we feed into them and come to faulty conclusions. Basically, emotional reasoning is basing our thoughts and beliefs on our feelings. If you’re getting ready to give a speech in a meeting and you’re nervous, you might think, “I must not be very well prepared. Otherwise I wouldn’t be so nervous.
I’m going to make a fool out of myself!” Even though you spent several hours the day before preparing materials and information for this presentation, you’re discounting this fact because you’re nervous about speaking in front of your boss and co-workers. Nervousness is a normal emotional reaction to the situation, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t know the material. This reasoning doesn’t work because the only evidence used is the way you feel in a certain situation, and it doesn’t take into account all the other factors operating at the time.
“Shoulding yourself” is criticizing yourself by concentrating on all the things you should be doing instead of whatever you’re doing at the time. If you’re watching a movie and all you can think is, “I should be studying/cleaning the kitchen/walking the dog,” you diminish any possible enjoyment you could be getting out of watching the movie.
You also make it much less likely that you’ll actually do all those things you “should” be doing. By simply saying, “I should be studying,” you make it into a chore completely devoid of any benefit, and you won’t want to do it. If instead you think, “If I study now, I will have more time tomorrow to hang out with my friends, and I’d rather hang out with them tomorrow than watch this movie right now,” then you’re weighing your options and making a decision to study that will yield a positive result.
Sure, everyone has obligations in situations that they have to take care of, and these obligations aren’t always exactly what we’d like to be doing at the moment. By weighing the costs and benefits rather than simply imposing “shoulds” on every obligation, we can make the most of our time and get more enjoyment out of life. Some shoulds are even more harmful.
While “I should be studying,” will most likely just lead to procrastination, “I should be reading a classic novel by Dickens rather than this sci-fi fantasy fiction because I need to get smarter,” is worse because it’s based on the idea that we should spend even our free time doing what other people expect of us (or, in many cases, what we think they expect of us) rather than what we enjoy or think is right.
A great example is people who go to college because they think that they “should.” If, after weighing all the options, someone decides that college isn’t the best option for them, they don’t have to go, even if they think that others will judge them for that choice. “Shoulding” ourselves can lead to making major life decisions that aren’t necessarily the actual best choices.
Personalization is when we take the blame for outcomes that are beyond our control. Blame is when we point the finger at somebody else for an outcome something that we caused. Personalization and blame are both based on the assumption that people should be perfect and never make mistakes, and when mistakes are made, someone must be at fault and made to pay. The problem here is that everybody makes mistakes, and mistakes are simply an opportunity for us to learn to be better and grow.
Punishment isn’t necessary for everyday errors; the idea is to see where we went wrong and try to do better in the future. It also means learning to distinguish between things we did wrong, factors we couldn’t control (such as other people’s reactions, opinions, and ideas), and things that were caused by other’s actions. Let’s say that Jane, who got dumped a few examples ago, got dumped because her boyfriend was moving away and didn’t want to try to maintain a long distance relationship. If she tells herself, “I don’t care what he says.
I got dumped because I’m ugly and stupid,” then she’s blaming herself for the outcome of a situation when it actually had nothing to do with who she is. It wasn’t her fault that he had to move, and it wasn’t her fault that he doesn’t believe in long distance relationships. Now she feels guilty for being herself (which, by the way, is not “ugly” or “stupid”—these are cognitive distortions in and of themselves).
All or None
All-or-nothing thinking is the same as saying, “Everything is black or white.” Perfectionists often engage in all-or-nothing thinking. People are either all good or all bad. An example would be if Bob overslept one morning and thought, “I don’t have time to run my usual full 5 miles today, so I’m not going to run at all. I’m such a lazy bum.” Even though Bob does have time to run 3 miles, he’s given up because he can’t see the benefit in modifying his standard. He also has decided that this automatically makes him a “bad” person.
A lot of times women will engage in all-or-nothing thinking about their bodies. They think, “Either I’m thin, toned, and a perfect size 6, or I’m a fat disgusting slob in a size 10.” This is a distortion; it doesn’t take into account that people are different. There are variations in height, frame, and muscular structure that can influence our size.
This one example of all-or-nothing thinking can lead to more harmful all-or-nothing thinking such as, “I’m already fat, so I might as well just eat that whole pint of ice cream and box of cookies,” or the other extreme, “I’m so fat, I should only eat and apple at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” All-or-nothing thinking looks at things as absolutes rather than a combination of factors. It also assumes that people, places, and things can be perfect, and if they’re not completely without flaws they must be horrible.
All of these cognitive distortions can have harmful effects on our feelings and behavior. By learning to recognize them, we can learn to talk ourselves out of such thinking and see things in a more positive light. They won’t go away just because we realize that they’re there, but we can learn how to spot them when they do arise and change our outlook by applying more rational thinking.