As humans, we have evolved to have a neo-cortex, which is located at the front part of our brain. This is where we house conscious thoughts, language and generally figure things out. Sometimes we spend a lot of time thinking about thinking and it turns out, we can shift our reality with what we tell ourselves. We can get carried away with things like comparing ourselves to other people, and might tell ourselves all kinds of stories. For example, I often hear clients report that they think that they are not as attractive as someone that they work with, or as clever as someone else, and the list goes on. This way of thinking is what is known as automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), which is also known as “self-talk” and it tends to be predominantly negative. It is a way that we fill ourselves with self-doubt and it typically becomes very habitual and over time, we aren’t even aware that we are doing it. A totally different type of ant, you know, the ones that run around at picnics stacking up crumbs, haven’t developed this part of their brain. They don’t think about whether their pile is bigger or smaller than the other ants, they just do what they need to do to survive and be part of an organized group.
So, going back to our human brains, our ability to create automatic negative thoughts begin to run our life and they are often self-defeating, irrational and simply not true. This often affects our behavior and how we show up in the world, which can lead to feeling depressed or anxious. For example, a client I worked with, lost her job. She reported that the first thing that she thought was, “I am never going to have a job that I like again, and no one is going to hire me.” These statements reveal two patterns of irrational thinking; 1) thinking in absolutes, or black and white thinking, and 2) focusing on the negative, as never is a very black and white, way of thinking, as well as being very negative. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for possibilities and this tends to be a constrictive and tightening force within the body. She maintained this way of thinking for four months, until we began working together. So, these limited beliefs, essentially paralyzed her efforts to look for work, and she became depressed.
The good news is we can change the way that we think, which has a huge affect on how we behave and feel. I asked my client to write down her top three automatic negative thoughts and for each thought, I asked her to turn it around and write down the opposite of that thought. For example; “I will never have an interesting job again” can become, “I can find a meaningful and really great job again.” I noticed a shift in her voice and expression, as she read the more positive thoughts. I asked her to track her breath and notice sensations as she spoke her irrational thoughts, and this too shifted, as she read her thoughts that were full of possibilities. Her breath flowed more easily and she was aware of more sensation and energy moving in her chest, neck and arms. She suddenly had a spontaneous smile as well!
Before assuming your thoughts are true. Ask yourself these four questions:
- Is the thought true?
- Can I absolutely know that the thought is true: (is there supporting evidence?)
- How do I react when I believe that thought? (emotions, sensations, reactions)
- Who would I be without the thought? How would I feel if I didn’t have the thought?
When we move from absolute and negative thinking, we open to more possibilities, which is more expansive and opening within the body. My client began to “think out of the box”, which her negative thinking had put her in. We worked together in some creative ways and she began looking for jobs that she never would have even considered before. She got a certificate in horticulture, working outside and she loves being more physically active. She has lost weight and feels more content and happier than she would have imagined in her previous desk job.
I find it very empowering to realize that we can affect how we show up in the world by choosing how we think. It takes practice and it helps to work with a therapist who can assist in identifying negative thoughts and their related beliefs. You might ask yourself if you have any ANTs crawling around in your vicinity!