We all get negative automatic thoughts. Its how we deal with them that affects our feelings and mood, and what we perceive to be our self esteem. If we can look rationally at a situation and effectively challenge negative thoughts (or problem solve if they are the reality), then we are on track to have healthy self esteem.
Unfortunately, if we leave negative automatic thoughts to take root, they become a constant negative self talk. We end up seeing every situation from a negative perspective.
The first step, though, is to catch yourself doing it. You may spend time in the company of people who are very negative – not necessarily about themselves, but on everything they comment on.
"It looks like rain”
"She’s always off sick”
"This always happens to me!
What do you sound like to others? And what do you sound like to yourself? You may be very aware of some of your big worries that reoccur in your self talk. But try to take stock of the thoughts; stop and reflect on your chain of thinking.
O.K., this is easier said than done, and this isn’t something to get too stuck on. But try keeping a small notebook on you. Anytime you catch yourself thinking or talking negatively (or unhelpfully), jot down that particular thought.
Thoughts may appear out of nowhere, but can also be triggered – by people, places or events.
There are two basic techniques to challenge negative thoughts. One is distraction. This simply means mentally switching away when you find yourself listening to this negative inner voice. One technique is to cause some physical disturbance – clap your hands, flick or pinch your wrist (e.g. use an elastic/rubber band), say “no” or “stop” out loud.
The other aspect of distraction is to focus on some aspect of your environment. Set your attention away from your thoughts onto anything in the room, an item of your clothing, background noise – ANYTHING!
Really focus on some aspect of your environment or what you are doing. For example, if you’re out walking look closely at the flowers or trees, pick out details you normally don’t notice. Be aware of all the different sensations your senses are picking up. If you’re sat in front of the TV and find you’re listening to your self talk rather than the TV, keep bringing your attention back to the show you are watching.
This may sound silly or ineffective. But ultimately you are trying to disrupt a mental habit that is totally non productive and quite destructive. Distraction itself will take practice and can be reinforced by practicing focusing your attention on other things.
Dispute Negative Thoughts
The second technique is equally simple in practice – you challenge the negative thoughts you are experiencing and come up with positive alternatives. This is particularly useful if you’ve been able to "catch" thoughts, as described above
Negative Thought Positive Alternative
|This will be a disaster||I’m well prepared, there is no reason why it should be|
|I can’t cope||Yes I can, I’ve done this before|
|I’m going to be late||I’ve plenty of time, there’s no reason why I should be|
|No one cares about me||Plenty of people care about me, such as…|
|I won’t get that job|| I’m well prepared. I’ve got as much chance as anyone
|I’m going to make a fool of myself||I’ve done plenty of practice, I can feel confident I’ll do my best|
|Everyone is better than me||I‘ve got many strengths, I have no way of knowing how others will do|
|My spouse will criticize me for…||He/she will probably not notice and be more concerned about their…|
|I know I have failed my exam||I did my best, its easy to dwell on mistakes after, no one knows until the results come out how well they have done.|
By going through this exercise you get in the habit of disputing your automatic negative thoughts. With practice on paper, it becomes easier to do it in your head.
The other advantage of doing things on paper, is you can notice how many of your thoughts focus on one or two particular problems or recurring themes. Using the problem solving technique get to the actual problem behind the thoughts.