“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” -William Shakespeare
Have you ever wondered why, even before entering an exam hall you think “What if you failed in this exam?” Or “You hesitate to ask you crush out because you think she will reject you”? Fret not! All of us have been there. There are times, when we believe our thoughts are true when in reality they are baseless, not shared by others, and sometimes even irrational. Such thoughts invariably lead to anxiety, anger or depressed feelings, and cause us to disappoint people and even lose friendships.
But it’s completely normal and most of us would have experienced them at some point in time in our lives.
These repetitive thoughts, that focus on the negative, often called Automatic Negative Thoughts. They often times make us believe the world is a dark scary place with little room for sunshine and happiness.
Negative thoughts also sometimes make you believe things will never change, that you are destined for misery for the rest of your life and that being alive may not be worth it.
Many of the negative thoughts, especially those like Overgeneralizing, work on two primary principles:
1. Disqualifying the Positive:
As the term suggests, it works by dismissing any positive acknowledgement that might oppose the illogical thought. The sole focus is on the negative. For example, if something bad happens once, we expect it to happen over and over and over again, and
2. Maximizing and Minimizing:
This refers to exaggerating the negatives and understating the positives. It is like making “a mountain out of a molehill.” So instead of looking at your positive accomplishments, which you minimize, you magnify your perceived failures. An example would be if someone offers you a compliment, you vehemently deny the positive and focus on the negative.
Negative thinking predominantly is fear or apprehension based.
In simpler words, this means, that fear of the unknown, fear of the inability to cope, or anything else that you fear, can trigger negative thought patterns inside your head.
NAT’s also commonly use ‘should’ or ‘must’ terms. Such as, “I should have studied harder” or “I must be a loser because I failed my exam”. These thoughts invariably provoke guilt trips and make us feel worthless.
Sometimes a chain of thoughts leading to a disaster could also work as an indicator for automatic thoughts. There are many NAT’s, and all of them don’t necessarily have to be present at the same time. We might have noticed only one or two apply to us, or sometimes all of them might apply to us at different points in time and that is perfectly natural!
However, once we begin to recognize these repetitive negative thoughts we are able to replace these thoughts with those that are more rational and cause less pain.
Why are we so surprised that the mind is so adept at distorted thinking?
Are we underestimating our mind? As Buddhist teacher, Bhante Gunaratana states; “Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels…No problem.” How nice to be told that it’s no problem! Bhante’s perspective reminds all of us to not be so hard on ourselves and not blame us when we seem to entertain such negative thoughts.
The following illustration sheds some light on the different types of Negative Automatic Thoughts we may have.
“Be careful how you are talking to yourself, because you are listening.” – Lisa Hayes
So what do we do with all the negative chatter in our head?
Ironically negative thinking in itself is an obstacle when trying to overcome it. Challenging negative thinking is neither simple nor easy, but with patience and hard work, it is greatly satisfying to be able to deal with it.
By understanding our thoughts about such situations, people and our experiences, we get a better understanding about our feelings as well as our behaviour. With better insight we are able to we begin to recognize these repetitive negative thoughts, and we are able to replace these thoughts with those that are more rational and cause less pain.