Negative Automatic Thoughts: How to Change How you Feel Part 2
“If you realised just how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought.” – Peace Pilgrim
If you are unfamiliar with what a negative automatic thought (NAT) is, go back to the first post and all will be explained. You definitely didn't go back so here's a short summary: We should not underestimate the influence our thoughts have on our lives. Just think about how much we think everyday. We probably spend 99% of our adult lives thinking, but yet we are never educated on what are healthy thinking patterns or more detrimentally speaking, what are unhealthy thinking patterns. If we develop unhealthy thought patterns, we then begin seeing the world in a negative light and we begin carrying out negative behaviours. Remember, thoughts lead to behaviours. If we fall into a cycle of unhelpful behaviours, then we can really damage our lives. This is why we need to be aware of our thoughts and catch the unhelpful ones when we can. This post is going to speak about two negative automatic thoughts: Jumping to conclusions and mind reading.
Fortune telling/Jumping to conclusions:
We start with a straightforward one that we probably all do from time to time, whether it is making a judgement on a person, a news event or something that we anticipate is going to happen in the future. Let's take an example from the popular tv series 'Friends'. More specifically, Ross, Rachel and their infamous break. For anyone not familiar with this (how the hell are you not familiar with this!?), Ross and Rachel, who are in a relationship have a fight and they decid to go on a break, which leads to Ross sleeping with another girl. To this day, there are still arguments if he was in the wrong. From the cognitive behavioral perspective, he is. Ross fell weak to the NAT of jumping to conclusions, whereby he assumed a break meant seeing other people.
Jumping to conclusions is the process of assuming an ambiguously emotional situation will be negative for you. This occurs on the basis of our ancestors needing to make a quick decision. For example, is this person is a friend or a foe. If we were to deliberate for long periods of time, we could be killed, so we had to jump to conclusions. However, it can now be harmful in today's society. This is particularly prevalent among anxiety disorders and it can ruin our health and relationships. If we constantly make assumptions about ourselves, others and the future without seeking more information, then it can prevent us from living a fulfilled life. It will stop us experiencing the rainy festival, meeting that stranger who becomes our best friend or not attaining a fully lived life. In a world that's full of information, our laziness and lack of meta-cognition prevents us from making informed decisions.
While gossip has always existed, social media has allowed it to evolve. It has legitimised judgement. That girl posted an image half naked so it must mean she is a slut. That guy took a picture with guys shorter than him so he must be conscious about his height. Gossip is the garden where jumping to conclusions grows. The reason why secondary school is so difficult is because it is an arena of conclusion jumpers. You are judged for what you wear, who your friends are and what you like. There are groups everywhere. He’s a goth, she’s an academic, he’s an athlete. Adolescents’ frontal lobes aren’t fully developed so they struggle to see the bigger picture. They make assumptions and even more mistakes.
So how can we stop jumping to conclusions? Well a major prevention of jumping to conclusions is perspective taking. Theory of mind is a term in psychology that refers to understanding that other peoples' mental states might differ to yours. By being more aware of others' point of view, we can ask ourselves what are other ways that the event could unfold? Furthermore, Hellen Waller and colleagues from Kings College London promote the use of seeing the bigger picture in non-emotional situations. The more times we look at different perspectives and pictures of a situation, the more we train our brains to move away from the negative automatic thought. This leads us to ask what are the chances of my assumption actually happening.
Another study by James Hurley and colleagues (2018) found that those with clinical disorders who jumped to conclusions showed belief inflexibility. Therefore, they were unable to change their beliefs with the introduction of new evidence. Therefore, this is attached to a need to be right. If you do jump to conclusions, admit you are wrong. The NAT of jumping to conclusions combined with refusal to admit you’re wrong can have detrimental effects on our mental health. And lastly, stop gossiping and do not promote it. If you remove gossiping from your life, you slowly kill the seed of jumping to conclusions. Don’t believe everything you hear and pay more attention to what you see. Look at the bigger picture, take in as much evidence as you can and make more informed opinions. If we can start teaching people this from a younger age, then we can train them to be more aware of biases and make less judgements. When we stop making judgements, we stop anticipating judgements from other people, which relates to our next NAT: Mind reading.
Another NAT that arises from not looking at the whole picture is mind reading. For some reason, people believe they have developed the superpower of reading what other people are thinking when sometimes, that person is not even aware of what they are thinking themselves. Psychology students are familiar with this. Whenever you mention that you are a psychology student, the first thing people ask is ‘can you read minds?’. This is often scoffed at because no. You can’t study to read someone’s mind. A psychologist who assumes her client’s thinking patterns is not doing their job correctly. Instead, psychologists ask their clients what they were thinking and try to correct unhelpful thinking patterns.
You then get magicians that claim to be able to read minds. However, it should be noted that these people play on cues and illusions to try and get you to express what is on your mind without saying anything. It is a game of probability that takes years of practice and they do still get it wrong. An alternative they sometimes resort to is ambiguous statements. For example, "I sense you’re thinking of a human, a man". If the participant’s eyes lights up, they are correct. If they do not, the magician rapidly changes their narration to "no actually, a woman". The moral of the story: Nobody can read minds.
Let’s take an example of mind reading and how it can manifest. Imagine that your favourite aunt has cooked you a giant dinner but you are on a diet. You assume that your aunt would be insulted if you don’t eat all of it (unhelpful thought pattern of mind reading) so you continue eating despite being full (unhelpful behaviour). Afterwards, you then feel guilty as you have not stuck to your diet. And this thought pattern is more common then you think. We sometimes mind read strangers and this will stop us going to the gym in fear that others will judge us. We sometimes mind read our loved ones and this will stop us confronting an issue in a relationship. And we sometimes even mind read ourselves. I’m not going to meditate because I will feel stupid.
There are three things to account for here. Firstly, an action does not always represent a thought. For example, if someone is staring at your tummy, we will often make the assumption that the person thinks we are fat. However, we have all stared blankly in a certain direction. Secondly, knowledge about something improves your chances of knowing what someone is thinking but we will never know unless we ask. People try to defend this thought by telling themselves that they know the person well but that is irrelevant. If I told my best friend that I am thinking of one word and what is it, the odds of them getting it right are 100,000 to 1 (There are 171, 476 words in the dictionary but I won’t claim to know all of them). Finally, there is also tied a degree of narcissism. Generally speaking, when we try to mind read others, we assume they are thinking about you. However, people are far more likely to be thinking about something in their own lives rather than you. Therefore, if we stop obsessing over ourselves, we stop personalising the thoughts of others. So it doesn’t matter what their behaviour is showing, it doesn’t matter how well you know someone and we need to stop assuming that we are the centre of attention.
So how do we stop trying to mind read? It’s actually simple enough. We just realise that what someone is thinking cannot be true unless they state it. Behaviour is often an indication but it is not full evidence. If your aunt makes you too much food, just thank her but explain that you are on a diet so won’t eat that much. If you want to go to the gym, ask a friend would they judge you. If you are having an issue in your relationship, ask what your partner’s perspective is. And if you want to meditate, try it and see what your thoughts are afterwards. We can spend our days going around in rings and trying to make assumptions but at the end of the day, your prediction of what they are thinking might be true but you won’t know until they say it. So why bother? Building an opinion based on what you think someone is thinking is like trying to build a skyscraper with a foundation of faulty bricks.
So be more aware of when you jump to conclusions and if you do, then just be willing to admit that you were wrong. Otherwise, you can fall into that blackhole of negative thought patterns. Then, stop trying to read other peoples’ minds, It is not only probable to be incorrect but it is also a waste of time. Think better. Think smarter. Think healthier.