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We All Have Automatic Thoughts…. Let’s Interrupt Them

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Mindset for Life is hosted by Bethanie Hansen, on the journey to live as a better version of herself more each day–just like you.

This podcast is for you, if you love, serve and teach and lead others, you want things to keep getting better. You want encouragement. And just one little idea today to get stronger in your life, your relationships or your work. I help people take control of their current situation and have power to do what they need to do in the future as well. This is Bethanie Hansen, and I’m your host on Mindset for Life. Thanks for joining me today.

Today we’re going to talk about automatic thoughts.

Automatic thoughts are an interesting thing that can help you or hurt you. The weird thing is they sound like us.

In fact, we have these thoughts come into our mind, and we don’t even question them, we just assume that that’s how the world works. And we think about them all the time.

Every once in a while, I’ll notice a person specifically saying, “Well, that’s just how people are,” or, “That’s just how big organizations are.”

Or, “That’s what people think these days.” Any kind of comment like that reveals some kind of automatic thought or assumption about the way people or the world or organizations work.

Do you have thoughts like that? Do you ever think about your thoughts? You know, if you notice yourself thinking something, and you pause, kind of step aside from yourself a minute and think objectively about what you’re thinking, then you’re doing this skill that I really love, and I think is super helpful to us all.

And that is thinking about your thinking. Now, some of the thoughts I have, I don’t realize I’m having them until I stop and I tell someone else what I’m thinking. And suddenly, it’ll be really obvious and really shocking that I’ve been thinking a certain way. And some of those thoughts that work for me and don’t work for me.

I like to write down and keep track of and remember.

We can do things we’ve never done before.

One thought is that I can learn how to do something difficult that I’ve never done before. I may not be perfect at it. I may not win prizes for it. But I’m fully capable of learning something new that I haven’t done before. I mean, after all, I’ve been doing that my whole life, haven’t you?

When you were a baby, you didn’t know how to crawl, and you learned how to do that. And when you were a toddler, you learned how to walk. And you didn’t know how to do that before either. Some people, some people even learned how to drive cars and got driver’s licenses. And that was something you had never done before. Till you started driving. So there are a lot of things in the past that prove it’s true, we can learn something new that we’ve never done before.

All of us can. I think that way, when I’m presented with something new that I’d like to figure out, or I’d like to become fluent in doing. And like I said, it doesn’t mean we’re going to be masters of it. But at least we can learn something new we’ve never done before.

Learning to notice and recognize automatic thoughts is that same kind of thing. Now, whatever you’re facing in life, whatever challenges you’re up against or experiencing, whether it’s in your own self or in your relationships with other people, or in your circumstances, chances are you have some thoughts about those things that are very clear to you.

The brain automates some thoughts to help us.

And some that are a little bit hidden. I would call those the automatic thoughts.

There’s this thing about the brain that I’ve learned a lot about in the last few years. Some people call it neuroscience. Some people just call it talking about the brain, whatever you prefer, we’re going to talk about your brain for just a minute here.

Now your brain is totally in favor of protecting you, helping you and making your life efficient.

So there are these parts of the brain that feed us thoughts and ideas that we have stored in there at some point. And these things come out at the most inopportune times, and they might be in the form of automatic thoughts.

The reason the brain does this is that the brain really likes to give us quick, easy solutions. Something that we’ve thought before is going to come back easier than something we’ve never thought ever. So automatic thoughts are just parts of the brain’s functioning, giving us a quick fix an easy solution or shortcut to preserve our energy and to preserve our capacity so we can do other things.

Some of those thoughts that the brain feeds us are intended to help us. They’re intended to save us from risk or save us from danger. And some of those thoughts are about keeping us functioning at our best. Avoiding any kind of stretching our comfort zone, doing anything new. If you’ve ever thought, “Well, that’s just the way I am,” that’s probably an automatic thought saying, Yeah, you don’t need to change either. Don’t do it.

But I’m here to tell you that change is what life’s all about; making choices changing and continuing to learn, grow and develop. If we don’t do those things, then we really can’t find happiness and satisfaction. Everything would be the same all the time, every day.

And if everything’s the same all the time, every day, pretty soon, we don’t thrive anymore. We don’t have the light or the zest of life within us. Because changing growing, learning and adapting over time, help us to really feel alive and enjoy life, little challenges that are possible for us. And sometimes really big ones, too.

Automatic negative thoughts, like “should.”

When you have an automatic thought many times it can be something negative. Now, there are positive automatic thoughts too. But today, I’m going to focus on the ones that are negative. One of the thoughts that happens a lot for many of us. And in my experience that’s happened for me, too, is a “should” thought.

And this is something where maybe I’m reflecting on my own life. And I’m thinking I should have started saving for retirement 15 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, a should thought is usually causal. Like it’s blame oriented. We’re trying to figure out why we’re not getting something right now, or why something isn’t how we wish it was. So we’re looking backwards.

And we’re labeling it with that “should.” So if we’re talking about ourselves, and we’re saying I should have started saving money 30 year, 30 years ago, that one is going to make me feel really bad that I didn’t do it. And there’s nothing I can do about something 30 years ago, there’s no way to change it either. So when I’m should-ing in that sentence, I’m not really motivated to change anything. And if anything, I’m motivated to ignore it, because I’m feeling bad about it now. So I’m probably not going to start thinking about saving for retirement right now, either, because I’m getting all this negativity.

When we think should about someone else, it’s usually because we think we know the answer for them, and we want to fix them, or we want to help them. And it’s probably motivated by something amazing. Like, we love them, we care about them.

But anytime we’re thinking should about somebody else, we are now judging them, their thoughts, their actions, their situation. Like if we think about someone we love, or we say they should go to bed earlier at night, they should get a better job, they should stop dating that toxic person that’s bad for them. They should learn whatever new skill, they should lose weight, gain weight, stop exercising so much start exercising more, whatever. Every time we’re shoulding someone else, it’s kinda like, we think we know their life better than they do. And since they’re the one living it, it’s probably not true.

And when we’re shoulding on someone else, we’re having some kind of automatic thought that’s just popping in. Because we love problem solving as human beings. And we’re thinking, how can we make somebody else better? How can we just help, right?

So automatic thoughts can be “should” kind of thoughts, or they could be judgments of any kind, like some automatic thoughts people have about themselves are like, “I’m not good enough for that”, or “I’m not capable of that.” Or, “It’s all my fault.” Or, “If only I wasn’t so much [this certain way].” There are so many thoughts that we can have towards ourselves that are really critical, judgmental, blame oriented, or somehow targeting less-than or that we’re not as good or as worthy as other people, or maybe we’re deficient.

Now it’s helpful to take a true assessment and objectively decide where our deficiencies are if we would like to grow in a certain way. It’s not helpful to be judging and thinking of ourselves in this overly critical negativistic manner. that can be painful, uncomfortable, unpleasant, and not productive at all. And those kinds of automatic thoughts become the way we see the world.

Automatic negative thoughts can happen anytime.

An example of this would be something that happens when we get a message that doesn’t have enough information. Like, for example, if your boss sends you a message and says, “We need to talk about this in our next meeting.” And that’s all it says.

One person might say, “Okay, that person wants me to remember it, in case they forget.”

And another person might have an automatic thought that says, “I’m in trouble, I’ve done something wrong.”

Both of those thoughts are valid. And both of those thoughts could be true. But if you’ve done something wrong, and you’re in trouble, your boss is probably going to pick up the phone and call you or talk to you a lot sooner the next Friday. So the automatic thought that is self judgment oriented, is negative and not helpful.

And it prevents you from doing whatever you need to do today, right now.

Put automatic thoughts “on trial.”

One way that we can challenge automatic thoughts is to do this little thing we call putting them on trial. And when we put automatic thoughts on trial, first, we have to notice the automatic thought, and realize, “Wait a minute, I’m thinking something that I don’t have any evidence for. I don’t know if it’s true or not.”

So we’re going to ask, is it true?

Is it definitely true?

Can I know factually, without any doubt that it is absolutely true?

If the answer is no to that, then perhaps I might be able to let it go.

And also, we can notice our feelings, we can feel the feelings and notice, am I feeling anxiety?

Am I feeling tension, stress?

Worry, certain types of feelings are red flags that we may be thinking things beyond our world of possibility. Like we’re thinking fatalistically, we’re thinking negatively, or predicting this negative future that hasn’t happened at all. And we can tell it because our body’s tense, or anxious, our heart is racing, we’re unable to focus and do anything else.

And all of a sudden, those spiraling negative automatic thoughts have totally taken control. So automatic thoughts are something that all of us do experience. Because the brain is good for us. It’s efficient, it’s wonderful. But we do have to school our thoughts and train our brain to stop running away and doing these hijackings that give us an automatic thought that’s not really true or helpful.

So when you think these things, I want you to just capture them, I want to help you in that way. Because capturing them, noticing them and starting to put them on trial by questioning them, figuring out if they’re true, or potentially not true. And then setting them aside until more information is given. That’s a really hard thing to do. But each of us has that task in front of us, we all have to do it because brains are just like that.

Consider which thoughts are most likely to be true.

The other thing we can do is we can purposely program in our mind positive thoughts that are more likely to be true. And I know a lot of people who don’t want to label thoughts as positive or negative, or feelings as positive or negative. That’s really up to you. I use those words in my descriptions of them, because that’s my comfort space. And I’m looking for more positive thoughts, or at least more useful thoughts.

So as I noticed my automatic thoughts, then I want to put something else in there that is more likely to be true.

For example, in that situation I mentioned where your boss sends an email and says, we should talk about this thing and our next meeting. And my automatic thought might be, “Oh, no, I messed up. What did I do?” Then I’m going to start saying to myself, “What are three other potential reasons why the comment happened? What else could be true outside of that? Is the thought I’m having definitely true or just maybe true?”

And if it’s maybe true, that’s gonna give me the space to come up with alternatives. What else could be true? Maybe my boss didn’t want to forget. Maybe my boss thought they were putting my mind at ease by saying, “Hey, that thing that came up. We’re going to talk about that soon. Not to worry.”

Maybe my boss just wanted to send a message to get it out there, to kind of take the first step. Whatever it was, chances are, it’s not about me. In fact, that’s an automatic thought I’d like to share with you that you could choose anytime you want to substitute what feels like a debilitating automatic thought that has to do with other people or circumstances. And that is, “It’s not about me.”

Remember, it’s probably not about you.

99.9% of all the negative experiences or thoughts that I’ve had that had to do with other people, were where I thought they were upset with me, that thought they were judging me, I thought they didn’t have any confidence in me. And the truth was, what was really going on was their own thought about themselves, or their own judgement about themselves.

And it was just being reflected in whatever they were thinking, saying, doing whatever outwardly. So in almost every circumstance I have ever had, where I’ve thought it was about me, I have come later to find that it was not about me at all. And in your situation you’re facing, it’s probably not about you either. So in a good automatic thought to bring into the vocabulary would be to say, it’s not about me. It’s not. So there’s one strategy.

All right, so as we’re gaining new skills, or growing internal capacity to challenge automatic thoughts, I want to also close today by encouraging you to have patience with yourself. It’s very possible those automatic thoughts will be part of your brain the whole life long. And that’s okay.

We just want to keep retraining our brain to go in a different direction, as soon as we notice it. That’s where we gain the power. That’s where we can start to control what we think and the direction we’re headed. Now, it’s tough journey to be on. It really is a tough one. But you can do it you are made for this.

You have everything you need to take control of your brain in those moments, and move it in a new direction. I’m here with you on the journey, learning this practicing it all myself too. You’re not alone. And I wish you all the best in the battle this week over automatic thoughts. And I hope it gets you one step closer to the best version of you that you’re working for.

Have a great week ahead and thanks again for being here for the Mindset for Life podcast.

This season’s theme song is “Training Day,” by Infraction. Used with Permission.

Like what you read here? In this podcast, I’m sharing some core principles I’ve learned in coaching that have completely changed my life. These ideas restore personal power and bring the confidence to grow in our unique traits, strengths, and attributes, and go forward to create good in the world. Right here, you have the gems to take one small step. And with a personal coach, you can make it a lasting part of your life. You can change how you see things and feel your true purpose every day.

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