I get it! We have something happen, or we see something that triggers a memory—then bam! There is an automatic thought and destructive feelings— that start the hamster wheel of more negative thoughts and feelings— which leads us to react or behave in ways we know are not good for us.
In session, we discussed how it may be beneficial to write down our automatic thoughts** (see examples at the bottom of the page) looking for themes or patterns. Also noting the event or interaction that precedes an automatic thought, as well as the feeling following the automatic thought.
Event or Interaction >> Automatic Negative Thought >> Feelings
Interaction: You see your ex partner, to return some item, and it goes badly >> Thought: I am an idiot to meet him here, and obviously no one will ever love me >> Feelings: sadness, helplessness
Writing these out allows us to get off the hamster wheel in our mind, which often goes round and around, feeding itself and further carving the thoughts and beliefs into our brain’s neural pathways. When we write it out, we can see the patterns, and underlying reasons– which may have made sense to us at some point– but may no longer be helpful. It’s an excavation project, to see what’s underneath the thoughts and take the power source away. The power is usually fed by very early experiences, when we felt vulnerable and unable to manage what we were faced with; Even though this is no longer true, we somehow we have continued to refer to the thoughts, beliefs, and coping mechanisms, momentarily forgetting that we are older, wiser, and capable of more perspective. But first, just note when and where or with whom, they occur. Observe first.
Think about the time or times, very early on, you may have experienced the same feelings or thoughts… Picture that time and place, and the person you were. That is the “wounded child,” and that little person (or even teen or young adult) coped and made sense of things the best way possible, with what they had or the situation they were in. We are not angry at, or resentful of that child version of ourselves, but we also do not
want them in the driver’s seat, in our most vulnerable adult moments! What we are moving toward, is an “adaptive adult” version of ourselves. All that takes is the excavation of the past patterns, compassion toward ourselves, and the intention to stop when we feel an automatic response or thought. (More later on what to do next in an actual, emotionally loaded interaction.)
When we can step back and look at the thought– we need to try to accept it for what it is. It is a thought that is coming into our minds, for very good historical or protective reasons, but it is not necessarily true. Repeat– a thought it is not necessarily true. Stop and breathe, step back and simply recognize the thought. Do not fight it or judge it, simply accept it. A thought holds no real power or emotion, until we attach meaning beyond acceptance. Focus on the present moment… your breathing, any sensation, experience, or physical movement that brings you into the present moment. If that could include a more truthful or helpful thought, that’s great. I have often added these interventions to my notations and excavation, when working through this process.
Event or Interaction >> Automatic Negative Thought >> Feelings >> Positive, Supportive Action >> More Truthful Thought >> Feelings
Event: My ex sister in law doesn’t return my texts >> Thought: She hates me because my ex has lied about me >> Feelings: Shame and anger >> Positive action: Breathe and look at the thought, stretch, meditate or take a walk >> More truthful thought: Perhaps she is overwhelmed with her kids and hasn’t had time to respond >> Feelings: compassion, acceptance
Acting out, running away, numbing ourselves, disassociation, or trying to manipulate others to get our needs met– are reactions– automatic reactions to an old wound or an old belief about ourselves/ the world. When really examined, we find we don’t entirely (intellectually) believe it any more. Yet when emotionally challenged, we automatically go back to that primitive emotional reaction. This is the big challenge- how to stop, what has become almost a reflex/ automatic knee-jerk reaction. Awareness and acceptance is first. For now… make the notes, make the connections, acknowledge the pain, comfort “the child,” and begin to empower the “adaptive adult.”
** automatic thought examples:
I am damaged.
I am broken.
No one will love me.
The world is evil.
Life isn’t fair.
Other people have it easier than me.
I am not enough.
I will die alone.
There is no hope.
Life isn’t worth living.
Life is harder for me.
I hate myself.
I have made too many mistakes.
No one will ever understand me.
I am not lovable.
Everyone is out to get me.
Keep a notepad handy, and jot down when this is happening. It really does bring clarity.
Call or text if you need clarification or support.
You’ve got this!