Negative Automatic Thinking

This is something we are all really good at. Beating ourselves up silently on a daily basis. We tell ourselves all sorts of rubbish that isn’t true and then wonder why we have knee jerk reactions to a variety of triggers.
Negative Automatic Thinking [NAT] is our own self talk. Its rarely positive. And it’s destructive.

Mel’s Story

Mel tells us herself that she is stupid all the time. The kind of NAT she uses goes something like this: ‘I never get it right’, ‘if I were cleverer I would get the answers right’, ‘I’m a useless daughter/sister/ friend/student’, ‘I should be doing better’, ‘I should be working harder to make everyone proud of me’, ‘whenever I fail it’s because I’m such an idiot’ and so on. This silent chatter goes on all day. It’s so ingrained, she doesn’t even notice it half the time.

Every time Mel sits an exam she is anxious but she doesn’t know why. The reality is, she is waiting to fail so that the adults can tell her how disappointed they are. She looks at the paper for ages without writing, but all she can think about is what might happen if she gets it wrong. The teacher looks at her firmly and she just crumbles and cries. Time is up and Mel hasn’t written much. She fails the exam which reinforces everything she has told herself. The anxiety spikes when she gets her result, Mel explodes with anger at the teacher and storms out, earning herself a detention. And the cycle continues.

It will carry on like this until Mel changes her NAT.

I do this all the time. What can I do about it?

It would be easy to say ‘just stop’ wouldn’t it! But it’s not that simple. We can do this in stages:

Step 1:
Find your NAT. Before you can do anything, you need to find out what you are telling yourself.

Step 2:
Catch yourself at it!

Step 3:
Start to re program

Step 1:

Take some time out. Sit quietly with no distractions and listen to the chatter in your head. Ask yourself ‘what do I really think of myself?’. Try to get past what you know yourself to be in your conscious mind – these NAT thoughts come from much deeper.

The NAT might spring up straightaway, or it might take more time. You might need to do this several times before you find it.

Step 2:

Now you know what your NAT is, you need to start tuning in on a daily basis. We have created a chart for you to use on the Observing Your Thoughts page, to keep a score of all the times you find yourself NATting. Print it out or use it on a mobile device and keep it handy for a day when you’re not too busy.

You will probably be surprised at the amount of negative programming you’re doing!

Step 3:

Re program. This involves an affirmation of some sort. An affirmation is just a silent positive thought that you can use to counteract the NAT.

Taking our previous example, Mel’s affirmation might be ‘I work hard and I’m doing my best’.

So now you have found your NAT, create a positive affirmation to use whenever you find yourself being hard on yourself. It’s also a good idea to start the day with 5 minutes of using the affirmation, and end the day with another 5 minutes.

Have a look at the Negative to Positive page to help create your affirmation.

Mel’s Progress

Mel found that her NAT was all about her fears of being judged and failing, and that this was because her older brothers were high achievers. She felt a huge expectation on her to do just as well and she feared being seen as a disappointment in comparison. She started to use the affirmation ‘I am a good student doing my best and that is all anyone can expect of me’.

After a while she noticed that her anxiety decreased when she had a test and that she wasn’t criticizing herself if she made a mistake. When this happened, she just asked for help so that she got it right the next time. Whilst she still felt nervous, she told herself ‘I am a good student doing my best’ over and over again and realised she felt OK. Over time, Mel was able to sit tests and exams and achieve well.

Mel reprogrammed her mind to react more positively to her triggers.