Have you ever noticed your thoughts when a friend cancels dinner plans or doesn’t reply to a text message? Or if a colleague seems impatient or looks at you in a funny way, or if an acquaintance is off with you? For me, these situations have the potential to trigger a stream of negative thoughts and assumptions. All of the following are examples from my own brain:
⁃ I told [insert name] too much about myself and they’ve probably gone off me but are too nice to say
⁃ I must have annoyed [insert name] because they didn’t reciprocate when I smiled at them when we passed each other
⁃ [insert name] thinks I am weird/hard work/creepy/pathetic/childish
⁃ That person over there just looked at me than started talking and laughing with their friend. They are laughing at me because I’m ugly and look anxious
In CBT, these automatic, quick, sneaky (and often destructive or self-judging) thoughts are known as NATs (negative automatic thoughts) but I prefer to call them ANTs. Small and seemingly innocuous at first but if you don’t pay attention or take action they can quickly multiply. What was a mildly irritating tickle becomes an overwhelming, painfully bite-y onslaught of self-hatred and shame. To be honest, at times they feel more like a herd of elephants stamping through my mind. It hurts and it sucks.
The good news is that we can begin to challenge these thoughts. For me, the struggle is remembering to do so on a regular basis and not ignoring my ANTs. There are different ways to do this but here is a CBT exercise that I have found useful. It’s much more effective for me to use and pen and paper for this exercise and to take some time over it, rather than trying to do it in my head.
The first part of the exercise is to find out exactly what your thoughts and feelings were when you were triggered by something:
1. What was the situation that triggered negative thoughts? Example: [insert name] cancelled our lunch together with no explanation.
2. Identify one negative thought that you had about the situation. Example: they don’t want to spend time with me any more but are too nice to tell me directly
3. What emotions did you feel when you were having this thought? Example: anxiety, rejection, shame, loneliness
4. What body sensations did you feel when you were having these emotions? Example: tension in the stomach and forehead, heaviness in chest
The second part of the exercise is to try to challenge your negative thought or assumption:
1. Is this (your thought) a hard fact or is it your opinion?
2. What would you say to a friend if they said they had had this thought?
3. Is there another way of looking at this situation?
4. What advice would you give to a friend in this situation?
5. Is your thought/reaction in proportion to the actual event?
6. Are there other possible explanations for the event?
I find these exercises hard to do. I have felt shifts in my perspective at times, but other times it doesn’t seem to work and I feel worse and more enmeshed in my shame and self-judgement. When it does work, though, I feel like I have more insight into my thinking processes and can gain a little distance from the ANTs, which gives me traction and hope.
[My answers to the second part of the exercise are here:
2. I would say to a friend that there’s no reason why the person who cancelled lunch wouldn’t want to spend time with them and that the person in question was probably just tired, or overwhelmed, or had double booked themselves.
3. Another way of looking at the situation could be to ask myself why I have cancelled plans in the past (because I was tired or had something important I needed to do, like a dentist appointment). I could also recognise that I am viewing the situation through the lens of my own insecurity and negative bias.
4. I would advise a friend to maybe ask the person in question if everything is okay, and explain that they were a little worried they’d upset the person.
6. Yes – as above. It’s unlikely that my friend cancelled lunch because of me and there are a million other reasons why they might have cancelled.]
I’m going to try and do four of these exercises over the next week and see what happens.
Lots of love to you all xx