Types of Negative Automatic Thoughts
Did you know there are certain types of thinking that can make your social anxiety worse? One of the most well-supported treatments for social anxiety (cognitive-behavioral therapy) makes use of this fact by aiming to alter your negative automatic thoughts.
The first step to changing the types of thinking that are making you more anxious is to understand what those types are. I thought it would be helpful to list all 11 of them for you in one spot, so that you have an easy reference that you can check back on (I might end up using it myself!).
Below are 11 different types of thinking that can contribute to anxiety or make your social anxiety worse.
Emotional reasoning refers to thinking that if you have an emotion, then that emotion must accurately represent the level of threat in a situation. In other words, if you feel anxious, then that must mean there is a reason to be anxious. The danger in listening to your emotions in this way is that they are not always accurate or representative of the situation. So, it’s always important to recognize that your feelings are just feelings, rather than facts.
Black and White Thinking
Black and white thinking refers to viewing situations as all one way or another. It’s also sometimes called “all-or-nothing” thinking. In terms of social anxiety, this might mean that you think either people like you or they don’t. Or that you’ve performed wonderfully or horribly failed. When in reality, most situations are not black-or-white but rather somewhere in the middle: shades of grey.
Many people with social anxiety engage in what is known as mind reading. During mind reading, you assume that you know what someone else is thinking about you or a situation. While I know this experience can feel very real (“I just know that she thinks I’m boring), it’s not actually possible to know what someone else is thinking or feeling.
Sure, you can try to become more adept at reading body language and understanding other people’s signals, but in the end you need to accept that each person has their own perspective that could be vastly different than what you perceive it to be.
Overgeneralization means that you think because things have always gone a certain way, they will always turn out that way. If you find yourself using words such as “always,” every,” “never,” or “all,” chances are that you might be engaging in overgeneralization.
As an example, there is the story of Barbra Streisand forgetting her lines during a song performance in Central Park, which led to decades of stage fright. In fact, the past does not need to predict the future and it’s important to keep an open mind. Had Barbra gotten back on stage right away, she might have realized that forgetting her lines was a one-time mishap rather than a doomed career.
Shoulding and Musting
When you are “shoulding and musting” you are thinking that you or other people should or must behave or act in certain ways. For example, you might think things like “I have to always say the right thing” or “I can’t ever show people that I’m anxious.” Much like perfectionism, having a lot of “should” or “must” statements in your thought vocabulary will paralyze you, because your high expecations are impossible to meet. Always check your thoughts to see how realistic you are being with respect to your expecations of yourself.
Downplaying the Positive
Have you ever accomplished something but then decided it wasn’t really that big of a deal after all? Or has someone given you a compliment, but you brushed it off by saying something like, “Oh, it’s not really all that good.” When you are downplaying the positive, you are choosing to ignore good things about yourself (and sometimes even magnifying the good things about other people in comparison to yourself). This can lead to low self-confidence and self-esteem over time.
Do you ever give labels to yourself or other people? Have you just met someone new and you’re already thinking up words to describe them? We use labels every day to help organize what we think about people and sitautions. But if you start to make global sweeping generalizations based on specific events, that’s when labeling becomes a problem—especially if you start to ignore evidence to the contrary.
For example, for a long time after I became more comfortable with public speaking, I still labeled myself as an anxious public speaker because of my past experiences. It’s important to always consider whether you are using labels and overgeneralizing based on partial evidence.
Going back to the story of Barbra Streisand; what do you think she remembered about her performance in Central Park? Chances are she did not remember any of the good parts and only the part where she forgot her lines. When your thoughts involve mental filtering, it means that you focus only on the negative things that happen and ignore the positive.
No, we’re not talking about crystal balls or fortune cookies here. When your thoughts involve fortune telling, this means that you think you can predict the future based on what’s happened in the past. But guess what? Every situation is neutral, and only takes on the meaning that you give to it. Yes, your past will inform how you behave in a situation, so it’s always important to be learning, growing, and practicing new skills. But to say that your past dictates your future is blatantly false.
Guess what? You alone do not have the power to control what goes on around you. How other people feel or their happiness is not your responsibility, as much as it might feel like it sometimes. And when bad things happen, as they sometimes do (isn’t that a Dr. Seuss book?), it’s important not to personalize them or make them about you. Stay in your lane, and realize that external events are very rarely the result of one cause, and even more rarely under your control.
Finally, we get to catastrophizing. Imagine you are going to a party or an event with a large group of people where you don’t know anyone. You start to catastrophize about everything that could go wrong at the event. There won’t be anyone you can talk to. You will make a fool of yourself. And on, and on. Or, for someone who struggles to grocery shop or leave the house, it could be something more basic like imagining the worst-case scenario happening when you do go out. In most cases, the things we catastrophize about never happen. Therefore, the worry serves no purpose.
What do you think? Can you see yourself in any of these types of thinking? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know which one you struggle with most.
Related Articles about Negative Thinking
- Apps to Use to Manage Your Thinking
- How to Use a CBT Worksheet for Social Anxiety
- How to Cope with Anticipation Anxiety