Automatic thoughts are the images and words that go through our head in response to situations and events in our environment. They are called ‘automatic’ because they happen spontaneously, without any conscious thought or attention. Automatic thoughts include all our judgements, assumptions, worries and concerns. In fact, they can be about anything at all. Automatic thoughts can be made up of words, images, or both.
As we have discussed already, automatic thoughts are so habitual that they often happen outside of our awareness. This is not a problem when it comes to most tasks. For example, it can be helpful not to have to think of every step when doing things like driving a car or riding a bike. However, it can be helpful to slow things down and become more aware of our automatic thoughts when it comes to situations that impact our emotional health.
You may be wondering, how do I know when a situation is impacting my emotional health? Good question. Your emotions and behaviours can be a good guide for knowing when to stop and examine your thinking. Look out for intense emotions and uncharacteristic or unhelpful behaviours. For example, if you notice that you’re feeling stressed and working long hours, you can ask yourself “what is going through my mind?”. This can give you insight into the thoughts that are driving that reaction.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of automatic thoughts:
- Unhelpful automatic thoughts, which are often biased or distorted in some way and lead to unpleasant emotions and unhelpful ways of responding (e.g., “I’m such a loser”)
- Neutral automatic thoughts, which tend not to impact our emotional state in either direction (e.g., “I’m going to have pasta for dinner”)
- Helpful automatic thoughts, which support a realistic view of reality and often lead to positive emotional states and helpful ways of responding (e.g., “I’m doing my best and that’s enough”)
Obviously, we are most interested in changing the unhelpful thoughts. These are the ones that lead to emotional distress and unhelpful behaviours, including those that keep perfectionism alive. Perfectionists tend to think unhelpful thoughts about themselves, their performance and self-worth. It is these thoughts that can be changed to overcome perfectionism and its many negative consequences.