Some people find this skill difficult at first, but quickly catch on. The key to identifying automatic thoughts is to look for what comes to mind when an emotion arises. Example: Aaliyah discovers on social media that one of her friends, Ricardo, had a get-together with some friends and didn’t invite her. She immediately had the feeling of a pit in her stomach and identified the emotion as sadness. In that moment she asked herself, “What is running through my mind?” She was able to identify the following thoughts:
1. Ricardo doesn’t really like me.
2. I’m never invited to anything.
3. No one really likes me.
Given the extreme nature of these thoughts, a profound feeling of sadness is pretty understandable. By writing out her actual thoughts, however, Aaliyah was able to process them differently and see how extreme they were. Although she believed them to be true on one level, identifying and writing out her thoughts helped her to understand where her emotions were coming from. The exercise also helped her see she was making some pretty broad assumptions that she didn’t wholeheartedly believe. Afterward, she felt a little better, and some of her sadness lifted.
This process of recognizing thoughts as thoughts is a demonstration of what is termed metacognition. Metacognition is the process by which we develop an awareness and understanding of our thinking. As is the case in the example, merely becoming aware of the thought process helps us distance ourselves from our reflexive cognitive responses and reevaluate them. It is hard to overstate how powerful a tool this can be in changing our feelings and behavior. All of the skills in this book rely on metacognition as the foundation.
Sometimes it’s hard to identify a thought running through your mind, so another way of identifying the automatic thought is to look for the meaning of the situation. In Aaliyah’s example, if she were unable to identify any obvious thoughts she might ask herself, “What does it mean to me that Ricardo didn’t invite me? Maybe it’s that I’m afraid no one likes me.” The thought “No one likes me,” is the hidden meaning her mind has assigned to this event.
Another way of uncovering more hidden thoughts is to ask yourself, “What’s the worst part of this, and why?” Here the answer might be that Aaliyah believes she never gets invited to anything, and that’s painful because she concludes that it means no one likes her.
Finally, if these methods don’t deliver results, you can identify the emotion then work backward. The previous chapter identified some of the reasons different emotions arise. For instance, anger is usually a response to mistreatment of ourselves or someone we care about. Had Aaliyah felt anger after seeing that Ricardo had not invited her to the get-together, she could have 1) identified her anger, 2) determined that it was probably a reaction to some perceived mistreatment, then 3) formulated a thought involving being mistreated in the situation. She might have uncovered the thought “Ricardo isn’t treating me as he should because I’ve always been a good friend to him.” By using the emotion as a clue, we can play detective in discovering the mystery of the missing automatic thought.