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How to Take Control of Automatic Thoughts

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By Aubrey Morris, Licensed Professional Counselor


How often do you think of things that you “should” or “have to” do? I’m not talking about taking a shower, going to school, or paying your bills. No, I mean thoughts like, “I have to be perfect”, “I should not make mistakes”, “I should not need help”, “I should be happy all of the time”, “I have to ______”…fill in the blank.

What are Automatic Thoughts?

It is interesting to think how these impressions develop. For some, they come from childhood. We all grow up with unspoken rules in our homes. Our parents raise us with different expectations and guidelines, ideally working to help us grow and be our best selves. Some of these are positive. With the expectation to shower, attend school and pay bills, we learn hygiene, hard work and responsibility. However, when the expectations and rules are unattainable, all-or-nothing, or leave no room for grace, such as being perfect, not making mistakes, not needing help and being happy all of the time, we become anxious, self-critical, depressed, and can develop low self-esteem.

Other times, we learn these “shoulds” from negative life experiences. Clients have told me of being bullied in school or work because they said a wrong answer in class or tripped in the hallway- essentially making some kind of “mistake.” After being mocked, they vowed to never give others the opportunity to make fun of their “mistakes.” Yet, these are not good goals that they set for themselves because they wanted to; these expectations are the results of fear or hurt in their lives.

If we take a step back, those goals stemming from fear are not bad, per se. To work to do things well, to want to be happy, and to have objectives are not bad. The problem is, we will not be perfect, we will make mistakes, we will need help, and we will not be happy all of the time. These are very black and white standards and are not realistic.

Another aspect of these “shoulds” that often causes emotional distress is that they are often external motivations. These phrases and rules are many times ingrained in us. They become a learned, automatic standard based on how we grew up, acquired from negative incidents or developed from other life experiences and influences. Many times they do not originate from us, even as they become our own.

There are a few ways we can start to change these automatic thoughts. What if we were to replace a word or two to make these goals more attainable and internally motivated?

  • Instead of, “I have to be perfect,” we can say, “I want to do things well.”
  • Instead of “I should not need help,” we can say, “I want to be independent and it is ok to need help sometimes.”
  • Instead of “I have to be happy all of the time,” we can say, “I want to be happy when I am able.”

Changing “should/have to” to “want to” causes the motivation to become our own. By replacing the all-or-nothing standards and allowing room for error, we modify the unreasonable expectation to a realistic and hopeful goal.

It is not easy to change these automatic thoughts. These “shoulds” are often involuntary and have been with us for years. But recognition is where we start to take control. We can work to explore the source of these rules, become aware of when we think them, and start to fight back.

Talking It Over

With time, healing, and practice, we begin to shape our thoughts and expectations into want what we want them to look like, instead of what we learned they “should” be. If you still have trouble controlling your automatic thoughts, sometimes all it takes is a new point of view. Our counselors can help you separate the positive goals from the negative, unrealistic expectations. Please do not hesitate to give us a call or contact our intake department.



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