It’s like I get to rewind the negative tape playing in my head. I get to rescript the narrator of my life.
I make an effort to be kind. I try to remember to pause and intentionally reflect on my words and actions, asking myself whether they’re of benefit to others.
In general, this practice helps me to respond rather than react in everyday situations. If nothing else, it helps me be just a little bit nicer.
This means that instead of getting upset when I’m on hold with the credit card company, for instance, I can take pause and remind myself that the person on the other end is just there to do their job.
Rather than an obstacle to what I want, I can see that person as a three-dimensional human being.
And it means that when someone cuts me off in traffic, I can remind myself that I don’t know what other people are going through.
Maybe they had a stressful day at work, are caring for a sick family member, or just realized they’re late for an important meeting.
It gives me the opportunity to practice compassion.
I’m no Buddha — but I do my best. And I find that making this effort pays off. It helps me feel more connected to other people, more patient and understanding.
The same isn’t true when it comes to myself.
When I take the time to notice, I realize I have a lot of negative thoughts directed at myself. I’m often self-critical of how I interact with others, how I perform at work, or whether I am, indeed, succeeding at “adulting.”
I’m critical of how I’m raising my son, my past choices, my future plans, how I’m executing my current phase of life. The list goes on and on.
It’s a bit of a wonder that with all this self-criticism, I’m able to get anything done at all.
I first became fully aware of the automatic negative thought (ANT) phenomenon when my therapist made a friendly suggestion to begin writing down my thoughts. Just take a little notebook everywhere, she suggested, and see what comes up. So I did.
It wasn’t pretty.
It quickly became obvious that 75 percent of my thoughts were criticisms of myself or my behavior. The rest were somewhere on the spectrum of what train I had to catch, thinking about how chocolate sounds really good right now, daydreams about the future, or making plans for my Saturday.
I realized that there’s some interesting weather going on in the biosphere of my head.
The next step my therapist had me take, after I came back with my notebook full of ANTs, was to write responses to each and every one.
Every time I had an ANT in my day, I wrote it down and immediately wrote a rebuttal.
It would go something like this:
- ANT: “I messed up at work. I’m probably going to get fired.”
- Answer: “Mistakes happen. I do a good job and I’m valued by my team. I’ll do better next time”
- ANT: “My son really acted up today. I’m not a good mom.”
- Answer: “We all have bad days. You’re doing your best. He’s okay.”
At first it seemed tedious, but I eventually came to really enjoy the process. I could feel the negative impact of each ANT, and feel the immediate sense of relief that came from writing down its counterpoint.
It was like I got to rewind the negative tape playing in my head and record over it. I got to rescript the narrator of my life.
For instance, when I took a new job in an entirely new field, I felt seriously out of my depth. My negative thoughts were going hard. Every time I made a mistake, I was afraid they would “find me out” and I would be fired.
By tracking these thoughts, I was able to see how absurd and over the top most of them were. This freed me to focus on doing good work instead of on my inadequacies.
Eventually, the negative thoughts about my performance subsided altogether. I felt confident and capable in my new role. My ANTs had been replaced by my positive responses.
There’s an even more in-depth version of the ANT exercise called cognitive distortions. This version uses labels like “catastrophizing,” “all-or-nothing thinking,” and “diminishing the positive” to categorize each thought.
Using these labels helps you identify what kind of thought you’re having and see clearly that it isn’t connected to reality.
When I’m feeling down or upset and that emotional lens is coloring my thinking, I can identify that my thoughts are actually influenced by emotional reasoning, one of the cognitive distortion categories.
For example, if I believed I did badly in a presentation, I might feel that all of my work for the rest of the week was sub-par.
Yet after receiving positive feedback from my manager come Monday, I could see that my opinion of my work was being shaped by emotional reasoning. I felt I had performed poorly, so assumed that it must be the truth — when in fact it wasn’t.
Identifying thought patterns helps me to see that I can’t change what’s happening, so there’s no use stressing over it.
For instance, if a friend cancels our plans I might decide, “Oh great, I bet she doesn’t want to hang out with me anyway.” Placing blame on myself over something outside my control is personalizing.
I can catch myself and acknowledge that my friend probably has a lot going on. Her reasons for canceling likely don’t have anything to do with me.
Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t always easy to do.
Emotional charge is a real thing, and changing our reactions into intentional responses requires a lot of discipline, repetition, and commitment.
But even just reflecting on what kind of thoughts we’re having can start the momentum in the right direction.
If you want to track your thoughts, all you’ll need is a notebook and pen. You can also track your thoughts on a spreadsheet if you’re the techy type.
You’ll want to record several factors to make the most of the exercise:
- What’s the time of day?
- What triggered the thought? An experience, location, behavior, or person?
- How did the thought make you feel? Rate the intensity from 1–5.
- What kind of cognitive distortion is the thought? You can find a complete list here.
- How can you reframe the thought? Come up with a kinder thought and write it down.
That’s it! You can do this as often as you’d like throughout the day. Writing it down gives the new thought power, so don’t skip this step until you’re seasoned.
With enough practice, you’ll train yourself to automatically reframe negative thoughts without blinking.
The greatest benefit I got from tracking my thoughts was the realization that I don’t have to passively accept everything I think. I can challenge my own thoughts, assumptions, and habitual ways of thinking.
Instead of thinking a negative thought and taking it as fact, I can pause and decide whether I choose to validate that thought. This is seriously empowering, because it means that I am in charge of my own reality.
“The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.”
Our mind is a great tool that can be extremely useful. It helps us make important decisions, contains the seeds of creativity, and allows us to engage in countless complex tasks on an everyday basis.
But when the mind runs the show, it can really be a downer. Thought tracking helps me take my mind off autopilot and get in the driver’s seat of my thinking.
It makes me more intentional, deliberate, and conscious so that I can respond to each circumstance from a place of awareness rather than habit.
When I commit to the practice of tracking my thoughts, I see a huge lift in my mood and confidence. My behavior is more in line with who I want to be, and it gives me a sense of autonomy.
This simple technique gives me a choice in how to feel, think, be, and act in the world.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for anxiety through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.