“A” stands for automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts are the thoughts we think over and over, not for the pleasure of it, but because we are, by nature, compulsive. I have an automatic thought that comes up often: “I’m left out.” Left out of conversations, of groups, of closeness, and sometimes, even, of life.
Automatic thoughts have associated emotions. For example, the automatic thought “I’m left out” makes me feel lonely and sad.
Not all automatic thoughts are considered bad. Thoughts that automatically come to mind when a particular situation occurs are sometimes pleasant, and other times, troubling. One of my favorite positive thoughts is “I love animals.” Obviously, we want to hang onto the positive thoughts. But it can often help our mood and general outlook to challenge the negative ones.
Neither of the thoughts I mentioned “I’m left out,” and “I love animals” are things I say aloud, or are even completely conscious. More often, negative thoughts sit just below our level of consciousness, like the feel of clothing against our skin, or the sound of the refrigerator humming. Because they are not conscious, they can affect in powerful ways, but ways that we’re nonetheless unaware of. So, for example, the thought “I’m left out” can become so pervasive, that I forget to reach out to people, or that I get overwhelmed by feelings of isolation.
The thoughts we have are often in direct conflict with one another. For example, “I’m left out,” and “I love animals” aren’t really mutually exclusive, are they? Can I really be “left” out and be surrounded by animals I love? Time spent with animals who are loving and who want to be close to me diminishes the power of “I’m left out.” It’s hard to feel isolated when surrounded by such loving beings.