Henry unexpectedly comes home from work two hours early. Instead of giving him a friendly greeting, his partner Andy, who’s had the day off, glares at him in silence and walks away. Henry is confused by the reaction and uncertain as to what to do. He opens a beer, sits on the couch, and turns on the television. A few moments later Andy returns, looking a little happier, and says, “Let’s not eat at home tonight. How about we go out? My treat.” Henry responds by slamming the beer can on the coffee table and walking into the bedroom. Now Andy is confused.
What’s going on here? These puzzling reactions become understandable when we understand the fleeting, automatic thoughts which provoked them. When Henry came home early, Andy thought “He’s probably checking up on me to make sure I’m not cheating on him. He doesn’t trust me.” When Andy suggested taking them out for dinner, Henry thought “He must be looking for an excuse not to be home so he can avoid having sex with me. He isn’t attracted to me anymore.”
As cognitive psychologist Aaron Beck explains: “At first glance, it seems that what other people do leads directly to our reactions of anger, anxiety, sadness, and the like. We say (or at least think) things like ‘You make me angry’ or ‘You’re getting on my nerves.’ But these statements are not strictly accurate. They are true only in that we would not experience the specific emotion (anger, anxiety, sadness) if the other person had not acted that way. But the person’s actions simply represent facts that we interpret. Our emotional response follows from our interpretation, rather than from the act per se.” Or, as the stoic philosopher Epictetus put it more succinctly “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.”
The trouble is that the views we take of things tend to arise in the form of automatic, fleeting thoughts which occur so rapidly and which are so habitual that they fly below the radar of our conscious awareness. These thoughts usually come in condensed form rather than in complete sentences. Andy’s automatic thought, for instance, may have been something like “checking up…cheating…doesn’t trust.” A series of automatic thoughts forms an internal monologue, and all of us carry on these internal monologues all the time. We’re constantly interpreting, evaluating, and judging other people’s actions, and most of the time we’re not conscious of the fact that we’re doing it. What is actually happening becomes fused with our evaluation of it. We assume our automatic thoughts are valid and don’t need to be examined.
There’s nothing inherently crazy about automatic thinking; in fact, we couldn’t live without it. Since we can never directly know another person’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations, we have to make interpretations in order to make sense out of what others are doing. The problem is that we all have built-in biases, usually based on childhood experiences, which distort our interpretations. Andy’s interpretation of Henry’s early arrival, for instance, is based on childhood experiences of a controlling and suspicious parent, and Henry’s belief that Andy’s offer to take him to dinner is a sexual rejection is based on early experiences of parental rejection.
The good news is that our automatic thoughts are what Freud called “preconscious” rather than unconscious, which means they are accessible to conscious examination. By developing the habit of “looking before we leap” – of examining our assumptions before we act on them, we become more likely to become more mindful, and therefore more in control of, our biases.
Here are some of Aaron Beck’s general guidelines for dealing with automatic thoughts: “try to identify troublesome situations and the meanings you attach to them….Resist the natural tendency to accept these thoughts as true simply because they ‘feel right’ or seem reasonable. Examine them and look for supporting evidence, contradictory evidence, alternative explanations, and more logical inferences. Oppose the temptation to slip into your well-worked, self-defeating reactions, such as retaliation, defensiveness, or withdrawal….Your negative interpretation is more likely to become a fixed conviction if you act on this assumption.”
Couples can actively assist each other in this process of self-examination. In couple counseling, for instance, Henry and Andy have made the agreement that whenever they see the other person reacting from what appear to be automatic biases they will avoid the temptation to retaliate or defensively withdraw, and instead say something like, “I think we should talk about what just happened. What were you thinking just then?” They’re finding that practicing this simple course correction is turning potential conflicts into opportunities for mutual support and increased understanding.
For those who would like more information about effective strategies for responding to destructive automatic thoughts, Aaron Beck’s excellent book, Love is Never Enough, is an excellent practical guide for using the principles of cognitive therapy to overcome the biases which cause so much unnecessary conflict in relationships. I recommend it highly.