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Week 3, Session 1: Self-Esteem and Automatic Negative Thoughts

Hello and welcome to Week 3, Session 1.

If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

You’ll need your thought diary for the homework this week so make sure you have that with you.

The goals for this session are:

  • Jumping into our work on self-esteem - what is it? How do we define it?
    → Come to understand how working on our self-worth is a powerful tool to combat abuse
  • Learning about negative automatic thoughts, and how to identify and challenge these automatic negative thoughts
  • We’ll continue to flesh out our thought diaries

Today’s grounding exercise will be… Try speaking out loud, as though you’re the main character in a story. You can describe something in your room, or else explain your actions. For example: “I am sitting on my couch. The couch is comfortable, if not a bit worn in the places I sit.” Listen to and feel the sound of your voice in your throat. I know it can be disorienting to listen to ourselves - but try to focus on the vibrations you make with your body! Tune into the ways that you’re buzzing, breathing.

Fun question: If you could immediately know a new language, which would you choose?

Today, let’s start by talking about self-esteem, and ways we can both protect ourselves from and also prevent abusive control!

First off - a quick task - pause your reading for a moment, and try and write anything that comes to mind when you think of the word self-esteem. What does that phrase mean to you?

Now, we love our little definitions in Bloom, so, officially, we know that self-esteem is a term to describe a person's overall sense of self-worth or personal value. In other words, how much you appreciate and like yourself. Self-esteem involves beliefs about yourself, such as the appraisal of your own appearance, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors. 

People with high self esteem believe they deserve better and focus on growing, being safe and living a good life. They do what makes them happy and valued. On the other hand, decades of research has shown that people with low self esteem feel more unhappy, insecure, depressed, dependent and pessimistic about life. 

Self-esteem is not a static thing, meaning it can change.  It is often dependent on our environment and those around us. This is where our experiences with abuse come in. Unfortunately, our self-esteem can be targeted by, taken advantage of, and manipulated by abusers. How? Our abuser might do it in different ways: for example, they might over-react anytime we do something they perceive is a mistake, leading us to think we mess up all the time. Over a long period of time, our abuser’s behaviour may lead us to believe these negative things about ourselves are true. 

When we’re made to think ill of ourselves, we may not believe that we deserve unconditional love - and we’re all the more grateful when we receive attention from someone, even if there are strings attached (if not more grateful for it). We explored this idea last week when we talked about trauma bonding - with the mice and the boost of dopamine. In this way, negative self esteem can be reinforced by our abuser and making it even more difficult to believe positive thoughts about ourselves. 

Even if you are still living in an abusive situation, building up a reserve of positive self-esteem can help us learn how to adapt to our traumatic experiences in ways that are more nourishing and fulfilling. Remember, how you view yourself matters so much more than what anyone else thinks of you, and you can always create a place and practice ways to show yourself love or else be loved by others. 

To boost your self-esteem, the first thing that’s helpful is to identify the negative beliefs you have about yourself, then challenge them. A particular kind of negative belief we’re going to be looking at today, is called automatic negative thoughts. 

What are automatic negative thoughts? As people who have experienced abuse, we may have a tendency to bombard ourselves with criticism. This criticism often manifests in Automatic Negative Thoughts -- thoughts that come up immediately and automatically, often without us even noticing that’s what we’re thinking.  Some examples of common negative messages that people repeat to themselves include: "I am a jerk", "I am a loser", "I never do anything right", and "I am so stupid”.

These thoughts tend to project the worst, most extreme features onto ourselves. Most often we believe these messages, no matter how untrue they are. They are deeply entrenched in our thought patterns and can be difficult to unlearn. And once we start thinking negatively of ourselves, it can be easy to spiral into more negative thinking which reinforces our low self-esteem. 

There are 10 very commonly found types of ANT that we are going to go over. While we do this, see if any of them match the patterns you’ve been noticing in your own thoughts.

  • All or nothing thinking**:** Everything is seen in black and white terms. Example: if you don’t do something perfectly then you are a failure.
  • Overgeneralisation**:** one bad thing becomes an “always” thing. Example: you just made a mistake and you say “I will never do anything right!”
  • Mental filter: letting your mind only focus on the negative things. 
  • Disqualifying the positive: noticing something positive but then undermining it with negative thoughts, thus enforcing your negative beliefs even when there is evidence to contradict them.
  • ***Jumping to conclusions: ***making an assumption with no evidence to support it. Example: someone you know passes you in the street and doesn’t say hi. You assume they are mad at you when it’s possible they just didn’t see you or some other explanation.
  • ***Magnification or minimisation: ***You magnify negative but minimize positive. Example: you are late to see a friend and become sure they will be angry and never want to see you again. Or someone tells you that you’re interesting and you assume they are saying it only to make you feel better.
  • Emotional reasoning: I feel it, therefore it must be true. Example: because I feel guilty, I must have done something wrong.
  • Shoulds, oughts, and musts: criticizing yourself for not doing the things you decide you “must”, “should”, or “ought” to without leaving space for outside factors that might get in the way.
  • Labelling and mislabeling: giving yourself a label associated with a negative behavior. Example: if you make a mistake you are “hopeless” or if an event goes wrong you label yourself the mistake instead of the event.
  • Personalisation: assuming responsibility for everything that goes wrong even when there is no evidence.

Here are some helpful things to remember about ANTS that will aid in identifying them as they pop up: 

Distorted - they do not fit the facts.

Unhelpful - they keep your self-esteem low and make it difficult to change.

Automatic - they can pop up without effort.

Involuntary - they can be difficult to switch off.

Not based on evidence, but feel plausible - it does not occur to us to question them.

Predictive - they reflect the worst-case scenario without knowing what will actually occur. 

So, for the rest of the session, we’ll be looking at how we can challenge these thoughts. After you’ve identified the thought, there are four major ways of questioning and altering negative thoughts. 

1. What is the evidence? Do the facts of the situation back up what you think, or do they contradict it?

2. How else could you interpret what has happened? 

There are many different ways to look at any experience. Get as many alternative views as you can, and review the evidence for and against each of them. When you consider it objectively, which alternative is most likely to be correct?

3. What is the effect of thinking the way you do?

How does it influence how you feel and what you do? What are the advantages and disadvantages of thinking this way? Can you find an alternative that will have a more positive effect?

4. What thinking errors are you making?

You may have developed these thinking errors as a psychological response to try and cope with the abuse. However you have other options than thinking in this way, so consider what errors you are using in your thinking.

At this point, you may be thinking, why does my brain work this way, why can’t I get it to stop thinking these things if they are so mean and unhelpful?

Let’s do a quick exercise for a second: 

Close your eyes and...

Imagine a tree. It has roots, a trunk, many branches and leaves, maybe even some flowers.

Now, as a tree grows up, its environment shapes it. Certain branches end up big or small, more straight or more crooked, all based on what is happening to it at the time. 

And water/nutrients move through the tree automatically in the patterns that it already has that are there because, at some point, that was the safest/smartest way for the tree to grow. 

Brains work sort of the same way, don’t they? Thoughts move automatically through pathways that have grown out of experiences with our environment much like water moves up from the roots to different branches on a tree.

When we have ANTs our brains are just following old patterns that our brain created in the past that helped us survive in different ways. But just like with trees, it can be useful to help reshape our brains. We need to nurture branches, grow new ones, or even cut off unhealthy ones, so our thoughts can travel healthier patterns. 

You would never be mad at a tree for growing the way it did based on its environment.  It did what it needed to do to survive. So don’t be hard on yourself or your brain either. The abuse wasn’t your fault. And we can honour the ways we grew before which protected us, as we help our tree grow better and stronger towards new rays of sun. 

Hopefully this metaphor has helped you understand that the negative thoughts we might have during or after abuse is a kind of adaptation. This adaptation helps us navigate our abuser’s behaviour while we are living under their control. For example, some of our ANTs might be things that our abuser said that we have internalised. If we experience this kind of ANT, we are predicting what our abuser might say in a similar situation, in order to prepare for the hurt we would feel if they said it. 

It might seem counterintuitive to think about these negative feelings as a survival adaptation, but it can be a helpful reminder of how abuse, including its effects on our minds and bodies, is never our fault. So, we do not have to feel guilty if we have negative thoughts or self-esteem -- these are a natural consequence of our abuse. But importantly, our self esteem is also something we have the power to change: through practice, repetition, and mindful thinking (i.e., your reflections in your thought diaries!).

Now, let’s think about our thought diaries. A really important tool in the process of challenging our negative thoughts can be our thought diary. Let’s look at an example image of a thought diary. 

If you don’t want to use this image, please feel free to make your own! Make a table with the following columns:

  • Date
  • Situation
  • Emotions (what you were feeling)
  • Automatic Thought (first thing you thought of)
  • Rational Response (how you could change it)

Capturing our thoughts in our diaries will help us track these patterns of ANTs. Through these diaries, we can begin identifying our negative thoughts and it gives us a chance to challenge them. Once we examine the evidence ‘for’ and ‘against’ the thought we might realise that these thoughts are often based on inaccurate assumptions. Challenging these thoughts may feel strange to start with, but as we move through this course and build more confidence this should hopefully become easier. With enough practise we can begin to change our thinking. Remember that we’re here to help if you’re finding this hard.

So for this week, try and identify at least one of the ANTs we discussed today, and write them down in your own diary. 

The homework for this week is…

  • Tell us what “self -esteem” means to you.
  • Keep working on your thought diaries. See if you can find any ANTs in what you’ve written so far. Often, we uncover that our automatic reactions match the voice of our abusers or criticisms from our past - so be gentle with yourself as you consider what voice comes first (and remind yourself that these self-aggressions can be named, noted, and undone!) You’ve got this!

Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this. 

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