WE ARE WHAT WE THINK- Challenging negative thoughts

“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thought. With our thoughts, we make our world.” – Gautama Buddha

This quote is not something we haven’t heard before. But, let’s try to understand it from a psychological point of view and also how to work with our thoughts to lead mentally healthier lives.

Our thoughts are more important than you think they are. They have a strong effect on how we view ourselves, how we react, how we feel and how we perceive the world around us. Reality is subjective. The task is only as difficult as you think it is. Whether you look good in that dress or not doesn’t matter. It only matters if you think it does. When someone calls you a loser, you don’t become one. But, it starts affecting you when you start to believe it. Our thoughts can make or break us.

The way we think starts developing from the time we start understanding language. As we go through different experiences –good or bad, we start building thought patterns. Let me explain three cognitive phenomena according to Aaron Beck(1976)... Schemas, Dysfunctional assumptions and Negative Automatic Thoughts.

  • Deep down, we develop ‘Schemas’ which are our core beliefs about ourselves (eg. I’m a failure) , others (eg. No one can be trusted), the future (eg. I’m never going to be successful), etc. These are generalized, rigid and difficult to change.

  • Dysfunctional assumptions or dysfunctional beliefs on the other hand, are specific, conditional ‘rules for living’ that we adopt. These may be unrealistic and sometimes happens out of our awareness. Eg. If I let anyone get too close to me, I will get hurt.

  • Negative Automatic thoughts (NATs) are our immediate involuntary response to something- an incident, something we see or hear, etc. Eg. I can’t do this/ I’m never going to learn this. This is the most easily accessible cognitive phenomenon and one which we can observe, explore and change. By doing this, we can achieve the desired changes in our behaviour and emotions.

The first thing to do is try to identify what our NATs are. It takes some effort and awareness to do this. Try noting down whatever NAT you observe. It may seem too simple or weird to write down our thoughts exactly how we think it, but it’s an important step. Remember, these are not how you feel but what you think at that particular instance. Once you have a list of NATs, try finding evidence to justify it. Challenge, question that thought and figure out a rational thought in place of that NAT.

Do this daily until it becomes a habit for you to question your negative thoughts.

Another way to challenge the thoughts that make us procrastinate or avoid doing supposed difficult things can be through this ‘predicted VS. actual’ worksheet. Choose tasks you have difficulty doing, write down the predicted percentage of how difficult you think it will be and how much satisfaction you think you will get by completing it. After you get down to finishing the task, get back to the sheet and fill up how you ‘actually’ felt the difficulty and the satisfaction levels were.

You will realize that lots of times, we think tasks are more difficult than they turn out to be and also might not make us feel as good when we complete them. Using this can help with motivation, productivity, personal growth and overall life satisfaction. These are some of the problems faced by everyone at some point or the other, not just by the mentally unwell.

Writing all these things down is better because when we try to figure it out in our head, they seem to be all over the place and complex. When it is put down on paper, they get clearer and are exposed to the power of reasoning. Try these out!


- The key principles of cognitive behavioural therapy- Miss Kristina Fenn, Dr Majella Byrne, 2013

- David D. Burns,M.D- Feeling Good, The new mood therapy

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