“I’m a terrible mom. I can’t even get my kids to bed on time.”
“Look at how much I weigh! I’ve never been so fat and I look so old!”
“My life is just one hard thing after the other. I’m never going to be happy.”
Ever had thoughts like these?
Many of us struggle with thoughts that are critical, dark, hopeless or self-demeaning. These thoughts can be crawling around in our mind like busy little ants, seemingly insignificant when you look at just one, but left alone to do their work, they can turn into an army of powerful builders that create our life. Their influence can be conscious or unconscious. In fact, it’s vitally important that we become aware of the ants in our thinking so we don’t let them build a mound in our brain that will harm us.
I know a little about ants because I live in Texas, and here we have a big problem with fire ants. Fire ants are a special kind of diabolical ant. There Latin name is Solenopsis Invicta which means “undefeated”. They love to sneak onto an unsuspecting victim and then when the person notices they’re covered in ants and starts to move around, they all bite at once. Their sting leaves a strong burning sensation, hence the name “fire ant”.
They’re hard to get rid of.
They go deep in the ground to build their mounds so it’s hard to reach them. They also have this amazing ability to join together, ant leg, to ant leg when faced with flooded tunnels and literally float as a colony until they reach dry ground.
Mean and nasty- hard to destroy- even undefeatable… hmmm.
Sounds like negative thoughts to me.
In Cognitive Behavior Therapy, we have an acronym for Automated Negative Thoughts coined by the psychiatrist Daniel Amen MD.
You guessed it- A.N.T.S.
We all have A.N.T.S. and they build up in our lives, deep beneath our conscious awareness and tend to be hard to destroy.
But what is different about our A.N.T.S. from the pesky little insects is that we have more control over them than we realize. Once you know what they are and how they show up in your thinking, you’ve taken the first step in eradicating them from your backyard- oops, I mean your mind.
Here are 5 things you need to know in dealing with your Automated Negative Thoughts.
- Everyone has negative thoughts. In fact, having negative thoughts is how your brain tries to protect you by noticing potentially dangerous mistakes in what we do and say and bringing our attention to them so we can hopefully make a change that protects us. The problem is that our negative thoughts get out of proportion to our positive thinking and we can find ourselves seeing only the bad in our life.
- These negative thoughts are actually distorted thoughts or “thinking errors” that create most of our most painful emotional states. Depression and anxiety cannot exist without these distortions. Just like looking into a distorted mirror at the carnival makes a skinny child look wavy and stretched wide, so do negative thoughts distort our reality. These thoughts mislead us into believing things about ourselves and our experiences that aren’t true. However, thinking them makes us feel like they’re true.
- Your negative thoughts tend to come in categories. Aaron Beck and David Burns were among the first cognitive therapists to identify these categories. Here is a quick list of some of the most common automatic negative thoughts:
- Black and White Thinking
- Disqualifying the Positive
- Mind Reading/Fortune Telling
- Magnification and Minimization
- Emotional Reasoning
- Should/Must Statements
- You can fight back against your automated negative thoughts by being aware of them and challenging them. Once you know that your thought is an A.N.T. then you can choose to replace it with a more reasonable and rational thought. This takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, those pesky A.N.T.s have to find another place to build their mound.
- You can be proactive and focus on creating positive thoughts that lead your thinking in the direction you want to go. One of the ways to do this is by creating affirmations. Affirmations are true statements that you practice each day in order to make them automated in your thinking. (Read more about creating affirmations.)
Negative thoughts are something we all deal with. Learning how they show up in your thinking and what to do about them can ultimately give you power over how you feel.
To learn more about taking charge of your thinking and feeling more hope and optimism, check out the Self Talk pillar.