I remember as a very young child playing outside on a warm summer day. I was fixated on a group of yard toys while sitting on the ground in my summer shorts. Then I felt a sharp sting on my leg. Several more followed. I looked down and realized I was covered in angry fire ants. The burning sensation seemed unbearable.
It turns out I had inadvertently sat on their home and they were seeking retaliation! Luckily, my parents were nearby and quickly whisked me away to safety (and likely treated the backyard with a pesticide). But I’ll never forget how quickly those stings went from a small annoyance to overwhelming pain.
Ants are a fitting metaphor for a common psychological phenomenon. Dr. Daniel Amen appropriately coined the term, Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). They refer to cynical, gloomy or complaining thoughts that seem to multiply and come unsolicited from the thinker. Because these thoughts are automatic, they often go unchallenged.
ANTs are thoughts such as:
“I’ll never get that job/make the team/have success, so why try?”
“I’m annoying, so why would anyone like me?”
“Life isn’t fair and I never get my way.”
”Something bad is going to happen. It always does.”
These thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies. After all, if you think you won’t succeed, you are not only less likely to make an attempt, but research shows that you are also less likely to have success due to the psychological impact of the thought! The good news is that these thought patterns can be reversed.
How to combat ANTs:
1) Recognize the thought: The first step is to recognize when the thoughts are occurring. Although these thoughts are internal, it is helpful to recognize them in the 3rd person. We all have different voices of reasoning in our heads. You may picture this negative, nagging voice as an ant, a bully, a monster, or maybe a person in your life who wasn’t so kind to you. Would you allow someone else to speak to you the way that the ANT does? Stand up to the ANTs and don’t let them limit your life. By separating yourself from the thought, you are in a better mental position to take on step 2:
2) Challenge the thought: After identifying the ANT, ask yourself if the ANT is true. Some ANTs are completely false(read about “cognitive distortions here) and you don’t actually have evidence that supports the thought you have. If this is the case, practice reminding yourself of this and a start to notice evidence that contradicts the ANT.
3) Get Perspective: Thoughts are just that. Thoughts. We have thousands of thoughts every day. Have you noticed that you give different thoughts different amounts of weight or attention? If you struggle with ANTs, you likely give more weight and attention to them. Some of the ANTs may be valid. You may have areas in your life where you wish you had acted differently or made different choices. This is about the weight and attention you give those thoughts. Think about a 10 point scale. Are you giving a thought the weight of a 8-9 when it deserves the weight of a 3-4? If so, the guilt and fear may actually be preventing you from making the change you desire. Adjusting your perspective will help to make the ANTs more manageable.
4) Replace the thought: Now it’s time to flip your ANT into a PAT (positive and affirmative thought). This isn’t about glib, unrealistic affirmations. It’s about looking at the irrational negative thought that you’ve determined is exaggerated or not accurate and then replacing it.
I’ll never get that job, so why try?” Becomes, “I’m good at the skills they are hiring for, so I’m a likely candidate”
“I’m annoying, so why would anyone like me?” Becomes, “I have several close friends, and I don’t have to be perfect to be likable.”
“Life isn’t fair and I never get my way.” Becomes, “Life isn’t fair and sometimes I get my way: here are some examples.”
”Something bad is going to happen. It always does.” Becomes, “Bad things and good things happen. When bad things happen, I don’t like it, but I’ve proven that I can handle it.”
Next time you notice the ANTs, recognize them, challenge them, and turn them around. Doing so on a consistent basis you will take away the ANTs power, allowing you to gain control over your feelings and ultimately help you to gain the confidence to thrive.