Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS)… Crush them!

A large part of my job entails teaching life improvement skills to kids with emotional and behavioral problems. Recently, I read a book that my friend and colleague, Angela, was so kind to share with our team. The book is called Mind Coach by Daniel G Amen, MD. The premise of the book is that people, naturally, have thoughts all the time (both positive ones and negative ones) -they just happen, automatically -IF you never bother to challenge them. This can be particularly detrimental to you when you have certain negative thoughts. The book refers to Automatic Negative Thoughts as ANTS (I see what you did there…) Letting ants go unchallenged may likely result in you believing them -even if they are a lie! (and often, they are lies). A few ANTS here and there (so the book says) might not be that big of a deal but… a whole SLEW of them and, well -that could just ruin your picnic. The book then goes on further to describe various “species” of ANTs -ANTs such as the “‘always’ thinking ANT” -where you might think things like “Man! I am always running late!” or “They never think of inviting me.” There’s the “focusing on the negative” ANT where you might be like “she doesn’t like x,y, and z about me.” … and then there is the “mind reading ANT” -one which I’m noticing more and more as being a particularly pesky ANT in my park which tends to try to take over my picnic all the time (stupid ANTs! Carrying away all my delicious grapes!) The “mind reading ANT” is one where you might be like “That person is frustrated with me but she just doesn’t want to tell me.”

Kristin pointed out to me the other day an interesting common thought process that I have: When I am about to cross the street, frequently, if I’m not in a hurry, when a car is stopped at a stop sign at the time when I’m ready to walk across I will pause and try to look around as if I wasn’t ever intending to cross the street. I do this so that the car will drive on and not wait for me to cross the street (like the law says they have to.) Why do I do this? Well, one reason is that I hate the idea of having to walk in front of the car and think “Aww man! That dude is irritated that he has to wait for me to cross the street before he can continue driving.” And boom… That’s a mind reading ANT. The fellow may not necessarily be bothered at all by me crossing the street! In fact, as Kristin pointed out, the person might actually be thinking something like “Okay! I’m gonna help this guy cross the street safely by stopping traffic behind me.” I just by default ASSUME that making the driver wait is going to irritate him. (This is probably because I get super irritated, myself, whenever I have to wait for someone to cross the street and the person fails to even care how fast they are going -or they don’t bother having any awareness of how they might -GOD FORBID- be holding me up.) This also happens when I’m out walking in crowded areas. Those of you that know me can probably recall instances where we’ve gotten stuck behind an OBLIVIOUS person that doesn’t seem to mind that they might be holding up traffic and/or inconveniencing other people. That cuss drives me NUTS! But that’s another blog post… The point is, I assume that other people carry the same attitude as me and when you think about it… that is just silly. And this issue, I’ve noticed, is one that extends within me further beyond something trivial like crossing the street. I “mind read” people’s impressions of me: I may assume that people might think badly of me (usually around issues that I already think badly of myself on). I project my insecurities onto other people and in many cases I may assume that they may be dissatisfied with me when, in fact, that is likely not the case at all! I’m also probably missing out on so many instances where people are noticing positive qualities about me -just because I’m so anxious and fixated on the part of myself that I worry may not be “good enough” (…whatever that means).

So crap… What do I do? Well… The book says that I gotta stomp on the ANTs. How do I do that? The book says “Cuss it! Make up an opposite POSITIVE thought to counter the negative one -and say it, internally, to yourself. Even if you don’t believe it at first” I mean… You might as well do that, right? If you’re going to have a faulty made up thought -why not err on the side of being over positive? That would at least change your mind set into a direction that would be more productive. So when I’m crossing the street and I notice that I’m assuming that the driver is probably letting out a giant vocal sigh of frustration thinking to himself “Oh GAWD!!! I have to WAIT for this FOOL to hurry up and walk across the street?! I don’t HAVE 4 seconds to sit around and wait for this dude. GAHHHHH!” What I need to do is program an opposite thought such as “Well… I don’t know what that guy is thinking. Maybe he has a mean expression on his face because he had a bad day.” The simple act of me NOTICING that my tendency is to come up with negative mind reading thoughts means I’m already well on the way to having healthier thinking. “Knowing is half the battle -G.I. Joooooe!” Taking that to an even deeper level -when I’m hanging out with folks that I really look up to and I start to think “these guys probably are noticing that I’m not up to par” I might as well re-program myself to think “these guys probably enjoy my company and notice the unique and positive qualities that I have.” SPLAT!!! Peace out, you stupid ANT!

Let’s get real here for a minute. If I’m really going to accomplish my dreams -if I’m really going to do this grad school thing (despite the setbacks) -If I’m really going to create and share an art production -if I’m really going to find a true and honest lover that can challenge me and meet me where I am -if I’m really going to be comfortable in my own skin -it will be in my best interest to not waste my time existing in a space where I have faulty impressions of the world -negative thoughts that more than likely are just of my own creation and aren’t even true. Time to let go. Time to wake up and see how much I just am not able to see. They say the truly wise are the ones who realize how much they actually don’t know… (Wasn’t that Socrates that said that, or something?)

cognitive behavioral therapy
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2 Responses to Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS)… Crush them!

  1. Angela says:

    Wise you have become ;) Seth.

  2. Kristin says:

    Great advise. I am trying to think more positively in my life as well.

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