Automatic negative thoughts, dubbed as ANTs by Dr Daniel Amen, pop into our heads routinely and are overwhelmingly pessimistic. These thoughts can trap us in negativity and unconsciously weigh us down.
Dr Amen suggests that we think about these ANTs in the same way we would the insect, saying ‘One ANT, like one pesky critter at your picnic, is no big problem. Two or three insects at your picnic become a bit more irritating. But hundreds of ANTs, like hundreds of creepy-crawlers at your picnic, can ruin your day.’
These automatic negative thoughts can be invasive and keep you stuck in the cycle of negativity. Like the pesky critter they're named after, these ANTs come in all different shapes and sizes.
The different types of ANTs
Dr Daniel Amen has identified that there are 7 different types of automatic negative thoughts:
All or nothing ANTs thrive in absolutes and live in a dichotomy – something is either all good or all bad. They can be identified by looking for words like all, always, never, none, nothing, no one, everyone, all the time, every time. For example, ‘no one takes me seriously,’ would be an all-or-nothing ANT. You can reframe this ANT by challenging the generalisation, for example asking yourself, ‘is this really true? Is there anyone who takes me seriously?’
2. Focusing on the negative
This ANTs can’t find the good in any situation and often seeks out the negative side of everything. People who are prone to this style of thinking are likely to say something like, ‘I’ve lost 10 kilograms, but I wanted to lose 12 kilograms, so I failed.’ This thought patterns can be broken by consciously seeking out the positive side of any situation. If we take our earlier example, instead of thinking ‘I failed,’ you can think ‘This is a great milestone and I’m on my way to achieving my overall weight-loss goal.’
3. Guilt beating
As the name suggests these ANTs often have guilt as the main motivator of the behaviour. In this style of thinking words like should, must, have to, ought to, are often present, for example, ‘I should lose weight.’ This pressure often backfires and can be counterproductive for goal-setting, as people are rarely compelled to make a behaviour change after ‘should-ing’ on a situation. Instead, the desire should be framed positively, for example ‘I should lose weight,’ can become ‘Losing weight will help me reach my goal of feeling more energised and confident.’
The labelling ANT attaches negative labels to oneself or others. This though process limits your ability to see yourself, others or a situation clearly, for example labelling yourself as ‘lazy’ or ‘untalented’ inhibits your ability to see yourself or your behaviours clearly and ultimately encourages you to give up before you’ve even tried. Instead, it’s important to notice and challenge these labels.
People prone to this ANT will often predict the worst outcome for any situation. For example, ‘I had the interview yesterday and haven’t heard anything, I’m sure I didn’t get the job.’ The problem with this pattern, particularly when it’s related to performance, is it can become a self-fulling prophecy.
6. Mind reading
The mind-reading ANT presupposes that it can read the minds of others, and know exactly what they’re thinking. An example could be thinking ‘my boss gave me a funny look, they’re unimpressed with my performance.’ If this thinking goes unchallenged it can lead to tension in relationships and heightened anxiety for the mind-reader. Instead, it’s important to really listen to what others are communicating and asking yourself, ‘could this mean something else?’
The blame ANT likes to point the finger and shirk responsibility. Whenever a sentence starts with ‘it’s your fault…’ it’s highly likely that it falls into this style of thinking. For example, ‘it’s your fault that I’m out of shape because you never exercise with me.’ This pattern can make you feel powerless as it makes it difficult for you to take responsibility for your actions.
Break the cycle of negativity
Get unstuck from the cycle of negativity and start exterminating your ANTs by:
1. Become aware of your thoughts and start to notice when ANTs are infesting your mind. Recognise it, write it down, noticing any triggers and begin a conversation with this thought.
2. Stop, take a deep breathe and ask this thought ‘what do you need?’ This will help you reframe and correct the ANT.
3. Be patient and kind with your ANTs. It might take time and work to reframe these thoughts, and it’s important that you approach this from a place of kindness.
What are some ways you break the cycle of negativity? Tell us in the comments below:
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