Deconstructing Automated Negative Thoughts (ANTs)

[This article is a continuation of the concepts discussed in our article How to Release Yourself From the Prison of Negativity]

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When negativity is taking over your brain, the thoughts are going to follow a very limited set of patterns. The patterns tend to cluster together in such a way that one pattern easily connects to another which connects to another and pretty soon you find yourself all worked up! The point of this article is to explore these patterns and to group them into four main categories to make them easier to remember.

When you find yourself using one of these Automated Negative Thought patterns (ANTs), remember to take a step back and assess what is going on in your own mind. You don't have to believe every thought that momentarily flashes into your head. 

First Category ANTs: Initial Triggering

The first six ANTs are the ones which initially trigger a reactionary response within you. Before this thought, you were in a normal state of mind, but now you've thought one of these thoughts and you have begun releasing worry chemicals inside of your body, which has begun a process of escalation. If you can keep each of these patterns in mind, and you can recognize when they are occurring, you will be able to effectively take a step back and re-evaluate your thinking. Because all of the Initial Triggering ANTs are logically invalid, if you examine them you can learn to spot when your brain is misleading you. Here are the Initial Triggering ANTs:

Always / Never Statements

Always Statements and Never Statements falsely depict the world in an overly simplistic, black and white fashion when the reality is most likely to be a shade of grey in between. These statements follow the form of: "You always _____" or "You never _____".

Maybe it's "You always leave a mess in the kitchen" or "You never listen to me." Really? Never ever? No. The other person probably listens often but sometimes does not listen and those are the times you are considering in this thought. The same goes for "Always" statements. Nothing always happens. It may seem to be always at that moment because your mind is simplifying the data.

This concept is absurdly simple to understand, yet you will catch yourself making these statements. Key in when you hear yourself say the words 'always' or 'never' and you will be likely to start noticing when these occur. 

Focusing Only on The Negative

Another ANT is focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive. For example, you teach a class and then ten students fill out surveys at the end to give you feedback on your teaching. Nine of the surveys say you did a great job but one of them is scathing. Do you focus on the nine positive reviews or the one negative review? Logic would note that your teaching had a 90% approval rating, but many of us would still unconsciously focus on the one bad review. All situations have some kernel of bad if you specifically look for it.

Fortune Telling

Fortune Telling is when you act like you can predict the future and then the future you predict is a worst case scenario. These thoughts use the future tense because they are stating how the future is going to be in advance, and for some reason they seem to predict an almost comically horrible outcome. These statements assume the future can be predicted in advance, when in reality this is not possible with any level of accuracy.

So a thought might say "Your new business is going to fail" or "You're not going to get that promotion you want." Are these thoughts helping you? No. They are dragging you down because if you predict failure for yourself, you will fail. Many, many thinkers have agreed that visualizing success is a necessary but not sufficient precursor to success. You must be able to really believe in yourself to accomplish anything and negative fortune telling runs directly contradictory to this. 

Negative fortune telling also comes in the form of telling others around you that they aren't going to succeed or that their efforts in whatever area are doomed to failure. Newsflash: nobody likes when you do that. You don't even like when you do that to yourself. 

Mind Reading

Mind reading is similar to fortune telling except that instead of predicting the future you are predicting what the other person is thinking. Mind Reading ANTs tend to assume the other person is thinking the worst thing they could be thinking, when in reality this is unlikely. Given the complexity of human emotions, it is almost certain that you will be wrong if you guess what someone else's physiological state is without asking them. This is very likely to further escalate a disagreement because people hate to be told how they are feeling by someone else. Think about it. Feelings are an intensely personal experience and it would feel like an intrusion for someone to tell you how you should feel. 

One example of mind reading would be the sentence: "I know you think I'm an idiot, but _____." Really? Do you know that? Or maybe "I know you don't agree with me, but ______." Really? Do you know that without asking? Hopefully you can see how presumptuous it is to assume you can guess how someone else is feeling when you could perfectly well just ask them. 

Should'ing

Should'ing is closely related to Mind Reading except instead of guessing how someone is feeling, you are telling someone how they should feel or how they should act. This is also known as being bossy. Should'ing is easy to recognize because it almost always uses the phrase 'you should,' for example, "You should get a job!" or "You should (whatever)." 

Sometimes should'ing statements come in the imperative verb tense, which is the command form. Examples would include telling someone to "Shut up!" (ie. an order to stop talking) or "stop crying!" (ie. telling someone how to feel or act). 

Why is it so easy to 'should' each other? I call this being the "Ultimate Arbiter of Truth." It's so easy to simplify the world and make it appear safe by pretending to ourselves that we understand how it works. We then sit up from our safe, imagined throne and dictate to ourselves and others how we "should" be. Well, are you some expert on life that's smarter and wiser than every other person who has ever existed? Unlikely. But when we tell someone else what they 'should' do, it makes us feel a sense of certainty about the world, like we have a firm understanding of it, which is comforting. 

The reality is that all of these "should" statements are nothing more than a guess about the future, which we previously examined as a logically invalid way of approaching the world. 

Using Feelings Without Logic

Sometimes we think with our feelings without ever taking a moment to examine them logically. When we do this, our thoughts tend to take the form of a statement such as "I feel _______." Ok, let's evaluate that statement. You do feel that way. Yes. But why? It's partially because of the story you are telling yourself. It's partially based on whether you slept well last night or not. It's partially based on how recently you have eaten or perhaps if you have a headache. The point is that emotions are a complex combination of a variety of variables. Just because a feeling wells up inside of you doesn't mean it has a logical basis. Understand that your mind's default mode will be to invent logic to match whatever feeling arises within you. This is called backwards rationalization. For example, I start to feel the emotion of frustration. I look around and think to myself, "I must be getting frustrated for some reason. It must be what this other person next to me just did!"

Using feelings without logic is easy because the chemicals in our brains that say "I know I'm right!" are very, very persuasive no matter what the circumstances. This is why many people have trouble admitting when they are wrong about something. 

Second Category ANTs: Blame and Personalization

Once the first category ANTs have started (metaphorically) crawling around in your brain, if you are interacting with another person, the interaction is going to start to escalate. The door is now open for the second category ANTs, Blame and Personalization, to arrive. 

Blame

Blame is when you fool yourself into thinking that the other person caused your own internal bad feelings. You are experiencing an internal conflict but you have made the conflict appear external to yourself by projecting it onto this other person (that's called blame). It is naturally uncomfortable to examine ourselves and our own deficiencies, so we fool ourselves by pointing to someone else (in our mind or out loud) and telling ourselves it's all their fault. This is so common, you can observe it in nearly every fight, as well as many internal dialogues with yourself. 

Perhaps in a simplistic sense, it is the other person's fault. But it was your choices that brought you to where you are right now and the situation you find yourself in. If this other person was really that bothersome, you would find a way to remove yourself from interacting with them. You continue to interact with this person because your subconscious is serving up situations to help you better understand yourself. 

Blame is a way of putting blinders on ourselves so that we don't have to deal with our own problems. While this strategy is effective in blocking our developmental progress, it has only limited effectiveness in making us feel more secure because the same internal feeling has been left unresolved. Therefore, it's going to pop up again in a new situation, which will then be blamed on a new person, over and over again until you stop externalizing and gather the courage to look back at yourself. 

Personalization

Personalization is the flip side of blame. When someone else blames you for something, you take it personally and mistakenly think that the comment is actually about you. This happens because we like to think we are the center of the universe and everything is about us. Also, the other person is mistakenly blaming us for their issues, so their comments are phrased as personal attacks.

Even if someone says "you are an idiot and I hate you," the comment really isn't about you, although of course it initially appears to be. The other person is feeling foolish and agitated but they are projecting that feeling onto you and phrasing it as if it is your fault (in other words they are blaming you). You must learn to not take the bait. It is not your fault that this other person is not critically examining themselves at that moment. You are not responsible for the mental development of others. You are only responsible for you.  

We can also take things personally that were not meant in any sort of blaming way by the other person. Perhaps your boss walks by and gives you an awkward look because she had something else on her mind at the time. In reality, it has nothing to do with you. But we have a tendency to assume everything is about us. We create battles in our own mind which are completely pointless but quite unpleasant. 

Third Category ANT: Labelling

Labeling is a way of de-legitimizing the other person's perspective so that what they are saying doesn't need to be given full consideration. Recognize the human tendency to categorize others and then to disregard them based on that category. The most pernicious form of labelling is name-calling. 

Example: "You are an asshole." 

Obviously such a statement is a simplification. The other person is probably an ass sometimes and a great person lots of other times. But more importantly, if the other person is simply "an asshole," then you don't need to listen to them anymore. You have recategorized them from a person whose feelings you care about into someone whose feelings can be easily discarded. 

Name calling tends to escalate conflicts because the other person understands that you are shutting them out with a simplistic label. The default response is usually to name-call as well and then pretty soon neither of you is listening to the other person. 

Personal growth sometimes requires accepting uncomfortable input from other people.

Fourth Category ANT: Guilt

Speaking of how you treat yourself, the last ANT is guilt. Guilt typically occurs after the fact and you are reviewing it later in your mind. Instead of blaming someone else, you are now blaming yourself, and that emotion is called guilt. 

Guilt is a very dangerous emotion if left unchecked because feeling guilty releases anxiety hormones into your body via the limbic system. Because ongoing feelings of guilt can be felt for long periods of time, the continuous release of these stress chemicals can physically break down your body. 

A more productive avenue would be to reframe whatever you are thinking about into a positive. Instead of "I should call my mom" (ie. an implied attack on yourself because you haven't called your mom as of yet) or "I should have called my mom," use something more affirming like "I want to call my mom" or "I'm going to call my mom." These are healthier styles of thinking because you are aligning yourself with your thoughts rather than setting yourself in opposition to them. 

Conclusion

The Automated Negative Thoughts described in this article are how your own brain can make you miserable. The good news is that they only come in a limited variety of patterns and now you know what those patterns are! If you keep vigilant for when they arrive, you can examine them and release them before they cause damage in your life. Because the ANTs tend to cluster together, they are relatively easy to identify if you are looking for them. Over time, you can train yourself to use healthier thought patterns that will make your life more content and peaceful. 

Also, you might want to check out our podcast episode about this topic!