I know I’m not alone in having negative thoughts and a negative voice in my head. That harsh critic who screeches put-downs such as – ‘you’re not good enough,’ ‘who do you think you are,’ and ‘you’ll be found out.’
Over the years I’ve come to realise that my unkind and incessantly negative internal voice is part of my self-protection mechanism; it’s my risk-assessor, my contingency thinker.
The rationale is that if I can predict potential threats, in theory, I can solve them before I get into trouble. But this capacity to imagine threats means unchecked, our minds will become habitual negative thought generators. We might think our negative thoughts are keeping us safe, but in reality, they hold us captive in a vicious cycle of stress.
Whilst I’m well acquainted with my inner gremlin’s favourite monologues, only recently did I discover that there are different categories of negative thinking. In the 1960s, psychologist Aaron Beck coined the term ‘automatic negative thoughts’ (ANTs.)
Just like real ants, if you are not vigilant, you’ll be facing an infestation because negative thinking spirals (mountains out of anthills!)
Building on the work of Dr. Beck another psychologist Dr. Amen identified different species of ‘ANTS’ or categories of negative thoughts. I know I can put my hand up to many of them.
This is where we use extreme language, pervasive words and phrases. For example, ‘I’ll never lose weight,’ ‘You’re always mean to me,’ ‘No one likes me.’ This language blinkers us so we only see evidence that supports our extreme thinking.
Our viewpoint here is skewed completely towards the negative. We ignore the good or even the neutral in a situation.
We just ‘know’ that the worst possible outcome will occur. Our knee-jerk response is failure and disaster.
This is where we go inside other people’s heads and do their thinking for them. This mind-reading usually comes with a dose of judgement where we assume that others will be viewing us in a negative way.
Most of the time what we think about or focus upon determines how we feel. For example, if you are not thinking worrying thoughts, you don’t feel worried.
But there will be times when we allow our feelings to dictate our thinking. For example, you are in a situation and you ‘feel’ stupid.
You don’t question or examine this feeling, the series of sensations in the body (perhaps blushing, a tight stomach,) so it calcifies and then you label yourself as being stupid.
We will beat ourselves up with the word ‘should.’ ‘I should do this,’ ‘I should leave work earlier,’ ‘I shouldn’t eat that.’ The word ‘should’ will always stir feelings of guilt. The antidote to should is ‘choose.’ (‘I could choose to this,’ ‘I could choose to eat that.’)
‘I’m lazy,’ ‘I’m fat,’ ‘I’m too old.’ Labels become self-fulfilling prophecies, we conform to the labels we place on ourselves. Of course, we place labels on others and the world around us too shading our perspective.
Now, this is a common ANT!
We take things personally because we care. But as harsh as it sounds, the world doesn’t revolve around you, people are not thinking about you as much as you imagine.
This category of negative thinking causes us to slip into victimhood where we blame others for our problems or challenges. It is a lazy option rather than taking responsibility for our own actions, thoughts, and attitudes.
Whilst we cannot switch off negative thinking, because it is part of our self-defence mechanism, we can work to diminish the power of negative thoughts and their impact on our well-being.
The first step is to recognize them when they occur. I aim to recognise the ‘ants’ that are circling. I call this the witness position.
The second step is to challenge the validity of our habitual thoughts. Be courageous and ask yourself questions such as;
Another effective technique is to give your inner critic a name, like a character in a book or movie. This helps to distance you from your thoughts.
I’ve learned that my ‘gremlin voice’ whilst it may behave like a demon is really an angel in disguise, with ultimately my best interests at heart.
However, like a temperamental child, if I don’t give it some attention, it will act up and scream. But just as we would soothe a scared child, show compassion and help them feel safe, we can practice that same compassion towards ourselves and our inner child.
Perhaps this is the ultimate antidote to negative thinking and with practice, it is how we can transform our ‘ants’ into ‘pets’ (positive empathetic thoughts.)
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