How to Kill ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) and Take Names

Hands bound in chains reaching for the sky representing the limits caused by automatic negative thoughts

For many years I worked as a cooking instructor for an offbeat little company called Hipcooks. Each night I would guide 14 students through the steps of a three-course meal and finish with a dinner party and cocktails. It was super fun, and I was great at my job. Better than great. My students loved me.

I don’t tell you this to boast about being an amazing fancypants whose poop smells like strawberries.

I tell you this because, for the first year and a half of my employment, I was terrified to go to work.

Terrified that I would be discovered for the fraud that I was. I had no formal culinary training! (Never mind that nearly all of the teachers were avid foodies and nothing more). I didn’t know anything about tobiko roe or how to keep aioli from breaking, and I was sure that my students could smell it.

Who do I think I am? I don’t know anything. Why would anyone want to learn from me? I’m totally going to screw this up.

These thoughts played on a self-deprecating loop that induced mild panic and intense cravings for tequila. And considering that my students wrote nothing but glowing Yelp reviews, they were also not remotely true.

Blame it on the Automatic Negative Thoughts

I’m willing to bet all the Thin Mints in the world you’ve experienced something similar.

Perhaps a thought like This is not what I wanted my life to look like.

Or, I’m so weak-willed.

Or, this always happens. What’s wrong with me?

Say hello to Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs. They sound tiny and insignificant, but really they are the fire-ants-on-steroids-version of your subconscious thoughts, and they will fuck you up.

The most insidious thing about them is that often play in the background of the mind, feeding us these messages without our being conscious of it happening. What we do notice is that our mood sours or we feel a general sense of sucking at life. For creatives, this manifests as imposter syndrome—a.k.a. the voice insisting you’re not good enough or experienced enough—that, in turn, stifles your creative dreams.

As the word “automatic” implies, Automatic Negative Thoughts are reflexive reactions based on the beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world, rather than something we can control. And it should come as no surprise that ANTs are associated with depression and low self-esteem.

The good news is that we can interrupt our Automatic Negative Thoughts and avoid the cascade of emotions and self-doubts they cause simply by challenging the beliefs when they arise. Positive counterarguments—often called affirmations—can offset the effects of both ANTs and stress in general.

Making the Subconscious Conscious

The first step is to notice whenever your mood turns dour. Whether you made a mistake at work that has you worried your boss thinks you’re a failure or you’re reacting to something your partner said, take a moment to register the situation. What emotions did the encounter cause? What was going through your mind at that moment?

Keeping a journal for this purpose can be a useful exercise. Automatic Negative Thoughts are not always easy to spot. They’re like the apps running in the background, draining your phone’s battery so slowly you don’t even notice. By recording your emotional shifts and tying your real-time thoughts to those emotions, you will begin to recognize patterns. The next time you have a certain emotion, you’ll be better able to identify what subconscious chatter caused it, which is necessary to halt the cycle that leads to inexplicably feeling crappy.

You can also search your self-talk for absolutes and moral imperatives, as these can often point to a belief that was installed during childhood that needs to be reexamined.

Types of Automatic Negative Thoughts

Here’s a list that can help you ferret out your own ANTs. They tend to fall into one of the following categories:

Black-and-White

These sound like all-or-nothing statements. They frame life as consisting of polarized categories and ignore the shades of gray in between. I‘m either a glowing success or I’m a failure.

Incomplete Evidence

Do you ever hear yourself fortune-telling? I’m sure if I ask for a raise, he’ll say no.

Or mind-reading? Or jumping to conclusions? Pretty much anytime you tell yourself definitively what someone else is going to do, and the outcome is negative, that’s an Automatic Negative Thought talking.

Exaggerating the Bad, Minimizing the Good

Due to our negativity bias, we have a biological tendency to focus on bad things more than good things. It’s why the media sensationalizes what’s going wrong in the world; it’s more compelling than stories that would make us smile. (Crazy, right?)

Therefore, it’s easy to think things like, Nothing ever goes my way, life is so unfair, and completely ignore all the things you have to be grateful for.

(Do you have a roof over your head? Yes? Ok, hush now).

Personalization

Have you ever blamed yourself for something completely outside of your control? I picked a bad restaurant; it’s my fault they didn’t enjoy the meal.

Discounting the Positive

We all know someone who can’t take a compliment. Automatic Negative Thoughts are running rampant in these folks’ brains. People like this treat their positive experiences and qualities like they don’t count. About a major accomplishment, they might say, I just got lucky.

Generalizations

These are thoughts that involve the use of absolutes: always, everyone, never. Basically a single incident becomes the basis for judging all incidents the same way. I can never catch a break.

These thoughts can also include sweeping negative conclusions that go far beyond the situation. I was uncomfortable at the meeting. I clearly don’t have what it takes to be a part of this company.

Moral Imperatives

These are thoughts that include the use of “musts,” “shoulds,” and “ought to’s.” Life is lived by a strict set of rules, and you overestimate how bad it is when you, or others, don’t comply. Good girls shouldn’t talk back.

Emotional Reasoning

You think something is true because you feel it strongly—even in the face of evidence to the contrary. I’m panicky, which means I’m going to blow the presentation.

Selective Judgment

This happens when you judge the whole by one small, negative aspect. Our wedding was ruined because they ran out of our specialty cocktail.

Taking Back Your Power

Using this list to identify the distortions in your thinking is the hardest part of this process, simply because the thoughts have gone unnoticed for so long. Once you’ve captured an Automatic Negative Thought, taking away its sting is much easier.

Let’s take a thought like:

No one cares about my story, writing a book would be a total waste . . .

and apply the following steps.

Your next task is to look for evidence that both supports and negates your ANT. Finding proof on both sides is simply so you can see the whole picture.

No one cares about my story…

Evidence for: It’s quite possible that a great many people would have no interest in the story of your life. (Although it’s harder to believe that number would be zero).

Evidence against: On the other hand, people have told you that your story would make a good book on a dozen different occasions. (You just tend to forget this).

Next, ask yourself if there are any other ways of looking at this situation that you haven’t considered.

In this case, would your motivation for writing a book strictly be about other people? Many of us feel called to write because there is a story inside us dying to be told. Because if we went to our deathbeds with it still trapped within us, we’d be full of regret.

If this is true for you, it certainly seems to negate the second half of this Automatic Negative Thought. Writing a book would be a total waste, would it not?

If you’re struggling with disbelieving an ANT that has particularly deep roots, ask yourself if it’s true in every instance. Because if there is even one instance in which it’s not true, then it’s simply not true. The belief that “no one—not a single person—cares” can’t be true if someone once told you your story sounds interesting.

Flipping the Script

Once you’ve considered the facts, construct a healthier thought as a counterpoint. Now that you know what is actually true, rather than what you’ve told yourself is true, you will be more open to other ways of thinking.

If you’re using a journal, it helps to add a line about the harm this negative thought is causing you. Many of our Automatic Negative Thoughts rattle our confidence, preventing us from taking action on our big ideas. In reality, taking action is the very thing that builds confidence, so ANTs make us feel like failures for being stuck and, at the same time, keep us stuck. Fuck ’em.

Craft a statement that reflects this new, healthier belief. In the example above, this might look like, Writing my story is important to me—I want to live with no regrets.

Or, If it’s interesting to me (and Ben!), then writing a book is worth it.

Take inventory of the pleasant feelings you associate with this new statement. Maybe the idea makes you excited, and you feel a fire lit inside you. Or maybe you can already envision the sense of accomplishment you will feel to see your story in print.

Now, make it repeatable. Write your affirmation on the bathroom mirror. Put it on a sticky note on the dashboard of your car. Say it out loud to yourself several times a day.

Before you skip off into the sunset like Stuart Smalley, however, one caveat: studies suggest that writing affirmations can backfire and actually make you feel worse about yourself—if the positive statement you select doesn’t feel true to you. So if you are trying to flip the script on, I’m unlovable, by changing it to, everybody loves me, you likely won’t succeed.

Instead, recognize this black-and-white thinking and focus on the people who do love you (like your mom and your dog). I am loved, is both true and believable.

In reality, how intensely you believe the new positive statement is far less important than the process of recognizing and putting a stop to the original Automatic Negative Thought. That’s where the magic happens. That’s where we take power back from the bully inside our own skin.

And if we strip away the self-imposed resistance, there is truly nothing we can’t achieve.

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