We know all about ants in Texas, especially those nasty fire ants! Since moving to Texas from Chicago twenty-two years ago, I am yet to walk through any field barefoot! In cognitive therapy there is another kind of nasty ANT and it stands for “automatic negative thought.” We all succumb to ANTs from time to time. You know, that voice in your head that reminds you that you should have done something differently, or that things won’t work out. They’re fueled by experiences, world-beliefs, self-beliefs, expectations, and even genetics. Sometimes, these ANT’s can get debilitating and feed anxiety, depression, guilt, and anger…
While our feelings are undoubtedly influenced by things that happen around us, it’s the way we think about these things that actually controls how we feel. Let’s say someone tells you, “you look nice today.” You feel good because you accept the compliment as genuine. Later, someone pays you the same compliment, but you feel annoyed because you think she is just being nice. Your inner thoughts (perception) dictate how you to feel about the compliment (external event).
Well, that little voice that helps you interpret the external event… that is where ANTs come marching in. Interestingly, ANTs have more to do with what is going on within us, than with external events. In the example above, if someone compliments you while you’re feeling self-conscious. The ANTs may sound something like this; “She is just saying that to make me feel better. She probably hates what I’m wearing! I should’ve worn something nicer today!”
You can learn to recognize ANTs because they follow familiar patterns. They (we) twist the truth in situations just to make us feel bad! Here are a few examples:
Should statements: Judging yourself (or someone else) with I should’ve done this, that.
Fortune-Telling: Predicting things will turn out badly with no evidence.
Mind Reading: Assuming you know someone else is reacting negatively to you (dislike, judgment, anger).
Discounting the Positives: Only recognizing the negatives in a situation (ignoring the positives).
All-or-nothing Thinking: Seeing things in black and white (perfection or failure) using words like “always and never.”
In “The Feeling Good Handbook” Dr. David Burns identifies the most common ANTs and recommends that you keep a mood log. When you feel down, write down the thoughts that keep rolling through your head and try to identify those ANTs. Then try to replace that thought with a more positive (and true) perspective.
If you find yourself feeling down, give it a try! Yes, actually write the thought down on a piece of paper (it makes a difference)and stomp those ANTs!!
Licensed Professional Counselor Intern
Under Supervision of Tiffany Smith LPC-S, LMFT-S, NCC