There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so -William Shakespeare
Have you ever wondered why, even before facing a crucial interview you think "What if I don't get this job/ what if I can't make a positive impression?" Or, even before entering an exam hall you think “What if I failed this exam?” You are not along. All of us experience these uneasy and unhelpful thoughts. There are times, when we believe our thoughts are true when in reality they are baseless and sometimes even irrational.
These repetitive thoughts, that focus on the negative, are called Automatic Negative Thoughts, or as Dr. Daniel Amen puts it, ANTs.
Many of the negative thoughts work on two primary principles.
1. Disqualifying the Positive:
This is the tendency where we dismiss any positive acknowledgement that might oppose the negative/ illogical thought. The main focus is on the negative - e.g. if something bad happens once, we expect it to happen again.
2. Maximising and Minimising:
This refers to exaggerating the negatives and understating the positives. Instead of looking at our positive accomplishments, which we minimise, we magnify our perceived failures. An example would be, if someone offers a compliment on our new suit, rather than just being thankful for the gesture and enjoying the complement, we may highlight some not so positive aspect of the suit - such as "I got this at a sale for half-price" etc.
Negative thinking predominantly is fear or apprehension based. The following illustration sheds some light on the different types of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) we have from time to time.
As Lisa M. Hayes states “be careful how you are talking to yourself, because you are listening.”
“Be careful how you are talking to yourself, because you are listening.” - Lisa M. Hayes
So what can we do about ANTs in our heads?
Challenging or suppressing negative thinking is neither simple nor easy. As Andrew Huberman puts it, "trying to suppress negative thoughts rarely works. It's like trying catch fog." The first step is always awareness of the experience of ANTs in our heads. Then introducing a positive thought in the background whilst having the negative thought.
How exactly do we do it? Check out our previous article on "Don't suppress negative thoughts" for more practical details on this subject.