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How Negative Thoughts Can Hold You Back, and What You Can Do About It

How Negative Thoughts Can Hold You Back, and What You Can Do About It

Spring can be a time of transitions. For some people, that means graduating and finding new jobs. Some are preparing for their final semester of school. Others are traveling, for conferences, vacations and conventions. Spring is also just a chance to get out of the house and be with friends. And while all of that is well and good, many people get nervous at transitions and social events.

Do you want ANTs?! Because that’s how you get ANTs!

Aside from an excuse to shout a line from one of my favorite TV shows (Archer producers, I would absolutely hate to have an autographed cast photo. Hint, hint. Wink, wink.), what are ANTs? They are automatic negative thoughts and are an important concept to psychotherapists, especially those of us who lean towards a well-researched and effective form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). But before I explain ANTs, let me give you a little lesson about CBT.

CBT therapists hold that no situation directly causes an emotional or behavioral response. If it did, every single person in the same situation would react the same way, and that just does not happen. Why? How each person thinks about the situation influences their emotional and behavioral reaction.

As an example, imagine two people enter a party at the same time. Hypothetical Person A – who is definitely not an extremely fun, lumberjack-looking, college roommate of mine – enters the party, he thinks, “It’s go time!” and remembers all the social successes he’s had. He proceeds to enthusiastically behave in a way that displays confidence and joviality. Hypothetical Person B – who is even more definitely not a certain mental health professional with the same last initial who writes brilliant web articles – enters that crowded party and thinks, “Oh, God… I hope I don’t screw up!” when he remembers all the times he got bullied as a kid for acting “weird”, especially around groups of new people. Person B predicts a lot of social mistakes on his part, and he gets really anxious. In both of these cases, it’s not the party that caused both their reactions. It was how each of them thought about the party.

This is where ANTs fit in. Over enough time, our thoughts can become habitual. We get so used to thinking certain ways about certain things that our thoughts become more automatic, and when our automatic thoughts don’t match the reality of the situation it creates problems. It’s one thing to feel fear if there is a legitimate threat, but it’s another thing to have a false alarm and feel anxiety when there is no threat.

In the above example, Person B actually turned out to be pretty well liked but couldn’t see it because of ANTs regarding social situations. He had distorted thinking regarding social interactions, based on early, repeated childhood experiences. It was easy for him to ignore successes as a fluke, focus on others’ negative reactions to him, predict that he would be embarrassed and not able to cope, or to catastrophize little faux pas as a big deal that would result in loneliness. His ANTs got in the way of enjoying himself. Even when Person A would repeatedly drag him to parties and social gatherings, Person B might rationalize the efforts as pity instead of realizing it was because Person B was genuinely liked. ANTs are a bugger. (That was comedy gold, and you know it!)

Getting Rid of ANTs

How do you get rid of ANTs? Call an exterminator, sort of. This is something at which therapists excel, especially CBT therapists. They flexibly use classical skepticism in a supportive way to give you the tools to reality check yourself. Your thoughts may be right, but they also might be wrong, and a good therapist will help you learn to figure that out for yourself. What are a few of the tools?

  • Evidence for/Evidence against
    • In my private practice, this is my go-to. I’m constantly asking, “What’s your evidence for that?” I have people make two columns on a piece of paper and coach them to write evidence both for and against an ANT of our choosing. In the above example, if Person B thinks, “I’m not well-liked,” he might have some evidence for it (i.e. A lot of people teased or bullied him as a kid for being “weird”), but might also have even more evidence against it (i.e. Not everyone bullied him, Person A keeps repeatedly wanting to hang out, and many people praise him being eccentric and fun).
  • Defining the Terms
    • What exactly does “well-liked” mean? Does Person A think that means that no one dislikes him? We work to more carefully define this fairly ambiguous concept and help Person B reframe his thoughts. Is there anyone who is liked by everyone? Not really. Even someone as esteemed as Felicia Day has her detractors (can you believe it?). Does that mean she isn’t well-liked? Hardly. What percentage of people are allowed to dislike Person B before he is no longer well-liked? Does everyone’s opinion count equally, or do certain people’s opinions of him count for more than others? Why? These are all important questions in helping to define what “well-liked” actually means to Person B.
  • Behavioral Experiments
    • This sounds more ominous than it is. For this, we start with finding the evidence, and then we actively test it in real-life examples. For example, if Person B thinks, “No one likes me at school,” we might define evidence that people like him as them asking multiple questions about him (a great signal that people are interested in other people) when he is the one that greets them. Person B might then keep a tally for the week of the number of people he encounters that meet his criteria. It may be that a lot of people do these things, but he doesn’t notice because of his ANTs. This provides physical evidence one way or the other.

Deconstructing the ANT Hill

Those are just a few of the common ways in which therapists might help a person overcome their ANTs, and they all rely on one thing: a person who is open to the idea that they might be wrong. You also might be right, but being open to the idea that you’re wrong allows you to shift your thoughts in a helpful and effective manner. If you’re not open to the idea that you’re wrong, well… that’s a whole different article.

Otherwise, transitions and new activities don’t have to be all that intimidating. They can also be a blast if you don’t invite unrealistic ANTs to the party. With those out of the way, you can get out there and enjoy the fun of spring!

Raffael Boccamazzo (AKA “Dr. B”) is a doctor of clinical psychology and clinical director He also runs a private psychotherapy and psychological assessment practice in the Seattle area and works with several local groups as a social skills coach, often for older teens and young adults with high functioning autism spectrum diagnoses. In his spare time, he cooks, acts, and plays oodles of different tabletop and video games.

Take This is an informational organization. The resources we provide are for informational purposes only, and should not be used to replace the specialized training and professional judgment of a health care or mental health care professional. For more information about these resources, please visit our website.

Feature Image Credit: Universal Pictures

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