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How strong are your ANTs?

Cognitive distortions and Automatic Negative Thoughts

We all have them - cognitive biases and distortions, automatic negative thoughts - exaggerated or irrational thought patterns and thoughts that cause us to perceive reality inaccurately. In other words, due to some earlier experiences and/or learned behaviors our mind sometimes convinces us of something that isn't really true. 

As the name says, Automatic Negative Thoughts are automatic, learned over years, and negative. They’re often unnoticed and unchallenged, but they negatively impact the way we feel and act.


People who are aware of their thinking tendencies and who learned to deal with them, feel more confident and ready for action than others, who are unconsciously following the negative, discouraging and sabotaging voices of their ANTs.  


Do you recognize yourself in the main self-sabotage triggers below?


Discounting the positive 

It happens when there is no balance in your judgment and you let sink in only the bad thing that happened, and ignore all other, positive things.


Example 1: You receive a great feedback from your manager in four areas and they flagged one area for improvement. You leave the meeting and the only thing you can think about is this one negative piece of feedback.


Example 2: When you think about your achievements you often think that anyone could do that, that they’re nothing special. Especially when they seem easy to you. 


Example 3: You take things personally, make assumptions and add meaning to what people say and how they behave. 
Let’s say, someone makes a joke, just having fun, you think they’re making fun of you. You may get angry, defensive, you may even confront the person or start overthinking and overanalyzing the situation. “What you did that made you deserve such a behavior.” 


It means thinking about a situation and imagining the worst scenario that can happen. It’s a protective mechanism – you think that this way you make sure you prepare for everything that is ahead of you, but the catastrophes in most of the cases don’t happen. 
What happens is you spend big chunk of your energy and mental capacity focusing on the possible negative outcomes. And because our brain doesn’t differentiate between imagination and reality, this may trigger anxiety and fight or flight response, and in result it can prevent you from using your full potential, can impact your openness to try new things or take risks. 

There is also another version of it – waiting for another shoe to drop. When good things happen, when you feel happy, you hold yourself back, don’t allow yourself to fully enjoy it because you’re afraid that it will “jinx” it and attract something bad. 



Should-thinking (Guilt beating) 
We tend to create a lot of rules for ourselves and set very high expectations. It can lead to constant need and pressure to overachieve, to do more, better, faster.
Thinking that you “should”, “must”, “ought to”, and “have to” is typical with this type of ANT, which involves using excessive guilt to control behavior. But then, when we feel pushed to do things (and we do it to ourselves), our natural tendency is to push back. So we create this constant pressure and battle in ourselves. 




It happens when we jump into conclusion without having all the information, assume what others think and feel about us. It may seem like intuition, but these assumptions are not facts. 

Example: You made a mistake. Now you believe that everyone is thinking and talking about it. To protect yourself you can even bring it up in conversations and explain “in advance” to someone potentially mentioning it.  




Social comparisons is a normal behavior strategy originating from the historical need to be accepted by other people as the way to survival. If used in a healthy way, provides us with a way to determine if we are ‘on track,’ and aligned with the ‘newest trends’ but it can also be harmful. 
If based on wrong clues and emotions, comparison can lead to negative self-talk and behaviors, low self-esteem, overthinking and low self-worth. If you convince yourself that everyone is better, smarter than you are, you can constantly feel like an imposter, jealous and demotivated.



Techniques that can help you unlearn or modify your automatic negative response:

Strategy 1: Question your thoughts


Option 1:  Questioning thoughts, finding facts


Example: You think that everyone is thinking that you are terrible at presentations.  You feel and think that, but these are not facts.

  • Write down your original thoughts. 

  • Make a list of facts that confirm your thinking and another of facts showing that it may not be true.

It gives you time to slow down and see the situation from more objective angle.  



Option 2:  ABC  (Accurate, Balanced, Complete)  

Accurate – do you have facts that confirm your thought?
Balanced – have you looked at all sides/aspects of the situation? Did you consider all the things that happened and e.g. prevented you from delivering the perfect presentation? Was there no internet connection? People being late? 
Complete – does the whole situation reflect who you are as a person (presenter)? 



Strategy 2: Modify your thoughts - “Yes, but” 

You acknowledge that something is true, but you are presenting a different view. It turns something that feels like full blown criticism of yourself into something productive, something that feels more active and leads to more action. 


Example 1: You tell yourself that you “should” do things, like exercise more. You had a busy week and you feel guilty for not following your exercise plan. You can tell yourself: “Yes, I didn’t do my planned exercises this week, but I still managed to have few walking meetings and I managed to do something, despite my busy schedule!”


Example 2: You leave a meeting with your manager beating yourself up for not mentioning few ideas of projects you would like to work on. 
Instead of feeling angry and frustrated with yourself and your boss who was talking way too much, you can tell yourself: “Yes, I didn’t manage to discuss everything, but I can always ask for a follow up meeting and focus exactly on what I want.” 



Strategy 3: De-emphasize the impact of your thoughts 

It doesn’t always mean that you need to transform your thoughts. Sometimes even distancing yourself a little bit from your negative thought may help you look at it more objectively. 


Example:  You tell yourself: I’m never gonna get a promotion!– this sounds almost like a fact. Try instead: I’m having the thought that…. 
It releases you from the negativity and gives you a little emotional space from your negative thoughts 


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