Most of us have had the experience of perceiving a person or situation as negative and reacting accordingly, only to find later that the person was much different than we perceived and the situation was other than what we assumed. We all know the feeling of thinking someone disliked us when they were simply distracted by a circumstance of which we were unaware. Additionally, we have been reluctant to begin a task for fear of failure, only to discover that the task actually led us to new, unimaginable skills and opportunities.
These thoughts are natural. Caution and self-protection can serve us well, but such thinking can also prevent us from experiencing much in life that can lead to growth, opportunity, and happiness.
Scientists claim humans have as many as 70,000 thoughts per day. Unfortunately, most are negative. Equally disheartening, about 90% of our thoughts are repeated from previous days, leading to bad habits, biases, and distortions that do not serve us well. Worse, a good portion simply occur automatically.
Over time, our negative thinking can increase the frequency and level of stress we feel, diminishing our brain’s serotonin and dopamine productions. These natural chemicals produce feelings of happiness and well-being. Persistent negative thoughts can even accelerate the brain’s aging process.
Having studied the phenomenon of negative thinking and its consequences, psychologists call this process Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs, because these thoughts happen so quickly and naturally. Like actual ants in nature, these thoughts permeate our reality and can be difficult to eliminate. Nevertheless, there are several strategies we can employ to shift our thinking and push pesky ANTs into the background.
First, resist mind reading. We “mind read” when we think we know what another person is thinking or feeling. When we do not receive the reaction we expect, our ANTs often lead us to assume the other person is upset, uncaring, or choosing to ignore us. We reduce the number of ANTs with which we must contend when we resist negative assumptions and delay drawing conclusions until we know the facts of the situation.
Second, refuse to take what happens personally. People are less likely to be focused on us than we assume. When people are short with us, snap at us, or seem grumpy, they are as likely to be reacting to something unrelated to us as not. As much as we might think otherwise, the world generally does not revolve around us.
Third, resist “all or nothing” thinking. When we think about people and situations in terms of “always or never,” “perfect or horrible,” or “winner or loser,” we risk missing the nuances of life. Life delivers a mix of good and bad. Even the worst situation can have positive dimensions. People who seem perfect also have flaws, and people who make mistakes still have strengths and talents.
Fourth, refuse to engage in “should haves,” “could haves,” and “might haves.” Actions we take and choices we make can seem clearer in retrospect. Rather than wasting energy on regrets and guilt, we can focus on what we can do now, what we can learn, and how we can adjust in the future. We cannot change the past, but the future is ours to shape.
Fifth, ask yourself if there is another way of thinking about the situation. A delay in the delivery or completion of a report can leave us feeling disappointed, but the additional time can allow us to become better prepared and able to collect information that improves our decision-making. Changes in perspective lead us to discover new insights and opportunities we would have otherwise overlooked.
Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) can be challenging to shift, but when we convert them to Positive Energizing Thoughts (PETs), we win. In other words, we can transform our ANTs into our PETs.
Comaford, C. (2012, April 4). Got inner peace? 5 ways to get it NOW. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2012/04/04/got-inner-peace-5-ways-to-get-it-now/?sh=ead92d667275
Westenberg, J. (2017, May 9). You have 70,000 thoughts every single day – Don’t waste ’em. Observer. https://observer.com/2017/05/you-have-70000-thoughts-every-single-day-dont-waste-them-decision-making-process/