When you’re working on having a more positive outlook on life it pays to spend some time catching ANTs.
ANTs are the automatic negative thoughts that whisper sweet miseries inside our heads. Here’s a couple of common examples:
“Well that’s ruined my day.”
“I have such terrible luck. This is just typical.”
“Well of course I stuffed that up.”
“I’m such a loser.”
“I’m so fat/ugly/wrinkled/unattractive.”
And, importantly for those of us fighting cancer,
“Doctors are fools. They have no idea.”
“These drugs are useless.”
“What’s the use. I’m probably going to die anyway!’
The problem with this kind of self talk is that we become so accustomed to it that we don’t even question it. That’s why it’s called ‘automatic’. Some of it was programmed into us as children and some of it has been incorporated into our script as a consequence of our experiences as adults. All of it is negative and self destructive. It not only makes you feel dreadful, it also affects your hormone levels and your immune system.
People with a really bad ANT infestation sound gloomy. The ANT’s invade their speech and their demeanour. They’re usually described as ‘negative’ people because most of their conversation is critical of themselves or other people. They are not fun to be around!
I think the hardest part about exterminating ANTs is learning to spot them. Some of them are so ingrained that we don’t even recognise them. Here’s a great test of how positive or negative your self talk tends to be; for one hour, try not to complain about anything. Try not to be critical of anything. Every time you feel the need to complain or be critical, make a note of it. You can write it down or just keep a rough idea of gripes per hour (or gripes per minute for some of us!). Once you’ve got a rough idea of how negative you tend to be, try reversing the experiment. Spend one hour noticing how often you are grateful, complimentary, appreciative, thankful and just plain happy.
If you’re short on time try half an hour. Even fifteen minutes will give you some idea. Another great experiment is just to spend one whole day without complaining. Sounds easy, doesn’t it. Until you try it! If you can manage one whole day without complaining, try one whole day without thinking a complaining thought. What comes out of your mouth is a pretty good reflection of what’s going on inside your head, but there are also a lot of insidious ANT’s that never get spoken out loud. You’ll start to notice them the more you focus on listening for them.
When I was learning to drive a police car there was a technique they used called a running commentary. We would have to speak our internal dialogue. This served two purposes; it made us focus on our driving (you’re hardly going to tell and instructor you’re thinking about writing a novel while you’re supposed to be driving a car) and it excluded thoughts about the past and the present. Giving a running commentary makes you very much ‘in the present’. It sounded a bit like this:
“I’m checking the road ahead. The traffic is moderate and there seems to be a bit of a build up ahead. There’s a set of lights that have been green for some time so I’m covering the brake. I can see there’s a car coming up fast behind me……..”
You get the idea. When I was working on my own ANTs I found it useful to run the same kind of commentary inside my head, just focusing on what I was doing throughout the day. Initially it sounded a lot like this:
“I suppose nobody’s remembered to unload the dishwasher. Nope. Let the maid get it. Why is this always my job? I wonder if Judy is going to call. Probably not. She always waits for me to organise things. She probably doesn’t really want to spend time with me and that’s why she never calls. I wonder what I’ll have for lunch. I’ve got some of that healthy salad left over from dinner. Blech. I’d rather have something naughty. I’ll start my diet next week. Or not. I never seem to lose any weight anyway. Why do I bother…..”
And so on.
Now I’m not going to pretend that I never complain or have a negative thought, but after lots of practice I’m much better. These days my internal dialogue sounds a lot more like this:
“What a beautiful day. I’m so grateful to be alive. I’m going to empty the dishwasher and then give Deb a call. She’s such a great friend. I hope we’ll be able to get together soon. I think I’ll have that left over salad from last night for lunch today. I always feel so much better when I nourish my body with healthy food. I’ll probably do my yoga early today because I want to be out in the garden this afternoon, unless my daughter wants to head out to the shops. Spending time with her always trumps everything else…”
Here’s something I found really interesting. When they do research into optimists and pessimists the find that you can divide their day into objectively positive, negative and neutral events. What’s interesting is that there is no measurable difference between people that are positive and people that are negative. They have roughly the same amount of ‘bad luck’ and the same amount of ‘good luck’ regardless of their outlook. The critical difference is that a positive person magnifies the good events and sees those as being the normal state of affairs. A positive person sees a negative event as an exception, different to what they would normally expect.
Of course, a negative person is exactly the opposite. They expect bad stuff to happen to them. When it does, they take it as confirming their generally bleak view of the world. “That’s just my luck!” they’ll say. Remember, put them next to a positive person and they’ve had just as many great things happen to them, but they’ve decided to see those events as unusual.
Over the next few months I’ll do a series of blogs on some of the more common ANTs and give your some strategies for overcoming them. The key messages for today are that you don’t need to put up with ANTs and you can learn to recognise them and get rid of them. Usually this involves challenging the ANT. Here’s an example of what that sounds like inside your head:
“Oh brilliant. My alarm didn’t go off. I’ve missed the train. Now I’ll be late to work. It’s just going to be one of those days. I should have stayed in bed and called in sick. Knowing my luck I’ll probably get the sack……..wait a minute….what am I doing? That’s a whole series of ANTs! Let’s just think about this for a minute. Okay, my alarm didn’t go off and I missed the train but that doesn’t mean my whole day is going to go badly. There’s no reason the rest of my day won’t be great! Yes, I’m going to be late but I can call ahead and let them know. They know I’m usually really punctual and that I do a good job so it’s not going to be a big deal. I’ll tell the boss I’m going to work back to make up the lost time. Of course I shouldn’t have stayed home. I’m sure work would much rather I was late than not showing up at all, and I think it’s dishonest to use sick days when I’m not sick…..”
Some people keep an ANT diary. When they find themselves having a negative thought they write it down and then find a way to rewrite it as a positive statement. If you have a major ANT infestation this can be a brilliant way of really paying attention to those insidious whispers in your head.
Another way of dealing with ANTs is to just have a couple of great phrases to challenge them. My two favourites are “So then what happens?” and “Where’s the evidence for that?”.
Even if you’re not up for a detailed exploration of your inner dialogue in search of ANTs, just being aware of their existence and their ability to undermine you will help. Start listening to what comes out of your mouth. Are you more likely to say something positive or negative? How about the people you spend time with? What do they sound like? I find that paying attention to how positive or negative someone else is helps me to develop a stronger ability to hear myself. I’ve also found that I was keeping company with some people that were so consistently negative that I decided to see less of them.
Catching ANTs has taken on a whole new perspective for me now that I’m dealing with breast cancer. I think it’s really important not to beat up on myself just because I have a negative thought. While I think we can help ourselves by being as positive as possible it’s also important to be realistic about our situation. Negative thoughts are going to happen! What helps me is to catch them quickly and challenge them sensibly. Here’s an example:
“What’s the point. I’m probably going to die of cancer anyway! ….okay, let’s look at the evidence for that. It’s a matter of fact that I’m going to die at some point, just like everyone else, but I don’t know when and I don’t even know if it will be cancer that kills me. Lots of people survive cancer and there’s no reason I can’t be one of them. I can choose to dwell on what might happen or I can focus on enjoying today and doing everything I can to get well.”
I’m not going to pretend that I never have any ANTs wander through my mind but I’m much better now at catching them and challenging them with logic. I think it’s made me a nicer person to be around. It’s certainly made me happier.
Most of us are taught to treat our emotions as something beyond our control but you can’t really have any emotion without first having a thought. All of our emotional states, good or bad, are a consequence of our thinking. Pessimists and optimists both prove this every day.
If you’re reading this and thinking something like “What a waste of time.” or “How is it even possible to change your thinking?” then congratulations, you’ve found your first ANT. Have a go at rewriting that thought and see if it changes the way you feel.
Good luck. Happy ANT hunting.