Home Mental Health & Well-Being Are You an Automatic Negative Thinker?

Are You an Automatic Negative Thinker?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

We have all inherited the tendency to respond more emphatically to bad news than good news and to be more aware of what is not rather than what is, but the “ANT” – Automatic Negative Thinker – is more prone than most.

If you are an ANT then you automatically look on the dark side of everything – and as a result, life might look pretty bleak sometimes. Even when something good happens, you can find yourself wondering what disaster might be looming as a kind of payback.

Somebody pays you a compliment out of the blue, and you wonder what they’re after or what they’ve been up to that they’re trying to cover up. Or perhaps you guess they know something you don’t, and so they’re trying to prepare you for the bad news.

It’s a kind of habit to look suspiciously at everything that is not part of the normal daily routine as if it’s the harbinger of doom, the forward messenger of the next problem. Even when something looks as if it might herald good news, the ANT is inclined to darkly remind anybody who’s interested that all that glitters is not gold.

The bad news is that it’s a trait inherited from your ancient ancestors; the good news is that you don’t have to hold on to it – you can turn it to great advantage.

Those ancient ancestors always had to look on the dark side of things in order to survive, because their world was full of wild animals that would eat you as soon as look at you. And if it wasn’t them, it was other tribespeople who wanted to grab as much of your stuff as they could carry.

So, they evolved the instincts to spot straight away when something wasn’t right so they could deal with it.

And here’s the thing: Those that were best at spotting problems survived longer and produced more children than the more light-hearted ones amongst them as a result, so it’s not a surprise that we’ve inherited those instincts, some of us more than others!

And here’s another thing: they weren’t ANTs! They were actually problem solvers. Not only were they sharp enough and quick enough to know about the wild animals or the marauding tribespeople before any damage was done, but they also knew exactly what to do about the situation. So they were simply looking for stuff that needed fixing.

So, if you’ve recognised you’re an ANT, give a cheer, because you are also a problem solver!

And once you get the taste of it, you’ll do it better than those who smile their way through life not seeing any problem looming until it’s too late.

The trick is to recognise that you’ve not only inherited the tendency to spot a problem from a hundred paces, but also the ability to work out what to do with it. You almost certainly already do the right thing – just not at the right time! You might recognise one or more of these statements:

  •  How on earth am I going to sort this out?
  • Oh, typical! Now what do I do?
  • How am I supposed to cope with this?
  • What on earth is the way forward from here?
  • There! I knew that was going to happen!

Now, the chances are that you heard the fifth one of those statements in your “mind’s ear” as a kind of triumphant example of your ability to spot trouble before it arrives and the first four as a general moan or grumble about whatever it is.

But now try saying them aloud as a genuine question and as if you already have the answers and you’ve suddenly put yourself in touch with the real skill you’ve inherited from your ancestors!

So, when you spot trouble on the horizon, instead of hoping that just like the weather, it might not come your way after all, ask yourself what you will do about if it does and look for the answer – if your brain forms the question, it probably also has the solution.

Now here’s a six-step exercise you can do that will help you break the habit of waiting for the problem to arrive and then not knowing what to do – you’ll need to practice it and memorise it first:

  • Step one: With your eyes closed, imagine you can see yourself as if from the outside, looking as if you’ve just spotted a potential problem (you already know it feels!)
  • Step two: See a clock in your mind’s eye (or just think of it), a clock with hands so you can see the hand that shows the seconds moving. Make it vivid; see the colour of the case, the dial, the hands and the minute markers.
  • Step three: Get the problem in your mind as if it’s happening right in front of you, and give it the hardest stare you can muster to freeze it in its tracks.
  • Step four: And now see yourself with a big smile on your face as you suddenly realise what to do about it – and notice that not only is that problem scene frozen, but the clock has stopped as well.
  • Step five: Now you can see yourself walking out of that scene with a big smile on your face and as you do that, the clock starts again, leaving the problem still frozen in the past as you walk further and further away from it.
  • Step six: Now zoom right in to become that problem-solving version of you, and when you’re ready, just open your eyes. And keep the smile!

That’s actually a simplified version of an exercise that many psychotherapists use to help an individual easily make a change to the way they cope with some aspect or other of life.

Practice it a few times and you’ll discover that instead of being an ANT, you’ve blossomed into a PSI – a Problem Solving Individual!


Terence Watts is the creator of Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT).

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