"They aren't going to like it."

I sat down to write this column today and that was the first thought that popped into my head. Pretty empowering, huh?

Here's the irony... I spend a lot of my time focused on becoming a more positive person and helping others do the same. But I'm also human.. and a quite imperfect one at that. One of these imperfections is that my first thoughts are often negative.

In the past I just accepted that and didn't really think there was anything I could do about it. I would hear the negative thoughts and many times I would agree with them. That would lead me to simply not take action and stay stuck in fear and doubt. But one day I got to the point where I didn't want to just accept these negative thoughts, I wanted more..

Dr. Daniel G. Amen, a psychiatrist, physician and author, calls this type of thinking ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts). He says that ANTs are "cynical, gloomy, and complaining thoughts that just seem to keep coming all by themselves". ANTs are thoughts like this:

  • "My presentation is going to go horribly."
  • "I'm not going to close this sale."
  • "They always ignore my ideas during meetings. Why do I even bother?"
  • "Something bad is going to happen. It always does."

One of the biggest problems is that these thoughts become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you are convinced that your presentation in front of the board is going to go horribly, you won't really prepare for it. You'll sit in fear and procrastinate rather than taking action. And then guess what happens? The presentation will indeed go horribly and you will say to yourself, "See? I told you it would be a nightmare!"

This type of thinking can severely limit your ability to enjoy your life. How you think on a moment-to-moment basis plays a huge role in how you feel and thus how you act. If you are negative all the time, you don't expect good things to happen so you don't try very hard to make them happen.

On the other hand, positive and hopeful thoughts lead to positive behaviors. They help you to feel better about yourself and be more effective in your day-to-day life. Hopeful thoughts also help you connect with others.

The 9 Most Common ANTs

There are nine different ways that your thoughts lie to you to make situations out to be worse than they really are. Dr. Amen says to think of these nine ways as "different species" or types of ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts).

  • "Always" thinking. This is when you think in words like "always, never, no one, every one, every time, everything".
  • Focusing on the negative. When you can only see the bad in a situation.
  • Fortune telling. You predict the worst possible outcome to a situation.
  • Mind reading. You believe that you know what another person is thinking and it's not good. Even though they haven't told you and you didn't even ask.
  • Thinking with your feelings. This is when you believe negative feelings without ever questioning them.
  • Guilt beatings. You think in words like "should, must, ought or have to."
  • Labeling. You attach a negative label to yourself or to someone else.
  • Personalization. This is when you take a seemingly innocent event and take it to have a personal, negative meaning.
  • Blame: This is the most harmful ANT and it happens when you blame someone else for your own problems.

3 Simple Steps to Killing Your ANTs

What would your life be like if your first thoughts were positive? How much happier and more productive could you be? I'm guessing quite a bit... Here are three easy ways to stomp your automatic negative thoughts and turn them into positive ones.

1) Become aware of it.

The first step in becoming an ANT stomping warrior is to pay close attention to these insidious thoughts and be ready for them. So the next time you notice an ANT entering your mind, simply recognize it and acknowledge it. Tell yourself that it's simply a thought and that thoughts aren't the truth.

Bonus: If you are so inclined, write down your ANT in a notebook or put it in your phone (I have an Evernote folder for this). This is a great way to spot patterns and keep track of your progress.

2) Challenge it.

What would you do if a person started saying something really negative about you that wasn't true? I doubt that you you would just let it go. You want to treat your ANTs just like some irrational jerk and challenge them. Stand up to them and don't let them limit your life.

3) Replace it with a more positive and affirming thought.

The key to being happier and more positive lies in your ability to successfully flip your ANT and turn it into a PAT (Positive & Affirming Thought). Let's take our earlier examples and turn them into positive and affirming thoughts:

  • This ANT, "My presentation is going to go horribly" becomes this PAT, "My presentation is going to be amazing. I will be prepared and everyone will be receptive."
  • This ANT, "I'm not going to close this sale" becomes this PAT, "I will close this sale. I know I can really help this customer and they know this too. It's going to feel so good to sign this deal."
  • This ANT, "They always ignore my ideas during meetings. Why do I even bother?" becomes this PAT, "I have really good ideas and my team appreciates them."
  • This ANT, "Something bad is going to happen. It always does" becomes this PAT, "Something good is going to happen today! It always does."

The next time you notice an ANT entering your mind, recognize it, challenge it and turn it around. Do this on a consistent basis and you will take away the ANTs' power, allowing you to gain control over your mood and ultimately your happiness.