We give our thoughts far more credit than they deserve.
And because of this, they often determine in a large part, our long term successes.
If they’re positive and uplifting they can give us momentum and resilience; pushing us towards our goals. If they’re negative however, they can be a massive source of anxiety, holding us back and stifling us for days, months, sometimes even years.
New York Times bestselling author and psychiatrist Dr Daniel Amen has labelled these thoughts ANTS (automatic negative thoughts). These ANTS plague most of us — at least from time to time — but what we really need to watch out for are infestations — when these thoughts become so habitual that they overwhelm us.
Unfortunately, the whole “positive thinking” movement has distorted how we are supposed to handle negative thoughts. Popular books and self-help gurus often teach us to overpower negative thoughts with positive ones. But while positive thinking has its place, this isn’t the best way to overcome ANTS.
Our brain is smart (imagine that), it recognizes this behaviour as incongruent with our feelings, and it can actually making things worse.
The problem with ANTS is that we identify with them. We mistakenly believe that they are us. So what we need to do is distance ourselves from them.
Whether they come in the form of sounds, images, or even our own self-talk, we need to master how we respond to them to master our lives.
Self-talk in particular is one of the most influential patterns of thought on our behaviour, and negative self-talk is a covert killer of dreams.
To kill negative self-talk dead in its tracks we have to neutralize it.
Here are 6 tactics proposed by cognitive behavioural therapists, Buddhist teachers, coaches and neuro-linguistic programming practitioners, which help us to neutralize the impact of negative self-talk and in the long term, stop them for good.
1. Ridicule it
If you want to stop buying into whatever a negative thought is telling you, try to repeat it five to ten times in a silly voice.
Start with a cartoon character, like Mickey Mouse, or even put it in the voice of someone you find a little annoying. Exaggerate it each time.
Nobody likes to be associated with the butt of a joke, so when we ridicule a negative thought, we automatically distance ourselves from it.
In the same way great comedians can make us realise how ridiculous a certain behaviour, idea or action is, turning our negative thoughts into caricatures can make us see in the light of day how absurd they really are.
2. Write it down with your non-dominant hand
Journaling has long been put forward as a way to handle depression and anxiety, and it works.
What I propose here is that you use your non-dominant handle to write down the habitual negative thought.
Once you see it out on paper in front of you, in uncoordinated and childlike handwriting, you’ll see how weak the thought really is.
You’ll still know that the thought, as with the writing, came from you — but it won’t quite feel like yours.
3. Slow it down
This works great for anxiety. If you have negative self-talk that tends to race through your head almost too quick to notice before you moves onto the next thought, you want to counteract this by slowing them down as much as possible.
Try and repeat the phrase at a snail’s pace, just fast enough that you can comprehend it. The key here is to focus on the sentence until the words are nothing more than sounds and feel like they’ve lost their meaning.
4. Name it and tame it
Naming and taming is a Buddhist mindfulness technique that has been adopted by everyone from mainstream psychologists to life coaches. In this method, you name the thought.
For example, the thought “I’m not good enough” could be labelled fear. This way you can recognize common themes that come up and put them into the same box.
Another way to do this is to label the “mind” that this is coming from. So if you have the thought “I’m never going to get this done on time,” you can stop for a second, say to yourself “this is the worrying mind” then keep on with your day.
5. Take a deep breath
Boring right? Well, taking a deep breath is actually very useful. It stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which gets your attention out of your pre-frontal cortex and into your body — and that’s exactly what you want to do.
By focusing on the sensations of the breath such as sound as you breathe in and out, or the temperature of the air as it enters and exits your nostrils, you’ll be distracted from the initial train of thought.
This actually works as a great precursor to any of the other techniques.
6. Interrogate it
When you ask your negative self-talk questions, you can deflate their impact. What purpose are you serving? Would you talk like that to someone you love? What emotion are you speaking from?
These are all questions that can challenge the ANT and allow you to see things from a different perspective.
The key to mastering your thoughts in this context is consistency.
You have to make cutting off negative self-talk a habit. That’s how you will change your automatic thoughts to become more positive in the long run.
What experience have you had with negative self-talk? How have you dealt with it?
Let us know in the comments!