Have you ever looked at yourself in one of those funny mirrors? Whose image did you see? It was you, of course. After all, it wasn’t George Washington or Michael Jordan staring back in the mirror—it was you! But it wasn’t exactly you. You were either taller or shorter or fatter or skinnier (or all of the above) than you really are in real life. In other words, the image you were seeing was indeed you—but a distorted version of you.
That’s what distorted thoughts are like. Distortions happen when whatever we think about a situation is somehow skewed—it’s kind of accurate but not completely accurate. Or maybe these thoughts used to be accurate for a past situation, but are no longer fully accurate for the current situation. Usually these distortions are completely automatic and tend to be overly negative—and that’s precisely why I call them automatic negative thoughts, or ANT’s for short.
Psychologists have long noticed that we all tend to have what is called a “negativity bias” (Siegel, 2014). One example of the negativity bias is that our brains tend to favor false alarms over no alarms. Think of our ancestors in the jungle. Let’s assume one ancestor sees a stick, but thinks it’s a snake. That ancestor will experience anxiety…but live! Now let’s assume another ancestor sees a snake, but thinks it’s a stick. That ancestor will not experience anxiety…and will probably die! Do you see how the negative bias helps us survive, but at the cost of anxiety?
Another example of the negativity bias is that our brains learn from negative experiences much more quickly than we learn than from positive experiences. If you don’t believe me, just think about this: How many insults does it take to negate many compliments? Only one! And how many compliments does it take to undue one insult? Many!
The negativity bias explains why trauma is so traumatizing: Because of how we are hard-wired, really negative experiences (aka trauma) stick in our minds for a really long time. It can be extremely difficult to unlearn what has been learned from traumatic experiences.
Traumatized people have the same negativity bias as everyone else, just more of it! As we have already learned, trauma is an extreme situation that throws us off balance, including our thoughts. Trauma survivors tend to have more extreme thinking in two particular ways: What I call the Three P’s and the Hindsight Bias. The Three P’s are personal, permanent, and pervasive. This means when something bad happens to you, you take it more personally than other people, you think it’s more permanent than it really is, and it you also think it is more pervasive than it really is (in other words, situation affects everything else in your life). The Hindsight Bias means that you beat yourself up with everything that could’ve / should’ve done differently to stop the bad thing from happening.
The Three P’s and the Hindsight Bias are examples of automatic negative thoughts, or ANT’s. Here are some more ANT’s that you might recognize (adapted from Beck, 2011):
- All or Nothing – Whenever you think everything is either black or white, and you do not take into account possible shades of gray. Absolute terms (such as “always” and “never”) are sure signs of this sort of thinking.
- Example: “I am never thin enough. I am always so obese.”
- Over-Generalizing – Whenever you take one small piece of evidence and apply it across the board. Over-generalizing is a great example of making something more permanent or more pervasive than it really is.
- Example: “All men are potential predators.”
- Mental Filter – Whenever you fixate on only one negative event, or whenever everything seems dark and negative (sort of like wearing a dark pair of sunglasses).
- Example: “Life has been awful ever since the accident. Life will never ever be the same again.”
- Disqualifying the Positives – Whenever you explain away or discount something that is legitimately positive.
- Example: “The new girl said I was really nice, but it’s only because she doesn’t know my history yet.”
- Mind-Reading – Whenever you think for sure that you know what someone else is thinking; tends to result in self-fulfilling prophecies.
- Example: “She didn’t even wave to me today; I bet she’s mad at me about something. Fine, if that’s how she’s going to be, then I will just ignore her too!”
- Fortune-Telling – Whenever you think for sure that you know how an event in the future will turn out; also tends to result in self-fulfilling prophecies.
- Example: “There’s no way that I am going to pass my biology test tomorrow...so why even bother studying for it?”
- Magnifying – Whenever you take a small problem and turn it into a large problem.
- Example: “I can’t believe I didn’t make the basketball team. This is SO humiliating. Everyone is going to think that I am such a loser!”
- Catastrophizing – Whenever you take a small problem and turn it into an outright crisis; this is “magnification on steroids.”
- Example: “I can’t believe I didn’t make the basketball team. I am seriously thinking about killing myself.”
- Minimizing – Whenever you take a large problem and turn it into a small problem; this is the opposite of magnification.
- Example: “He hit me, but it doesn’t really hurt. I can cover up the bruise with makeup and no one will know.”
- Denial – Whenever you take a large problem and turn it into no problem at all; this is “minimization on steroids.” This is also the opposite of catastrophizing.
- Example: “A little bit of physical contact in marriage is not domestic violence. Physical contact shows that we love and care about each other!”
- Emotional Reasoning – Whenever you think with your feelings; in other words, feelings become facts. Or put another way, emotions become the only evidence you need.
- Example: “I feel really guilty about the miscarriage; I know that it wouldn’t have happened if I never got pregnant in the first place!”
- Over-Shoulding – Whenever you pile up unreasonable / unrealistic expectations for yourself. One example of over-shoulding is the hindsight bias, which we mentioned earlier.
- Example: “I should have known better than to wear that outfit to the party. Of course I got raped.”
- Under-Shoulding – Whenever you do not take ownership for things that really are your responsibility.
- Example: “They shouldn’t get all upset when I pop positive on my drug screen, because they don’t know what kind of a life I’ve had.”
- Labeling – Whenever you complete the following sentence in unfavorable terms: “I am _____.” Even labels we consider to be accurate are still distortions, since they only focus on one sliver of information, while ignoring other relevant data points.
- Example: “I am such a loser; I deserve the poor treatment I get.”
- Personalizing – Whenever you take something personally that has nothing to do with you. Blaming yourself for someone else’s abuse is the harshest form of personalizing.
- Example: “The only reason he molested me is because I was such a slut.”
- Blame Shifting – Whenever you blame someone else for something that really is your responsibility.
- Example: “I wouldn’t have punched him if he wasn’t screaming at me first.”
- Rationalizing – Whenever you try to make something seem logically right, even though it was wrong.
- Example: “Technically he didn’t mean to rape me. He just loved me so much that he couldn’t control himself.”
- Justifying – Whenever you try to make something seem morally right, even though it was wrong.
- Example: “He didn’t mean to rape me. It was my duty as his girlfriend to make sure he was satisfied.”
All of these automatic negative thoughts are like swarms of ANT’s that can cause lots of harm to self and others. Fortunately, there are three simple questions that can help you identify a potential ANT:
1. Is it logical?
2. Is there evidence?
3. Does it matter?
Each time you answer “no” to one of these questions represents one stomp on the ANT. And remember, you only have to stomp the ANT once to kill it!