How To Silence Your Inner Critic / 3

Psychologists use a quasi-technical term, Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs), to describe the ideas that pop into our heads uninvited.

Some people like that kind of vocab. You may prefer something else. For centuries, in Europe, people talked about “being possessed by the devil”. If that’s your preference, go right ahead.

Entirely up to you.

But let’s get back to those psychologists. As long ago as the 1960s, they concluded that ANTs sabotage our best self, and lead to a vicious circle of misery…

…creating a general mindset that is variously unhappy or anxious or angry (take your pick) and which is (therefore) all the more likely to generate new ANTs. 

And so it goes on.

We get stuck in the same old neural pathways, having the same negative thoughts again and again.

We all have them, btw, but each of us has our own particular set of “automatic negative thoughts”.

Often, they’re based on things that somebody said to us in the past.

Speaking for myself, I’m not particularly interested in where they came from, only in what we can do about them.

The thoughts tend to fall into broadly similar categories. As you read this list, you may recognise some, but not others:

  • Black and white thinking, with no grey areas
    “I’ve completely failed… Everyone else can do it”
  • Mind reading other people
    “They think I’m boring, they think I’m stupid”
  • Crystal-ball gazing
    “There’s no point in trying. It won’t work”
  • Over-generalisation: 
    “This relationship ended, so I won’t ever meet anybody”
  • Disqualifying the positive
    “I may be a good mother, but anybody can do that”
  • Drama queen
    “I can’t find my purse. I’m going senile”
  • Unrealistic expectations
    “I should keep going, even when I’m tired”
  • Name calling, to self and others
    “Silly fool” 
  • Self-blame
    “She looks cross. It must be my fault”
  • Catastrophising
    “Nothing is ever going to work for me”

I said I don’t care where the habit comes from, but it’s useful to notice how it can start.

When I worked at the Sunday Times, I found myself thinking a lot about suicide, because I kept being sent to interview people about it. 

There was the documentary film almost entirely made of footage of people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco…

And the month when I did FOUR suicide related stories in succession, all slightly different: a 50% failed suicide pact, a mother whose husband took his life, a celebrity whose father had done it, and a silent epidemic of young people killing themselves, in towns all over the UK. 

Everything felt SO bleak…

I was a journalist, not a psychiatrist. I wasn’t receiving supervision. I didn’t know what to do with it all.

I quickly learned that focusing on dark thoughts led to further dark thoughts, and then more – until it seemed there was no way out.

I was training my brain in a dismal way of thinking. (More about that shortly.)

To say this is not to argue that we should never talk about difficult things. That we should bottle everything up. Sometimes we need to talk, to let go of the dark thoughts.

Sometimes a chat with a friend will do. Sometimes we might want a professional…

Today, having trained as a coach, I’ve come to see that most of us CAN let go of the negative thinking very quickly if we choose to.

We can disrupt the poisonous cycle and put in place something much more healthy.

And it’s not just me saying this.

There’s a lot of evidence from neuroscience.

You see, the brain’s wiring diagram is not fixed, like an electronic device.

It changes constantly, and parts of the brain can take over from each other.

In blind people, the part usually devoted to sight might be taken over for language. Isn’t that amazing?

And brains don’t stop developing in childhood. Every time we learn something new, we literally reshape our grey matter. See this:

So we can stop our thoughts travelling down well-trodden neural pathways by actively creating new ones.

Think about that.

To do it, we have to get better at noticing and intervening as soon as the critical thoughts arise.

Your Homework

Think of a time when you spiralled into negative thinking. What triggered that?

Think of a time when you changed your way of thinking about something important? What triggered that?

When you’re ready, click here to start the next lesson: