When I was four years old, I was sitting with my family in a crowded sports restaurant. There were was a large TV on the wall, and like any curious child, I was watching intently. A commercial for a pest control product came on–Lord only knows what it actually was–and it portrayed a single ant crawling over somebody’s piece of food. Next, it was a group of ants. Then it was a whole tissue box covered in them. They kept multiplying and multiplying, until the final scene showed them as an enormous horde in a basketball gym, so numerous that the floor could not even be seen.
From that day on, I was afraid of ants. Somebody in my kindergarten class asked me, “Why are you afraid of ants? They’re so much smaller than you!” I didn’t know how to articulate it then, but it was not singular ants that I was afraid of. I happily paid attention to the head, thorax, and abdomen lessons in kindergarten science. I wouldn’t flinch if one little ant crawled up next to me on the playground bench. It was the combined presence of those ants that made them not so little anymore.
Eleven years later, I was sitting in a therapy group discussing my struggles with a different kind of ant–the Automatic Negative Thought. ANTs are irrational, distressing thoughts that jump–or should I say, crawl–into our heads. An example of an ANT I had to deal with is, “Nobody laughed at my joke. People will hate me because I’m not funny.” These types of thoughts had become so pervasive that they were legitimately ruining almost every aspect of my life (hence why I was in therapy).
One ANT was not insurmountable for me. With some effort, I was usually able to think my way through it. But it was never just one. The ANTs, like the real ants in that commercial, would multiply. My mind would very quickly become a crawling mess of them. Everyone hated me, nobody wanted me, the whole world was out to get me.
In therapy, I started learning how to stop the ANT before it started taking hold of me and multiplying. One of the skills I learned was to address the ANT as soon as it crawled its pesky way into my mind. Hold up a stop sign, take a deep breath, and turn it right back around with reality. In my group, we wrote some of our distressing assumptions on paper ant cutouts, and then, on the other side, wrote a rational thought to address the ANT.
I started putting those skills into practice. When I got a negative thought, I made myself aware of it and then addressed it with the truth. If I thought to myself, “Nobody laughed at my joke; I must not be a funny person,” I took the thought and turned it right back around the other way. “Nobody laughed at my joke. Maybe they didn’t hear me, maybe they’re in a bad mood, or maybe they didn’t think that one joke was funny. That doesn’t mean I’m not a funny person.” At first, it was tedious, but I grew in my strength. Eventually, my mind started doing it more automatically–just as my thoughts had been automatically negative before. My life became freer. I felt infinitely lighter and happier.
Maybe I am, to some extent, still afraid of ANTs. Thoughts are scary things. Unlike real ants, we can’t escape them. We just have to be our own bug repellent and take back the power that ANTs steal from us. It will get easier.
As for real ants, well–you won’t ever see me working for pest control.