Lately, whenever I start to beat up on myself for struggling with a new skill, attitude or behavior, I think about ANTS. Not ‘ants’ but “ANTS” — Automatic Negative Thoughts — my favorite chapter in Jack Canfield’s book The Success Principles. It always reminds me of the incredible women with whom I shared it.
When I first read it, I was working with women in pretty dire straights — parole, probation, addiction, domestic violence, homelessness — these ladies were living with some ANTS that were going to be tough to exterminate.
[Tweet “These ladies were living with some pretty big ANTS”]
Applying a little PMA — positive mental attitude — was not going to work. In those circumstances looking in a mirror to say “I love myself” brought about immediate and powerful rejection of the thought: recent history told them it was simply not true. We needed to find a way to honor and respect that so we started with statements they could accept, affirmations like “I’m not as messed up as I was yesterday.”
The parolees and I moved on to brain biology and bike riding.
They learned the ability to form conscious thought was millions of times newer than all those involuntary and semi-voluntary impulses. They pictured the brain as a favorite piece of fruit, with higher functions taking up only as much space as the peel. The image helped us all understand why remaining realistically hopeful was so much hard work.
[Tweet “…helped us understand why remaining hopeful was so much work”]
And bike riding? Most could related to the learning process: it took every ounce of concentration we had to coordinate pushing off, balancing, pedaling, steering and not crashing. The ‘orange peel’ (conscious thinking space) was busy…. a little chaotic, perhaps. Before long, with some practice, you just got on your bike and went places. The task called “learning to ride a bike” was filed somewhere in the storage (less conscious) part of your brain, able to move freely between “deliberate” and “fairly automatic”.
Most of the time, the process serves us well. Can you imagine how overwhelming day-to-day activities would be if we had to apply the “learning to ride a bike” level awareness to everything we do? That’s pretty much what they were up against.
We visualized all sorts of ways to get rid of imaginary ants: some of the women used a vacuum cleaner or a flame-thrower while others invited ANTS to leave by following trails of sugar or honey. We laughed and celebrated creativity, humor and imagination. Gradually, they became willing to practice noticing small positives like being grateful to be housed at an addiction treatment center rather than in jail. To be at least physically safe and distant from batterers. To appreciate whatever level of health and life they had left. To begin to trust that change is possible.
I am grateful. Sometimes when I’m struggling to be a friend to myself I think of these ladies, laugh and go on to do the next right thing. If I keep trying, it will get easier.
Ready to move on from ANTS to tackle that pesky Inner Critic? Look for The Inner Critic Advantage: Making Peace With the Noise in Your Head by Andrea Patten now on Amazon.