Community//

Crush the ANTs in Your Brain

Our brains constantly play tricks on us. Don’t be misled by excessive negativity

You are a liar. 

It’s okay. I am as well, so we’re in good company. 

Perhaps you’re not lying to other people, but you’re most definitely lying to yourself.

The famed psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen told me that our brains lie to us all the time. It’s counterintuitive, given we rely on our brains to process mind-boggling amounts of information and keep us alive by choosing to step out of the way of the oncoming bus.

Typically our brains tell us the truth about how fast and which direction that bus is traveling, but they also constantly fill our minds with negative ideas about the world and ourselves. Thus we have to monitor when our brain is playing tricks on us and challenge what’s true and what’s not. 

I often find my brain lying to me via a false narrative around an upcoming encounter with another person, perhaps deciding where to take our family vacation or which strategy to pursue in the workplace. I’ll rehearse the yet-to-occur discussion and play both sides of the “argument” (usually in the shower or car), not so I can see both sides of the coin, rather so I can prepare for their opposition. I thought this was helpful—after all, wasn’t this what we learned in high school debate class? A+ for Scott Miller!

This seemingly healthy role play has become toxic for me. Because rarely do these narratives play out how I think they will. In my role play, the other person never agrees with me. I immediately cast them as an antagonist, and it devolves into an argument before we even say hello in real life.

It’s quite common when preparing for a high-stakes conversation that we will “gear up” for the worst and begin believing our feelings versus the facts. Dr. Amen calls them ANTs—Automatic Negative Thoughts—and the more aware we are of them, the more we can stamp them out (sorry, ants). I’ve learned when my brain is excessively focused on negativity and has long moved past trying to protect me from the bus.   

Ask yourself, did he really say that? Can you truthfully and completely state the other person’s position on the topic, based on what they said or wrote? Might they also have legitimate questions or reasonable alternatives you’ve not considered (because you’re so consumed with building your own narrative)? What are the facts, what are your emotions, and can you separate the two?

I put it to a test this week in a meeting. Typically when I’m passionate about a topic, I will construct an elaborate argument and come out blazing with a strong offense, metaphorically employing 350-lb. tackles to take down the opposition. Sometimes I win, but when I lose, I lose big. Likely because my passion and conviction seems so one-sided. I imagine I look myopic—because I am. It impacts both my credibility and my ongoing engagement. 

If you’re at all like me, you defend your narrative as self-defense, as in “I’ve seen this play before and I know the ending.” Perhaps that’s been true—but maybe you’re buying the same tickets to the same show and need to try a new venue.

With my new approach this week, my passion was high, but I more carefully calibrated my position and then let the members of the meeting debate it freely. I lessened my preamble, talked less, and resisted interjecting (known to most as interrupting). We didn’t land exactly where I initially wanted, but as I look back at my own win-loss ratio, I can solidly put this into a win, mainly because it wasn’t a flat-out loss—which was increasingly becoming my record.

Start confronting your brain more. Nobody likes a liar. Especially you and me.

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