The Trajectory of Self-Defeat

ANTs, ARTs, and Dysfunctional Assumptions

Robert F. Mullen, Ph.D.

Automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are anxiety-provoking, involuntary thoughts that occur in anticipation of and response to specific situations. They are manifestations of irrational self-beliefs about who we are and how we relate to others, the world, and the future. Often amplified by anxiety and depression, ANTs not only impact our emotional wellbeing and quality of life but impede our pursuit of goals and objectives, due to the negative core and intermediate self-beliefs that cultivate them. ANT’s generally lead to irrational or maladaptive behaviors. Proactive Neuroplasticity overcomes or replaces our ANTs with ARTs (automatic rational thoughts.

The trajectory of our ANT’s begins at the evolution of our core beliefs.

Origins of Our Core Beliefs

Our core beliefs are determined by childhood physiological and experiential factors–our sex, health, and hereditary constitutions coupled with our information input: experience, environment, learning, familial, and so on. In rare instances, core beliefs can develop later in life during stressful or traumatic periods.

Negative core beliefs are generated by childhood neglect or exploitation–generic terms used to describe a broad spectrum of offenses that interfere with the optimal physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development of the child. In his seminal hierarchy of needs, Abraham Maslow defines factors that correlate to our core beliefs. The earliest are the physiological needs of food, water, warmth, and rest, followed by personal security and health, and the opportunity to experience love and a sense of belonging.

The cumulative evidence this lacuna of developmental needs is the primary causal factor in lifetime emotional instability has been well-established. A sense of detachment, exploitation, and or abandonment fosters negative core beliefs that impact our self-esteem which harbors our positive self-properties: self -esteem, -compassion, -love, -regard, -respect, -value.

Core Beliefs

Core beliefs remain as our belief system throughout life unless they are challenged and replaced with new and compelling information. Modifying or evolving core beliefs is challenging; new ideas and concepts are often contrary to our core beliefs which are engrained in the way we interpret reality. We consider them to be ultimate truths and tend to refute information that disputes them.

Any number of things can generate a negative core belief. Perhaps parents are controlling or do not provide emotional validation. Maybe we are subjected to bullying or a broken home. It is tenable no one is intentionally responsible. A child whose parental quality time is disrupted by a phone call can sense abandonment which can generate a core belief of unworthiness or insignificance. Even if a core belief is irrational or inaccurate, it still defines how we see the world. Harmful core beliefs can easily lead to self-destructive thoughts and behaviors.

Core beliefs are more rigid and exclusive in individuals onset with dysfunction because we tend to store information consistent with negative beliefs and ignore evidence that contradicts them. Most dysfunctions generate a cognitive bias—a subconscious error in thinking that leads us to misinterpret information, impacting the rationality and accuracy of our perspectives and decisions. Simply put, core beliefs are the unquestioned underlying themes that govern our perceptions. Because we decline to question our core beliefs, we act upon them as though they are real and true.

Positive core beliefs are healthy, rational appraisals of self, others, and the world at large. Negative core beliefs fall into two primary categories: self-oriented (I am unlovable) or other-oriented  (you are untrustworthy ).

Negative Core Beliefs: Self-Oriented.

Interpersonal: In pioneering methods widely used to address depression and anxiety, Aaron Beck identified three categories of negative interpersonal core beliefs: helplessness, unlovability (undesirability), and worthlessness. The helplessness category includes beliefs associated with personal incompetence, vulnerability, and inferiority  I am weak). The main thrust of undesirability is the belief or fear that we are incapable of obtaining desired intimacy and attention (No one will ever love me). The worthlessness category is a self-devaluing that causes us to feel useless and insignificant (I don’t deserve to be happy). These negative self-beliefs can result in an inability to trust, and fears of intimacy and commitment. Also, debilitating anxiety, codependence, aggression, feelings of insecurity, isolation, the lack of control over life, and a resistance to new experiences. 

Achievement: A negative achievement core belief challenges our pursuit of personal goals and objectives. A core belief we are incompetent or stupid (I’m a loser) poses a severe emotional hurdle that can dramatically impede accepting new ideas and concepts necessary for modification and achievement. When we experience automatic negative thoughts like I’m stupid or I’ll make a fool of myself when about to give a presentation or enter a conversation, anxiety and fear can overwhelm us, dominating how we respond to the situation.

Helplessness

  • I am fragile.
  • I am a loser
  • I am incompetent.

Undesirability

  • No one liikes me.
  • I will always be alone.
  • I am unattractive.

Worthlessness

  • I am insignificant.
  • I am useless.
  • I can’t do anything right.

Negative Core Beliefs: Other-Oriented

People with negative core beliefs about others often view people as demeaning, dismissive, malicious, and manipulative. We tend to blame others for our condition, avoiding personal responsibility (I can’t trust anyone). This can generate serious anxiety towards situations we perceive as potentially dangerous and cause us to avoid others in anticipation of harm (common symptoms of social anxiety).

Intermediate Beliefs 

Core beliefs generate our intermediate beliefs, which are related to our attitudes, rules, and assumptions. Considering the overlapping and ambiguous definitions of the three, we find that attitude refers to our emotions, beliefs, and behaviors toward a particular situation. Rules are the current principles or regulations we adhere to or adopt to guide our thoughts and subsequently influence our behaviors. Combining them, we create the assumption that something is factual or actual. 

An intermediate belief is more specific than a core belief; it is confirmation of it and or a hypothesis of resolution. A corresponding intermediate confirmation of the core belief, I am undesirable might be, I am unattractive and fat. A corresponding intermediate resolution might be, If I diet and have my nose fixed, I will be desirable.

Dysfunctional assumptions caused by our negative intermediate beliefs, and consequential to our negative core beliefs, generate our ANTs (automatic negative thoughts).

ANTs

Automatic thoughts are images or emotional reactions that occur in response to a particular situation. They are involuntary rather than the result of deliberation. Usually, we are unaware they are happening because we’ve become accustomed to them. Automatic thoughts are constant and effortless, directly impacting our mood, emotions, and behaviors. 

Automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are the expressions of our dysfunctional assumptions and distorted beliefs about a situation that we accept as true. For example, the situational automatic negative thought (I am ugly and fat and no one will like me) is a consequence of our core belief (I am undesirable), and our intermediate belief (I am unattractive and fat). This negative self-appraisal can elicit an endless feedback loop of hopelessness, worthlessness, and undesirability, leading to substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem. 

Maladaptive Self-Beliefs.

Defined as peculiar to social anxiety, maladaptive self-beliefs are essentially synonymous with ANTs and cognitive distortions. We find ourselves in a supportive and approving environment, but our social anxiety tells us we are the subject of ridicule, dislike, and disparagement. Our dysfunction distorts our perception and we ‘adapt’ negatively (maladapt) to a positive situation. To analogize, if the room is sunny and welcoming, our maladaptive self-belief informs us it is dark and unapproving. Even when we know our fears and apprehensions are irrational, their emotional impact is so great, our dysfunctional assumptions run roughshod over any healthy, rational response. 

Cognitive Distortions see list

Cognitive distortions define the ANT. I am ugly and fat and no one will like me is a distorted and irrational statement. It is Jumping to Conclusionsassuming you know what another person is feeling and thinking, and exactly why they act the way they do. There is also some Emotional Reasoning, Labeling/Mislabeling, and Personalization supporting the statement. Cognitive distortions tend to blend and overlap much like the symptoms and characteristics of most dysfunctions.

Cognitive distortions are psychologically defined as exaggerated or irrational thought patterns involved in the onset or perpetuation of psychopathological states. We all engage in cognitive distortions and are generally unaware of doing so. Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause us to perceive or present reality inaccurately. They reinforce or justify our negative thinking and behaviors. We convince ourselves these false and inaccurate thoughts and reactions are the truth of a situation. Often defined synonymously with ANTs, not all ANTs are cognitive distortions.

  1. Origin of Core Belief: A sense of abandonment.
  2. Core Belief: I am undesirable.
  3. Intermediate Belief (Confirmation): I am unattractive and fat.
  4. Intermediate Belief (Resolution): If I diet and have my nose fixed, I will be desirable.
  5. ANT (automatic negative thought): I am ugly and fat and no one will like me.
  6. Cognitive Distortion: Jumping to Conclusions.

Let’s look at some of the ways our dysfunctional assumptions compel us to cognitively distort our response to a situation.

Our coworker, who has the same responsibilities as we do, is promoted to supervisor. We have been with the firm longer. We become angry and resentful—a common response to this situation. It’s also a cognitive distortion called Fallacy of Fairness (the unrealistic assumption that life should be fair). Things don’t always work in our favor even when they should.

Let’s revise that scenario. We are the employee getting the promotion. Our coworkers stop by our desk to congratulate us except for two. We devalue the good wishes of our associates and obsess on the rebellious, deeming them personae non grata. Notwithstanding the multiple causes of our thought processes, we are practicing Filtering (selectively magnifying the negative details while filtering out the positive aspects of a situation).

We sense our new relationship is going poorly. We feel our partner is overly critical and doesn’t take us seriously enough. We decide to break up the relationship in anticipation of being dumped. There are a number of cognitive distortions compelling our behavior. We might be Jumping to Conclusions (forming an opinion assuming we know what another person is feeling and thinking).  Or, perhaps this situation has occurred before; then our cognitive distortion might be Overgeneralization (if something bad happens once, we anticipate it will happen over and over again). We might be Catastrophizing (blowing the situation out of proportion, imagining the worst).

It is helpful to be aware of these distortions because they drive us to analyze the underlying causes of our behavior. It’s also crucial to know the symptoms of our dysfunction and how they impact us. Multiple characteristics of social anxiety disorder, for example, can cause us to act self-destructively.

Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario. As a toddler at the playground, we became aware of the sudden disappearance of our mother, triggering an attack of abandonment. Notwithstanding the fact our mother was briefly hidden from view, talking to a neighbor, our reaction generated core beliefs of unworthiness and a distrust of others which evolved into similar intermediate beliefs. Now we find ourselves projecting an ANT that devalues us and our hopes of intimacy. (I’m not worth anyone’s attention). Imagine that flashing through your mind just as you are about to enter a room.

Sun Tsu’s adage has been repeated ad nauseum, but its underlying message is ever relevant. If you know the enemy (your dysfunctional assumptions and cognitive distortions) and yourself (the underlying cause or motivators of your behaviors), you need not fear the result of a hundred battles).

Converting ANTs to ARTs (Automatic Rational Thoughts)

Replacing or overcoming ANTs with ARTs is a simple process, albeit challenging due to our dysfunctional self-beliefs, our natural aversion to change, and the commitment and endurance required for the long-term, repetitive process of proactive neuroplasticity. The first objective is learning to identify our automatic negative thoughts, their sources, and corresponding cognitive distortion. Social anxiety coerces incredibly strong negative feelings about our competence, worthiness, and desirability. In order to make a change, we need to recognize these irrational beliefs, challenge them, and replace them with our existing strengths, virtues, and attributes.

In groups and workshops, we initiate the process of proactive neuroplasticity through the deliberate, repetitive, neural input of information (DRNI) utilizing cognitive-behavioral modification, positive psychologies, and approaches that facilitate the recovery and reinvigoration of our self-esteem. 

Cognitive Distortions

1.  Filtering. Selectively choosing your facts. A person engaging in filtering takes the negative details and magnifies those details while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted. When a cognitive filter is applied, the person sees only the negative and ignores anything positive.

2.  Polarized Thinking. It’s either this or that; no compromise. In polarized thinking, things are either black-or-white—all or nothing. There’s no middle ground. We have to be perfect or we’re a complete and abject failure. A person with polarized thinking places people or situations in either/or categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and most situations. A person with black-and-white thinking sees things only in extremes.

3.  Overgeneralization. This happened; therefore, it happens all the time. In this cognitive distortion, a person comes to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens just once, they expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat. For instance, if a student gets a poor grade on one paper in one semester, they conclude they are a horrible student and should quit school. She ignored me; everyone in the room will ignore me.

4.  Control Fallacies. Blaming yourself or another for things over which you have no control. (1) Blaming yourself for things beyond your control; (2) blaming another for things beyond their control. (1) Mary’s car is rear-ended by an inattentive driver, but she blames herself for leaving the house later than planned. (2) John blamed his wife for getting cancer. Both aspects can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and distress. These feelings can cause you to think negative thoughts about yourself, leading to more distress and negative thought patterns.

5.  Fallacy of Fairness. The unrealistic assumption that life should be fair. In the fallacy of fairness, a person feels resentful because they think that they know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with them. Because life isn’t fair, things do not always work in our favor even when they should. There is always a perceived unfairness when something goes someone else’s way and not ours. Fairness, however, is subjective. When something goes against our perceptions of fairness, it can manifest in anger, hopelessness, a sense of rejection, and more. It’s not fair I have social anxiety disorder.

6.  Always Being Right. I’m right and you’re wrong. When a person engages in this distortion, they are continually trying to convince others that their own opinions are the absolute correct ones. To a person engaging in always being right, being wrong is unthinkable — and they will go to great lengths to support their statements, irrational or otherwise. Being right is more important than the truth or the feelings of others. Being right supersedes everything, even logic. This is especially prevalent in social anxiety because, deep down, our dysfunction tells us we’re incompetent or stupid, and we go to irrational lengths to prove otherwise. I don’t care what you say; I know I’m right. I read it on the internet.

7.  Shouldas. Pseudo commitmentsShould statements (I should do this, and I should’ve done that). When self-applied, it appears as guilt; when directed towards another, it’s blaming or shaming, often accompanied by anger, frustration, and resentment. A person employing conditional statements like should, shouldn’t, must, and oughta usually end up feeling guilty when they accomplish nothing. I really should exercise, and I must start my diet are escape substitutes for I am exercising, and I will start my diet. 

8.  Blaming. External blaming is when a person holds other people responsible for their emotional pain. Internal blaming is taking responsibility for problems over which they have no control.  For example, ‘Stop making me feel bad about myself!’  Nobody can make us feel any particular way — only we have control over our emotional reactions.

9.  Jumping to Conclusions. An opinion unsupported by fact. Jumping to Conclusions is forming an opinion without having the facts to substantiate it. A person who jumps to conclusions assumes they know what another person is feeling and thinking — and exactly why they act the way they do. SAD persons, in particular, assume people are judging or ridiculing them, or making negative evaluations as if they can read their minds. 

10.  Catastrophizing. The sky is falling, the sky is fallingWhen a person engages in catastrophizing, they expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as magnifying, and can also come out in its opposite behavior, minimizing. In this distortion, a person hears about a problem and blows it out of proportion, imagining the worst. For example, a person might exaggerate the gravity of an insignificant event (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may minimize their noteworthy achievements. 

11.  Personalization. It’s gotta be my fault. Personalization is when a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them. They take everything personally, even when something is not meant in that way. A person who experiences this kind of thinking will also compare themselves to others, trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc. A person engaging in personalization may take personal responsibility for things over which they have little to no control. ‘My friend is in a bad mood; what did I do wrong?’ 

12.  Emotional Reasoning. My gut tells me that … Relying on gut feelings over objective evidence to judge yourself and the world. Especially harmful to someone with social anxiety disorder because our dysfunction has generated an irrational perspective and negative self-image.  I feel like I don’t know how to be a friend; therefore, I must be a bad friend. 

13.  Labeling/mislabeling. I’m stupid, she’s lazy. We define ourselves and others with negative labels. In assigning labels, you focus on one past behavior or event. Your co-worker is lazy because they came to work late. You’re stupid because you failed the math test.

Dr. Mullen is director of ReChanneling Inc, dedicated to researching methods to (1) alleviate symptoms of dysfunction (disorder) and discomfort (neurosis) that impact an individual’s emotional wellbeing and quality of life, (2) pursue personal goals and objectives—eliminating a bad habit, self-transformation—harnessing our intrinsic aptitude for extraordinary living.

Why is your support essential? ReChanneling is dedicated to researching methods to (1) alleviate symptoms of dysfunction (disorder) and discomfort (neurosis) that impact an individual’s emotional wellbeing and quality of life, (2) pursue personal goals and objectives—eliminating a bad habit, self-transformation—harnessing our intrinsic aptitude for extraordinary living. Its paradigmatic approach targets the personality through empathy, collaboration, and program integration utilizing scientific and historically, clinically practical methods including proactive neuroplasticity, cognitive-behavioral therapy, positive psychology, and techniques designed to compel the recovery and reinvigoration of self-esteem disrupted by the adolescent onset of dysfunction. All donations support scholarships for groups, workshops, and practicums.

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