You’re at a play date, listening to another mom tell stories about her child. As you listen to all of her parenting accomplishments, you begin thinking, “Wow, she’s really got it all together. Her kid is really succeeding and seems like he’s on the fast track for honors classes. Am I doing something wrong? My kid ate an earthworm last week.” Suddenly, you’re hit with a blast of anxiety and insecurity that came seemingly out of the blue.
These thoughts are called ANTs – automatic negative thoughts. We’ve all got them. They can come at any time, any day, and particularly when we are feeling vulnerable. Granted, not everyone struggles with the same version of ANTs. Maybe your negative thoughts are about your job or school performance, about your body, whether people like you, or maybe all of the above.
Our thoughts have real power. What we think affects our bodies, our feelings, and our behavior, thus affecting our relationships. Our thoughts affect our very brain structure in the form of neural pathways. There are billions of neural pathways in our brains, being built and strengthened every day. The more we think about a subject, thought, or memory, the more we are forming well-worn pathways in our brains. As we practice new thoughts and habits, new pathways are formed.
A single negative thought may not be too detrimental, but consider what might happen if you continued to think that thought for days, weeks, or even years.
Imagine a 15 year old adolescent trying on a bathing suit at the mall. She happens to notice (in that awful dressing room mirror and under that awful dressing room lighting) that she has cellulite on her thighs. “Oh no,” she thinks, “I can’t wear this kind of bathing suit. I can’t believe how fat my thighs are. I’m going to have to cover up somehow at the pool party this weekend.” This experience has formed a memory and a little seed of shame, but otherwise her life is unaltered.
A one-time thought is like walking through the grass. If you stroll though the grass one time, no one can tell you’ve been there. But what if the girl continued thinking badly about herself for the next month, following new thigh slimming exercises on Pinterest, and researching how to achieve a thigh gap. Maybe she has started comparing herself to other girls at school or to pictures on Instagram.
Now, a neural pathway is forming. My dog walks the same path through my flower beds every day (don’t get me started on that). He has worn away a little path. I think this illustrates how thoughts can form pathways in our brains and in our behaviors. The most traveled paths become the most well-worn and easiest paths for our thoughts to travel.
Now let’s imagine this girl grows up, gets married, and starts a family. She is now 40 years old. What if those negative body image thoughts have continued for the past 25 years? It would be safe to assume that these pathways are now super highways. When it comes to negative thoughts, these superhighways inevitably lead to toll booths – where we begin to pay. Because she is ashamed of her body, perhaps intimacy with her husband has suffered. Maybe she won’t allow photos to be taken of herself when she is wearing shorts or a bathing suit. Now her kids have no pictures of their mom from their last beach vacation. Maybe she limits the kinds of foods she will let herself eat or the kinds of clothes she will wear. Maybe she makes negative comments about her body, and now her daughter has begun to think similar thoughts. It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it?
How do we combat these thoughts? Recognizing them is the first step. Start paying attention to what you are thinking and choosing to believe. If you notice there is a particular ANT that shows up frequently, you might prepare to do battle. Gain an arsenal of true statements that you can tell yourself when this thought shows up. For example:
- “My thighs have some of the largest muscles in my body, and they provide stability.”
- “My husband loves my body, and I will try to love my body too”
- “God made me in His image, and He loves me just the way I am.”
The hardest thing about fighting negative beliefs is that you believe them. Finding someone outside of yourself can be crucial to help discern what is true and what is faulty thinking. Look for some good accountability and encouragement partners who can speak truth to you when your thoughts are getting the best of you. Sometimes bouncing reality off of a trusted friend, mentor, family member, or counselor is a very healing thing. For believers, Scripture is paramount in fighting negative thoughts. God’s word is our ultimate source of truth. Find verses that speak to what you are struggling with, and write them down in places where you will see them frequently.
Spiritually, our thoughts are a real battle ground. Second Corinthians 10:5 tells us to take every thought captive to obey Christ. The enemy would like nothing more than for us to believe and obey the ANTs, because he is the father of lies. Let’s get ready to do battle and choose to believe what is true.
Pause: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Exhale slowly. Contemplate Romans 12:2 (in the picture below). How does it speak to you?
Renew: Apply Romans 12:2 to your thought life. What is a negative thought that has been coming to your mind frequently? Ask the Lord to renew your mind regarding this thought, replacing it with what is true, good, acceptable, and perfect.
Next: Spend the next few days examining your thought-life. What are the ANTs that show up frequently? Find Scripture verses that you can quote back to those thoughts when they come. Make 3×5 cards of these verses that you can carry with you or put in the dashboard of your car as a reminder. Get creative!
Learning to recognize truth and speaking it to ourselves is so powerful. May the Lord help you discern what is true and pure and lovely, and may you meditate on those thoughts this week.
Pause, Renew, Next!