Learn to Identify Automatic Negative Thoughts

As soon as you can learn to identify your automatic negative thoughts, you then can be free of self-doubt and choose positivity.
Learn to Identify Automatic Negative Thoughts
Laura Reguera

Written and verified by the psychologist Laura Reguera.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

A while ago, I found an image on social media that I loved. It was a woman’s old photo, and she had a sign on her face that read “Don’t believe everything you think”… I was like, “Wait a minute. What does that mean? Why should I doubt my own thoughts?”

That’s the thing, no one’s ever taught us that. In school, our teachers explained the outside world to us, but few things about our minds.

If something goes through your head and then keeps coming back again and again, it ends up feeling like reality. The problem is that more often than not, it isn’t real, and you feel bad when you shouldn’t.

You can deal with it by learning to identify your own automatic negative thoughts, questioning then and changing them. Learn to take control of your thoughts and work on your mental health!

“Believing in negative thoughts is the single greatest obstruction to success.” 

-Charles F. Glassman-

What are automatic negative thoughts (ANTs)?

Your thoughts, your inner dialogue, affects how you feel and how you act. The value you give to a situation affects how you see it and it makes you live it one way or another, emotionally speaking.

That’s why you must learn to identify your automatic negative thoughts. Thoughts that don’t adjust to what’s happening and make your emotions more intense and recurring than what the actual situation demands.

This type of cognition is related to what we’ve already talked about in other articles, to what makes you feel bad emotionally: irrational thoughts and cognitive bias.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

-William Shakespeare-

Distorted, or automatic negative thoughts, are different from person to person, meaning that they’re very unique and specific. Besides, they’re discrete and spontaneous, appearing without you being aware of it.

It’s hard to identify them as a threat when they first come up. Furthermore, you may actually believe them without questioning them.

Types of ANTs

Now that we’ve established what they are, in order to learn to identify your own automatic negative thoughts, you must know the different shapes they may have. In reality, we all have them. Plus, as explained before, you can’t control when they come up, so all you can do is question them and change them. 

To do that, you must identify them as soon as you can. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely possible. The idea is that you learn to balance what you think, take a step back and see it all from another perspective, and ask yourself whether things are truly as you first perceived them.

So, in a few words, you must learn to be more realistic. These are the types of distorted thoughts you may have:

Magnification or minimization

This is giving more weight to the negative aspects of your life, and deeming the positive ones as less important.

Black-and-white thinking

Black-and-white thinking is seeing situations as extreme contrasts: “all or nothing,” “black or white,” “perfect or flawed,” etc. This is instead of understanding that there are hues of gray between the extremes.

Arbitrary inference

Jumping to conclusions without having enough proof or evidence is the main classification of arbitrary interference.


Coming up with a general rule based on a very specific situation, and applying it to all other situations that are very different in nature is overgeneralizing.

Mind reading

Mind reading is thinking that others will negatively react to what you do or say, without having proof that that’s a possibility.

Should/Must statements

This is feeling that you or everyone else is obliged to do certain things. When things don’t actually happen as you think they should, you feel bad, especially in your personal-life relationships.


It’s the tendency to apply what happens to others to yourself, in an excessive or inappropriate way.

Emotional reasoning

 Emotional reasoning is believing that things are the way you feel they are.

“If people could hear our thoughts, very few of us would escape from being locked away as mad men.” 

-Jacinto Benavente-

an intelligent guy with glasses

An example to help you identify your negative thoughts

In order to understand the reach of these seemingly harmless thoughts, let’s see an example.

After a meeting, a colleague tells you: “Hey, I liked your presentation during the meeting, although I saw that you were a bit nervous.” In this situation, you might think “I’m the worst, everyone thinks I’m a disaster… I do everything wrong! I’m sure they won’t want me to talk during a meeting again.”

In this example, one can see a bit of everything:

  • Magnification of the negative and minimization of the positive: You didn’t even stop to think about the compliment about your presentation.
  • Black-and-white thinking: “I do everything wrong,” “I’m the worst,” instead of realizing that there are levels to the situation.
  • Arbitrary inference: “I’m sure they won’t want me to talk during a meeting again” and mind reading, “Everyone thinks I’m a disaster,” etc.

It’s not easy of course, but if you put effort on identifying your automatic negative thoughts, just like in the example, you’ll see how your mind often turns a grain of sand into a mountain without you noticing. This step is fundamental when you’re learning to control your thoughts and emotions. Remember… Do it for your health!

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.