Career Coach: Stomping out ANTs (otherwise known as Automatic Negative Thoughts)
By Jeffrey Kudisch,
With unemployment rates still inflated and millions of Americans looking for work, the long search process can be challenging and stressful, especially as this year’s new graduates are set to enter the workforce.
The search process can quickly take its toll on job seekers’ self-confidence and well-being. I’ve sensed feelings of fatigue, frustration, fear and even anger about their job prospects.
Some psychologists contend that the impact of stress in your life is not determined by mere exposure to such pressures, but rather how you respond and cope with issues. These psychologists suggest that individuals who display self-awareness and resilience will be more likely to successfully navigate turbulent waters during the job search process.
When you are feeling despondent about your search efforts (or any efforts for that matter), don’t let the emotions and the accompanying physical sensations take control of you and your thinking. Toughen up mentally:
•Recognize how you’re feeling. As with most challenges, the first step is admitting the problem. If you’re in a bad mood or frustrated, recognize those feelings to yourself and take a few deep breaths.
•Identify “automatic negative thoughts.” According to Rob Yeung, a British psychologist and management expert, automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are private, uncensored views that pop into our heads when we experience strong emotions. Make a mental note when you have these thoughts so you can address them.
•Think positive. Counter or replace negative thoughts with realistic, positive ones.
During the last month or so, I’ve had the opportunity to coach several students who are really having a hard time dealing with rejection from employers. The following interaction that I recently had with an MBA student demonstrates what I’m talking about. For confidentiality, I will call this student “Ima Starr.”
When Ima visited my office, she was annoyed and embarrassed that she had not yet received a job offer. According to Ima, “The employer never got back to me. I thought I did well in the interview, but I guess I was a terrible candidate since I didn’t get a second interview. . . . I don’t think I’m worthy of a position with this strategy consulting firm.”
During our discussion, Ima acknowledged that her emotions and fears were causing her to question herself and were adding to her stress levels. I helped her to recognize the ANT — her belief that she was a terrible candidate, unworthy of the job. In life, such over-generalizations are rarely true and they are typically self-defeating. In this case the employer actually didn’t hire anyone for that position because of poor market conditions (a fact unbeknownst to Ima until that moment!).
We also discussed how Ima’s ANT was influencing her behavior and attitude. I then asked her to challenge her ANT by rephrasing her negative thought with a positive, affirming one. She offered the following: “I’m a great MBA candidate with plenty of talents and it’s the company who lost out by not hiring me.” By the end of our conversation Ima felt relieved and more confident about re-engaging in the job search process.
Whenever you catch yourself making a negative claim about yourself, don’t succumb to irrational thinking. Begin by acknowledging that you are experiencing an ANT. As an executive coach I encourage my clients to identify and “stomp out” ANTs. I also urge them to keep a diary of their ANTs so that they get in the habit of recognizing and challenging these negative and unproductive thoughts.
Managing your own emotions and being mentally prepared will play a huge role in your career development and leadership success. In the words of James Loehr, world-renowned performance psychologist and author, “Leadership and stress tolerance are nearly synonymous. Great leaders are constantly teaching those around them how to respond to the forces of life. If there is any hint that they can’t handle the heat themselves, their leadership is over.”
So what are you waiting for? You can reach amazing heights if you pay attention to your emotions, get mentally tough, and keep things in perspective.
Jeffrey Kudisch is managing director of the Office of Career Services at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and a faculty expert in leadership, negotiations and human capital management. He has a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology and he co-founded Personnel Assessment Systems Inc., a human resource consulting firm specializing in executive assessment and leadership development.