The police officers and the ants

What makes you ‘antsy?’  What is your inner ant trying to tell you?  Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash.

Imagine your mind is full of two types of being:

  1. Police officers
  2. Ants

Your police officers rush around trying to get order.  They have sets of rules they try to impose, codes of behaviour adopted from many sources.  Just like real police officers, your inner police officers operate on principles of alarm, restriction and punishment:

  1. ALARM – They listen out for messages that all is not well
  2. RESTRICTION – They arrive at the scene and decide how apparent chaos can be made orderly
  3. PUNISHMENT – They punish any element that stands in the way of the desired order

Your ants are a different species, so they cannot hear your police officers very well.  They have instinctive missions they are trying to achieve.  Just as real ants go on journeys up trees to investigate sources of food, so your inner ants use curiosity, pattern perception, and chemical messengers to operate:

  1. CURIOSITY – They go exploring all the time
  2. PATTERN PERCEPTION – They seek out patterns of terrain that match their instinctive needs for housing, food and community
  3. CHEMICAL MESSENGERS – They leave behind chemical messages indicating attraction or rejection of an environment

Roughly speaking, your mind has two great powers:

  1. Inhibition (the police officers)
  2. Association (the ants)
You will notice when your police officers are predominating, because your existence will start to resemble a police state.  There will be constant self-watching and watching of others.  There will be a passionate desire for order at all costs, and a corresponding fear of chaos.  This imbalance can be a key driver behind eating ‘disorders’ and obsessive-compulsive ‘disorders’ – it is somewhat ironic that they are called disorders, because they are often born of an overactive inner requirement for order and control.

You may also notice when your ants are predominating, because you will start to feel ‘taken over’ by some apparently rather chaotic impulses.  You may experience the urge to escape your current, orderly life, and go exploring.  You may feel some quite animalistic needs roused up in you – perhaps the sudden need for food, or for other stimulations such as sex, drugs or entertainment.

Some people will even experience both in quick succession.  They may experience an ‘antsy’ need to eat everything in the fridge; but then experience a sudden need to control what they just did, and purge themselves of food.


Many branches of psychology have their own version of police officers and ants.  Perhaps, in psychoanalytic circles, police officers are represented as the ‘superego’, and ants as the ‘id’.  Perhaps, in cognitive psychology circles, police officers are akin to more controlled, conscious or inhibitory thinking processes, and ants are akin to more automatic, unconscious or associative processes.

In whatever theoretical terms we couch them, we would do well to learn to accommodate both our police officers and our ants.  Otherwise, our police officers might turn our minds into a police state, or our ants might turn our minds into an instinctive existence over which we have no conscious control.  Of course both extreme situations exist – there are self-justifying police states, just as there are times when groups of humans give themselves over to an uncontrolled, instinctive existence.

But each has its advantages and disadvantages.  A person who is ‘all police officer’ can control situations, but can end up eliminating all the joy of life.  A person who is ‘all ant’ can experience a great sense of freedom, but can get rather lost when the environment does not give them what they need.  Perhaps a masterful person can adopt control where appropriate, but also loosen control and be more instinctive where it is wise.


How do we know when we’re out of balance?

Examples include:

  1. A person who finds themselves restricting their food intake so that their health is compromised.  They may wish to loosen the police officer in them.
  2. A person who finds themselves binge-eating almost without thinking, so that their health is compromised.  They may wish to bring some conscious control back into their lives.
  3. A person who finds themselves swinging between binge-eating and self-starvation, so that their health is compromised.  They may wish to allow their police officer and their ants to coexist in the same moment, instead of constantly being one or the other, and flipping between the two.
The above are food analogies, but you can replace ‘food’ with any experienced need, and get a similar trio of imbalances: too restrictive, too unrestricted, or flipping between the two.

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We are all full of police officers and ants.

Our inner police officers are our inner forces of restriction, control, and rule-following.  Our inner ants are our inner forces of freedom-to-explore, association, and attraction/repulsion.

We need to find a balance between control and freedom.  If we don’t, we can end up overcontrolled, uncontrolled, or constantly flipping between the two.

If we can find a balance, then we can be more healthy.