How to Overcome Your Tendency to Focus on the Negative
If you’ve read some of my other articles or worked with me one on one, you know I live a life grounded in one of my core philosophies:
Our thoughts create our reality.
Because it’s not what happens in our lives that matters. It’s our thoughts about those events that make all the difference.
As far as I’m concerned, this is huge. Times Square billboard in NYC huge. A neon, flashing sign that can’t be ignored.
Because we tend to take our thoughts for granted. Assume they’re fact, rather than fiction.
This matters because our mindset or outlook on life oftentimes dictates our sense of self. Causing us to lose sight of the fact that our minds, how or what we think and who we are aren’t one in the same.
This is problematic.
Because our thoughts aren’t neutral. More often than not, we don’t go into a situation with an open mind or positive outlook. Our thoughts skew negative.
So no. It’s not just you.
And while we’re getting real with one another, let me tell you one more thing.
It’s not your fault, either.
We’re actually wired to assume the worst. It’s called our negativity bias. (Yep, that’s a thing.)
Because even though the world we live in has evolved, our bodies haven’t. Our brains and nervous system missed the memo. They still process the world through the “kill or be killed” lens of the caveman era.
Necessary then? Definitely.
But now? Not so much.
I know– being told that you’re pretty much built to focus on the negative is a major buzz kill. The epitome of a de-motivator.
Yet our negativity bias doesn’t deserve a 100% bad rap. In fairness, it’s technically a good thing. Should we find ourselves in a life or death situation, this bias can save our lives. The problem is that our brains don’t know this scenario is (hopefully) highly unlikely. Especially in comparison to how people lived around 6 million years ago.
Here are two real-life examples of how our negativity bias trips us up:
Our brains process familiarity or consistency as safety. Because if we know what to expect, then there’s little to no risk of death. (Extreme, I know. But how our bodies view things nonetheless!) Which is why trying something new or pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is so physically unpleasant. The cold sweats, nausea and jittery hands you experienced last time you spoke in front of a large group? That’s your body’s way of telling you you’re in danger. That you should cut and run. ASAP. But here’s the thing — our brains don’t know that we need to challenge ourselves in order to learn and grow.
Let’s say you go ahead and do something new anyway. Your brain is going to try its hardest to make sure you never do it (i.e. put yourself in danger) again. According to Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs’s (2001) research,
“The greater impact of bad than good is extremely pervasive. It is found in both cognition and motivation; in both inner, intrapsychic processes and in interpersonal ones; in connection with decisions about the future and to a limited extent with memories of the past; and in animal learning, complex human information processing, and emotional responses” (p. 355).
Which means that negative thoughts and emotions remain at the forefront of the human experience. So when you look back on that time you pitched yourself for a promotion, you’ll remember your negative thoughts and emotions most — regardless of the outcome.And unfortunately, the same goes for negative events. When asked to recall your day, you’re more likely to remember the guy who cut you off than the nice thank you note you received.
Chances are, both of these examples are bringing up pretty vivid memories of past experiences. Like that time you didn’t speak up for yourself at work when an exciting new project came across your desk. Or the time you held yourself back and didn’t look for that new job in a completely different field. Or when you talked yourself out of it being the “right time” to take the leap and make your side hustle your full time gig.
Take a deep breath in. Let it out.
Disappointing, yes. But unavoidable?
Because now things are different. Now you know about your negativity bias and the power it holds. The way it skews your thoughts – and thus your reality.
Awareness is the first step. That’s where YOUR power lies. So next time you’re presented with the opportunity to challenge yourself and grow, you don’t have to take those negative thoughts or emotions at face value.
No matter how daunting they may seem, you are in control.
Remind yourself that this is just your body’s way of protecting you.
Say thank you.
Honor its good intentions.
Then remind yourself that you are safe. Everything is okay.
Tell your body you’re ready to grow. And reap the benefits that will come from it.
As Wayne Gretzky says, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Comment below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Bad is Stronger than Good. PsycEXTRA Dataset.doi:10.1037/e413792005-154