Picture this- you just gave a presentation on a topic you’re proud of… the hours of preparation and practice that went into creating the presentation, the nerves you had to overcome to stand up and actually give the presentation, and the relief of having it done. In some cases, maybe you felt that generally it well overall. If you tend to be more self-critical, maybe you’re focused on the one thing that didn’t go well instead of the hundreds of things that did go well. Let’s take it a step further- let’s say you are receiving feedback on the presentation. You heard a lot of positive feedback, but that one negative piece stands out in your mind and you can’t stop focusing on it.
Why is it so easy to focus on the ONE negative thing you thought about yourself or the one negative thing that was said to you? Why does that seem to overpower hundreds of positive inputs and why do we sometimes even believe the negative things someone said or that we thought even if they aren’t true?
It’s called the negativity bias. It’s a built-in mechanism that is pre-programmed to focus on what didn’t go well, focus on the thing that we lost, focus on negative headlines, and all the things going wrong instead of all the things going right.
Some of us are wired to be more positive and happy than others. According to research by Dr. Sonya Lyubomirksy, 50 percent of our happiness is determined by our genes, 40 percent by our activities, and 10 percent by our life circumstances.
You may have heard the phrase, “neurons that wire together, fire together.” Neurons are brain cells that build circuits for just about everything we do. Neuroplasticity refers to being able to mold those pathways. And when it comes to thinking positive? Turns out you can rewire your brain to trend towards the positive and work towards overcoming the negativity bias.
Why are we biased towards the negative?
The general consensus of why we have a negativity bias comes down to when we were cavemen and cavewomen. We had to be thinking of how to make sure we get enough food, stay alive, and meet our basic needs. Coming pre-programmed to err on the side of “what if things don’t work out and how can I fix it?” helped us keep evolving.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom”
He famously wrote, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” He talks about how there are two scenarios. One, you think there’s a tiger in the bushes when there really isn’t one (anxiety). Or two, there is a tiger, you’re unaware and it pounces on you. There’s nuance in detecting what fear and negativity you need to hone in on versus big stories you’re making up that cause fear, anxiety, and unwanted behavior.
The solution? Dr. Hanson suggests that “It’s to have the courage to see real tigers clearly and to deal with them effectively – and to refuse to be frightened by boys and girls crying tiger.”
The next time you find yourself sucked into negative headlines on the news, don’t beat yourself up! Yes, negative headlines get WAY more clicks than positive news.
What’s the problem with negative thoughts?
The problem with too many negative thoughts is that it causes anxiety and undermines our confidence. If we only focus on the things we don’t have or that aren’t going well, we tend to catastrophize and distort reality. That doesn’t mean completely ignoring fear, doubt, and negative thoughts. It’s about understanding their place and context of them in the big picture.
In my mindset course, I talk about how the most powerful voice is the one inside your own head. Yes, you can train optimism and confidence. It starts with self-awareness and the practice continues with asking yourself questions, choosing how you explain the world to yourself, and what you choose to focus on. And the research in positive psychology is there showing that you can in fact change how you view the world and what is happening for you.
How to Overcome Negative Thoughts
There are several ways you can work on overcoming negativing thoughts. Give these a read and then try one or two this week.
It starts with self-awareness
Being aware of what you’re thinking in real-time and how that is affecting you is powerful. If you can learn to objectively see your thoughts (through a meditation practice or journaling), you don’t get so caught up in the story that you start telling yourself about the thought. It creates distance so you can get a better idea of there is actually a threat.
Reframing Negative Thoughts
If you find that you are always telling yourself negative stories about a situation, you can use what Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the pioneers of Positive Psychology calls changing your explanatory style. It’s how we explain experiences to ourselves. To simplify this idea, I’ll give you an example. Say you get an email from your boss that says they need to schedule a call with you immediately. Do you view this as you are getting fired or you are in trouble? Or do you tell yourself that maybe your boss has good news to share or a detailed project that is easier to discuss on the phone. The email is the circumstance. How you interpret that circumstance is up to you. Another common example I give is in the case of a car accident or a bike crash and broke their arm. One person could say how unlucky they are about how they broke their arm while another person who might have a positive explanatory style might say that they are lucky that it wasn’t worse. You can work on this on your own by writing out an incident that happened and coming up with alternatives to your negative story The alternatives have to be realistic. In doing this, you can retrain your explanatory style.
Savoring and Noting the Positive Moments
You can have 1000 positive comments and 1 negative one, and the negative one will stand out in your brain. By savoring and focusing on what is going well, you’ll get a better big picture view of your life so when those negative or critical comments come along, they won’t seem to swallow up all the good comments. Also, critical comments can be viewed as a positive thing if they are constructive. If you have a growth mindset, you can view them as an opportunity to get better and helpful feedback. It doesn’t mean you enjoyed receiving the feedback, but it’s a chance to grow. If you have a fixed mindset, you might view the comment as a judgment of who you are as a person. Growth mindset wins!
Ask “What Went Well?” Before Analyzing
Before you go straight to all the things that didn’t go well when analyzing your performance, first spend time asking what went well. You can do this as a journaling practice at the end of the day or even in your head. This is a huge part of how we communicate in my health coaching practice. We check in on action steps and goals from the previous week. Instead of looking at barriers and challenges to start, we focus on small successes. In doing so, it builds confidence and perspective to help round out that things are probably going better than you thought. In my mindset academy, there’s a journal that comes with the course. One of the pages is on building confidence and a question my students answer daily is what is the win of the day. By answering the question consistently, you start scanning for things you are doing well instead of scanning for things not going well. Some people worry they’ll lose their edge if they are nice to themselves, but the opposite is true. If you can focus on what’s going well, you increase your self-esteem. Because we are already programmed toward a negative bias, you won’t lose the lesson of what isn’t going well. By highlighting the wins, you’ll realize you are making more positive gains than you think. One note is that oftentimes, negative events seem to happen to us suddenly. They seem extreme. Positive events typically are a slow burn because we aren’t focused on the small bricks we are building to create the wall. Focusing on each brick helps to keep things going well at the top of your mind.
Keep a Folder for Praise
If you get a positive email or comment from someone else, save it and put it in one place! The next time you’re feeling burnt out or negative, read one or two of those glowing reviews to help you remember.
Surround Yourself with Optimists
The language the people around you use and how they view the world is contagious. Negative energy and complaining drags you down. Trying to spend more time around people who cultivate optimism in their language and self-belief impacts you.
Understanding how our brains work and learning how to create more optimism and confidence is a game-changer. I hope some of these techniques are helpful.