No More Negativity!
Do you know a ‘glass half empty’ person? Perhaps you are that person..
In my family, my dad is the self-styled realist. (Well, that’s how he dresses it up, but none of us are fooled.) If ever you need a heavy dose of ‘reality’, head straight to my dad. He’ll work through your plans and identify the pitfalls in record time.
It’s not a character flaw, it’s just one of the reasons we love him and one of the quirks that make him, well… him. In some circumstances, it’s actually useful. I’m a glass half-full person, so quite frankly, my dad and I balance each other out.
If we were to pop my dad under a psychological microscope, we’d discover a strong ‘negativity bias’.
It’s not unique to him, you’ve got it too. We all have.
You put more onus on the bad stuff, you pay more attention to negative events, and your brain spends more time processing and storing life’s crap than it does life’s roses. None of us can’t help it, research shows we’re geared to do this.
As with most thing brain related, it boils down to survival. We’re wired to pay close attention to the things that may harm us. But therein lies the problem.
Modern life doesn’t yield the same level of threat it once did. In fact, compared to our ancestors, we’ve got it pretty damned cushty. (I’m not sure about you, but I can’t recall the last time I faced off a marauding lion.)
Negativity bias can be a bitch when it comes to your thought processes, judgement and decision making. Rather than weighing-up all things equally, you put greater value on the things that could go wrong. You’ll focus on the one negative over the five potential benefits, the one crappy comment over the barrage of positives. Sound familiar?
If you’ve watched or read the news recently, it’s a great example of negativity bias in action. What do you remember? The feel-good story at the end or the doom and gloom headlines? And let’s face it, 2020 has sent our negativity radars into overdrive.
In practise, your negativity bias means that you:
Brood and ruminate on events, replaying them in your head and forgetting the positives (this is called filtering).
Play the blame game; assuming that bad things have happened because of you, your actions, or how you other people feel about you. (Otherwise known as personalising.)
Worry repeatedly about things that haven’t happened yet or experience trains of thought that end in disaster. (The old chestnut of catastrophising.)
Have a tendency towards all-or-nothing, perfectionist ways of thinking. (Known as polarising.)
Have aversion to even low levels of risk, meaning your decisions are based on the safest, rather than the most beneficial options.
The upshot is, if you spent more time worrying about things than you spend doing actually doing them, it’s in your best interests to get a grip on your negativity.
The Downside of Negativity
We all know that mental health is just important as physical wellbeing and there’s a strong link between negativity and depression. If you’re depressed, you’re much more likely to view the world negatively – which can even cause you to experience a stronger sense of physical pain. Negative thinking has even been linked to dementia.
If that’s not concerning enough, doom-and-gloom thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You create a vision of the world that supports your own view of it. It’s a bit like the Facebook algorithm, filtering out the stuff that that is supposedly irrelevant and serving up the things you’re most likely to notice. In other words, you see what you want to see. (This is called confirmation bias.)
If you’re swamped in negativity, you’re less like to spot the joy, the opportunities and the good news; instead you’ll focus on the disappointments, the disasters and the threats.
Negativity can spiral in your interactions with others too. In one of my favourite comedy shows (What We Do in the Shadows, check it out if you haven’t seen it), there’s an amazing character who’s an ‘energy vampire’ - he thrives on sucking the life and positivity out of people. I am sure we’ve all met someone who fits that description.
This is because negativity is contagious and people can quickly talk each other down, rather than up. It’s the equivalent of a reverse pep-talk. Our brains mirror the emotions we see in others.
If someone laughs, you laugh, if they cry, you feel sad. If they’re angry or anxious, you’ll feel that too. Imagine the impact that has if both parties are trapped in negative patterns of thinking.. Problems seem larger, tension increases, perspective quickly disappears.
It’s therefore to the benefit of yourself – and those around you - if you can ramp up the optimism when you need to. With positive thinking, you can objectively find solutions to life’s challenges and create the confidence do all the things that you deserve to do.
And it’s not just about your mental wellbeing. In a world where stress and anxiety are becoming ever more prevalent, studies have shown that positive psychology is an effective strategy for dealing with stress. It even reduces the risk of developing heart disease by a whopping 30%.
Well, hello there, positive thinking, where have you been all my life?
Positivity essentially boils down to one thing: focusing more on the stuff that makes life worth living and the things you can do (over the stuff that you can’t.) It’s about tweaking your thoughts, feelings and behaviour so you get the most out of every situation. It’s not about false optimism or disillusionment, it’s just knowing that you have choices at every avenue – even if they weren’t choices you expected to make.
How can I ramp up the positivity?
There are many ways to start saying yes to yourself, but here are five that can quickly make an impact.
1) Start with who you hang out with.
Do your relationships serve you in the way that you want? Are they fulfilling and supportive or do they bring you down? Are they uplifting or draining? What are the real benefits of having the people closest to you in your life?
With the exception of family, most of us get a choice as to who we hang out with. We might assume that friendships are life-long, but they ebb and flow with our life-stage. In fact, research says that tends to happen in seven-year cycles, so it’s natural to let some relationships drift.
You might realise that you have friends who are negative, who drag you down, who criticise you, undermine you or make you feel judged. These friendships don’t offer freedom or value, in fact, you pay a stiff mental price for maintaining them.
Now, I appreciate that ditching friends is a scary proposition and it’s not always possible, particularly in the case of family where the connection is deep-rooted. And of course, situations are rarely black and white (I’m mindful of that polarising thinking and of course, practise what I preach). There may still be benefits to your relationship, so, what do you do then?
Step back and take an objective look at the situation. What would an outsider see? Would there be balance or would there be more give than take on your part?
You may feel you owe the person in question, but the fundamental question is, what do you owe yourself?
Take back your power! You can limit time. (Ever made excuses to get off the phone or leave a date? Have a similar exit strategy.) You can choose your time; for example, actively avoiding contact with that person if you are feeling low. You can steer the conversation in positive directions and hope your influence follows.
But the heart of it always lies in surrounding yourself with positive people as much as you can.
2) Be thankful.
I’m not about to start spouting the need for a gratitude journal - unless it floats your boat - in which case, go for it. I am, however going to remind you that actively thinking about the things you are thankful for - your health, your home, your bed, your family, the smiles, the love etc - immediately flicks that negativity switch to positive.
Life is full of little blessings if you give yourself permission to look.
3) Raise your awareness.
You know the old adage that knowledge is power? It’s bang on. You can’t change something you don’t understand. If negativity is floating below your radar, you’ve got sod all chance of identifying it for what it is.
But you’re reading this blog. You now know the signs..
When you slip into negative thoughts, call them out! Label them.
“I’m not good enough.” Oooh, there goes a negative thought.
“It will never work.” Negative thought again.
“What if it look stupid?” There’s another one.
You can even give that critical voice in your head a name..
“They’re going to hate me!” Oh, do shut up, Negative Nancy! (You get the gist.)
It may sound odd, but it’s all about creating space between you and your negative thoughts. (This is called cognitive diffusion and there are lots of other disusing techniques you can try.)
4) Go for the reframe
One of the most powerful tools in the positivity arsenal is reframing, i.e. actively seeking out the positives situations so you can view them differently.
By changing the way you think, you can change your whole experience. If you’ve ever seen a ‘magic eye’ picture where an image is hidden within another image, you’ll know that it can be easy to miss what’s right in front of you if you’re not actively looking for it.
The first step is to reframing is to be accurate. What’s really going on? Where does your knowledge end and assumption begin? What can you learn from what you actually know as fact, to reposition your thoughts on the situation? (Your assumptions tend to be rooted in your view of the world and your beliefs about yourself. They can subsequently be one of the biggest barriers to positive thinking.)
If you are predicting what might happen in the future or mind-reading what others may think, what difference does it make if you switch those assumptions for positive ones? I.e. “I can’t predict what will happen, but the chances are it will all work out.”
But the key part of the process? Looking for the opportunities. That’s not to say that bad things don’t matter. Sometimes shit things happen and you’re within your rights to feel sorry for yourself when they do, but reframing can help you create a path to move forwards.
For me personally, I had to quickly reframe my plans once lockdown hit. It spelled the end of a business partnership and for a short time, I felt totally crap about it. But it also hailed the start of me going solo, niching in a totally different direction and truly following my heart. It forced me to learn, develop and push myself in a new direction – but a direction that was ultimately much better for me. I’d be fibbing if I said it was easy, but reframing enabled me jump those initial hurdles and come out the other stronger and happier.
5) Watch your language
When you’re feeling negative, your language subconsciously ramps up the downward sentiment. Words like, ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘shouldn’t’, infiltrate your communication with both yourself and others.
Dumping those words and consciously switching to a more active and positive dialogue can make a dramatic difference.
Take these examples: “I can’t do this today” versus “I can this tomorrow”. How about, “I have to finish that project” compared to, “I will finish this project”. Or my personal favourite on a dark winter’s morning, “I can’t get out of bed” or “I am getting out of bed”? Which of those feel more motivating?
Your language can give you a short-sharp kick in the right direction and it has a massive impact on how you are perceived by others.
Remember that energy vampire? Just think of words they’d use and go in the opposite direction. It’s a quick win as it’s amazing as it soon goes from a conscious activity to something you can just when you need to dial the positivity up.
No matter who you are or what you’ve experienced, you are capable of positive change. The only question is, when you are going to make it?
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