Negative thoughts are something we all deal with, whether they stem from our own doubts and fears, from things that happen to us, or from what people say.
The problem with negative thoughts is not just that they create sadness, anxiety, worries, and apprehension, but also that they tend to stick with us. We remember them more than we remember the positive ones. And this is a perfectly normal phenomenon called negativity bias.
I’m going to provide some ways to cope with negative thoughts, so that they do not dominate our thoughts and minds. But first, let me clarify negativity bias.
What is Negativity Bias?
Negativity bias happens when negative emotions, thoughts, ideas, comments, beliefs, and conversations carry more significance than positive ones. It happens when we let ourselves believe the bad things we see, hear, or say about ourselves, more so than the good ones, or when we remember negative experiences over positive ones.
Let me give an example. I recently sent out an email asking for something. I got over 15 responses filled with compliments and encouragement. Some of them came from people I hadn’t heard from or seen in years. They were an unexpected surprise, and filled my heart with warmth.
But, a few days later I got an email that simply said “No thank you.” It was from someone I didn’t know that well, but it stung. I stared at my screen in disbelief and embarrassment, and eventually in anger. And just like that, all the elation and excitement I felt went out the window. I forgot all the positive messages from earlier, and all I could think about were those three words. They dominated my thoughts. I even lost sleep over it.
Negativity Bias is Common
I’m sure this is something we can all relate to. Maybe it is not about an email, but about something else. We remember the criticisms we receive more than the compliments.
Negativity bias is something we are hardwired with. Paying attention to negative cues is instinctual in us as well as in animals. Negative signals represent potential threats and danger that helped keep us alive from attacks and harm since the times we lived in the wild (Abdai & Miklósi, 2016).
We may not live in the same predatory environments as our ancestors did, but negativity still registers predominantly in our minds. In studies conducted on babies, psychologists found that babies also registered negative experiences over positive ones. Babies were given toys while simultaneously being shown negative or positive images or cues. Babies were later given the same toys in a neutral environment, and they invariably interacted less with the toys they had been given under negative images or cues and more with the toys they had been given under positive images or cues (Vaish, Grossman, & Woodward, 2008).
If focusing on negative experiences is so hardwired in us, how can we learn to deal with them?
How to Deal With Negativity Bias
I recently watched a video by Marie Forleo (2017) that talked about this. In fact, it was that video that inspired me to write this post. In it Marie Forleo recommended 3 steps:
- Acknowledge and accept that the negative comment or experience happened
- Distract ourselves on purpose so that our minds focus on something else
- Think about positive experiences for at least 20 seconds, so that our brains register positive memories over negative ones
Let me expand on these.
Acknowledge & Accept
It is important to acknowledge the negative experiences that affect us. If we don’t, if we ignore them or bury them away, they may come bubbling up to the surface at a later time. The best way to handle them is to face them.
All we have to do is tell someone about it. We can reach out to a friend or family member, and say, “I received an email and it upset me.” If we don’t have someone to talk to, then we can write it down in a journal or on a piece of paper.
Acknowledging it helps us accept that it affected us. But, it’s important not to spend too much time on this. For instance, we shouldn’t talk about it for hours going through every detail over and over again. This makes it fester, and that doesn’t help. It’s enough to say it or write it down just once. Once is enough to remove the power it has over us. Then we should stop talking about it, not go back to reading the journal, and/or throw away that piece of paper.
Create a Distraction
We should intentionally look for something that makes us feel good, so that we stop thinking about the negative event. Creating a distraction with a positive experience allows our brains to open up to positive cues and let go of the negative ones.
We can go back and re-read the positive emails we received, write a list of 10 things we are grateful for, watch a funny video, read that interesting article that we saved for a later time, or go for a walk while listening to our favorite happy songs. Basically, we can do sometime that will make us smile.
Regularly Focus on Positivity
Marie Forleo recommends that we focus on positive cues for at least 20 seconds at a time, which is the amount of time our brain needs to fully register the positive event.
In addition, I think it is important to focus on positivity on a regular basis so that we can have something to rely on for the next time we encounter a negative experience, making it easier to handle.
In an interview between Melli O’Brien and Elisha Goldstein (2017) they suggested that we can create more positive cues by:
- Scheduling playtime- giving ourselves a break facilitates learning, and makes it easier to adopt new, positive practices
- Assess the people around us- bring people into our environment who are inspiring and reduce negative bias
- Engage with others- creating a community of like-minded people helps support us
- Don’t be hard on ourselves- we are not perfect and dealing with negativity takes time and persistence
Cultivating positive bias doesn’t happen automatically, especially since negativity is a hardwired trait. We may still find ourselves dwelling on the negative from time to time. The important thing is to be gentle with ourselves and review these steps again, and again, and again- however many times are needed. Accept that something is bothering us, focus on something positive, and do this for an extended time an on a regular basis. Even though we all experience negativity, developing positive bias is possible.
However, there are times we can't do so alone, in which case reaching out for support through a therapist, may be just what helps us make it possible.
Abdai, J. & Miklósi, A. (2016). The origin of social evaluation, social eavesdropping, reputation formation, image scoring or what you will. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(1772), 1-13. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01772
Forleo, M. (2017). Retrieved on September 7, 2017 from https://youtu.be/Ty1RQ8bYM-I
O’Brien, M. (2017). Hot to make mindfulness sustainable in your life: a mindfulness masterclass with Elisha Goldstein. Mrs. Mindfulness. Retrieved on September 7, 2017 from https://mrsmindfulness.com/how-make-mindfulness-sustainable/?utm_source=Mrs+Mindfulness+Mail&utm_campaign=9850fabd24-Mindfulness_Sustainable_MRSM_20170807&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_768ef3ed7d-9850fabd24-107711681
Vaish, A., Grossman, T., & Woodward. A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychology Bulletin, 134(3), 383-403. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383