The Negative Thinking Spiral
“I know for sure-what we dwell on is who we become”
Numerous authors have addressed the impact of negative thinking on our lives. Wayne Dyer, Chip Conley and Shawn Achor have written extensively on the topic. I recently read a book by Rick Hanson entitled “Hardwiring Happiness”. While other authors have addressed the impact of negative thinking, Dr. Hanson discusses how the patterns of negative thinking are a function of our brain evolution as well as changes that occur in our brains as a result of our thinking.
Let’s first discuss the wiring of our brains which lead us to focus on the negative. Hanson shares that early humans had to focus on the negative in order to survive. By not being able to anticipate what could go wrong these individuals could become dinner for another species. As a result, we actually have evolved a “negativity bias” according to Hanson. This bias also explains why we can hear five positive things during a performance review and hear one opportunity for growth and zoom in on the opportunity missing all of the positive things that were said. Research has been conducted on the critical positivity ratio that states individuals need at least three positive comments to one negative comment to flourish. Although challenged regarding the exact number needed, it is somewhat intuitive to acknowledge that individuals definitely grow and flourish under positive influences and tend to decline in situations that are negative.
Unfortunately, it is not just evolution that has an impact on negative thinking. Our brains also play a role. The amygdala where emotions are processed is activated more by negative events than by positive ones. Once the event triggers the amygdala, it sends alarm messages to the hypothalamus which sends an urgent message for adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline and cortisol are extremely bad for our bodies if not used to help us fight or flee a situation which in today’s environment is not an appropriate response. Think about it. You are in a meeting with a co-worker and your receiving messages to fight or flee. It just isn’t going to happen yet the adrenaline and cortisol continues to stimulate your body and you have to sit there! Now the event is being stored negative detail by detail building new neurons for later access about similar events. The more frequent this cycle happens in our brain the more sensitive to negative events we become sometimes recognizing events as negative when they are not.
Complicating the negativity bias is our memories which are either implicit or explicit. Although explicit memory is typically a positive phenomenon, what is stored in implicit memory is more often negatively biased. As we access these memories we continue to build more energy for the negative and may even perceive events as negative due to memories rather than what is actually happening in the moment. Most of us have had this experience when encountering a person or event over time. We come to expect that the person or situation will be a negative experience and then actually create the result based upon our expectations. We look for the negative to happen and in looking for it we may ignore anything positive about it. And we may even walk away with a self-satisfying statement to ourselves such as “I told you so”.
Shawn Achor refers to this process as reality architecture. He challenges us to realize that we, in fact, have control over how we interpret the events in our lives. By changing our view of the facts we can actually change our reaction to event and reduce any stress caused by the events in our lives. A second opportunity for looking at a situation differently can happen if we change our vantage point, i.e., look at the situation from another lens. Sometimes a situation that we are interpreting as negative is a “both and” situation. When we are experiencing an event it may seem exactly identical to a former event yet we have to examine our judgement of the event. Sometimes a person may exhibit behaviors that we associate with a negative impact on us yet they are actually trying to demonstrate more positive interactions. Unfortunately, our brains are wired to see the behaviors as negative based upon what has been stored. I actually like Byron Katie’s turnaround when we find ourselves judging what is happening. She guides us to ask ourselves “Is it true?” when we are making internal or external statements about a given situation or person. We then ask ourselves a second time “Is it true?” with the intention of surfacing what is true and not a perception about the situation. The third statement we make is “How do I feel when I think this way?” and finally “How would I feel if I didn’t think this way?” For most of my clients, the third and fourth questions cement their new thinking, even if they can answer yes to the first two questions. The fourth question gives the power back to the individual to determine how they are going to feel. If we return to the beginning the blog, we realize that continuing in a negative framing of an event only sets us up for negativity and contributes highly to the negativity bias. We have to know that we can change our thinking in order to transform the negativity bias.
Over the next couple of weeks, when you begin to feel negative emotions about a person or event, stop and think about what you are saying about the event. Ask yourself if this is how you want to respond to the situation or event with your new knowledge that you are contributing to your own negativity bias!
To Your Success!
(1) Wayne Dyer
(2) Chip Conley
(3) Shawn Achor
(4) Rick Hanson
(5) Byron Katie