Our brain evolved to ensure our ancestors’ survival. It did this by using three cunning tactics to keep us safe:
- Our brain is hardwired to overestimate threats so we wouldn’t take unnecessary risks.
- Our brain is naturally anxious and wary of change and unfamiliar situations so we would be vigilant and keep away from any potential dangers.
- Our brain focuses on bad experiences and remembers them better than good ones so they can recognize and avoid hazards they encountered before. This is called the negativity bias. Think of the negative stuff as “velcro” to the brain and the good memories are like “teflon” (Dr. Rick Hanson metaphor.)
These three mechanisms are still operational today. And our negativity bias’ way to learn from horrible experiences is as active now as it was in the Stone Age. In fact, research has shown that our brain responds with more vigorous activity to negative stimuli than to positive ones.
But nowadays, we are far less likely to be devoured by a wild beast. So, while our surroundings and circumstances have changed dramatically, our brain hasn’t.
So, since our brain doesn’t need to prevent physical danger 24/7, it obsesses about intangible threats to our wellbeing and ego. It occupies itself with other people’s opinions about us, dwells on our mistakes and shortcomings and frets about distant, improbable menaces we see on the news.
It zooms into every tiny criticism, clings to hints of disapproval and gorges on tales of catastrophe and tragedy. All the while fueling our anxiety and destroying our self-worth. But, if it is our nature to get hung up on the negatives, what can we do about it?
We can counteract our natural negativity instincts. Here are five tips to consider.
• Notice the automatic response. Negativity is our brain’s preprogrammed, habitual response to any new, challenging or unpleasant situation. Every time you feel, talk or respond negative about a situation, notice what is happening and remind yourself that this is evolution trying to protect you. Nothing more.
• Avoid negative influences. It is tough to be upbeat about life if you are trapped in a toxic swamp. Steer clear of constant complainers, apocalyptic prophets and conspiracy theorists. And ditch the news. You might be less informed. But who cares? You will be happier.
• Power up your boundaries. It isn’t always possible to remove yourself from negative influences. But it helps to have boundaries to protect you. Just imagine an invisible energy field that envelops your whole body and only allows positive energy to permeate while blocking negativity. Give it a try and don’t knock it until you have tried it.
• Surround yourself with positivity. It’s imperative that you regularly cleanse yourself from negativity. Seek out the positive uplifting people and situations. Get out in nature. OD on cat videos on YouTube. Find what lifts your spirits and do more of it.
• Heal low self-worth. With a healthy sense of worth and the knowledge that you ARE enough, it becomes much more difficult for negativity to grip hold of you. Especially if the negativity is about yourself, your abilities and your life.
In Peter Bregman’s article, “Managing the Critical Voices Inside Your Head,” published in the Harvard Business Review, he writes:
“Resist the urge to judge whether the voices in your head are right. It’s impossible to know and it doesn’t matter anyway. Are you lazy? The truth is that you probably are, in some ways. And, in other ways, you’re not. But that’s not the right question. Instead, think about the outcome you want and ask this question: Is what this voice is saying — and how it’s saying it — useful right now?”
So, next time you feel negativity overpowering you, remember that you can respond differently. You have power over your actions. And reactions. You have a choice.