I can have a great day rich with the things I love but, as I wind down for the evening, why do I focus on that one mean and anonymous comment I received on social media? Why do we focus on the negative so much?
You can thank our brain’s evolutionary negativity bias. Our brains evolved to ensure our ancestors’ survival. Hence, it developed some cunning tactics to keep them safe: It hardwired them to overestimate threats and underestimate themselves so they wouldn’t take unnecessary risks.
Our ancestors’ brains also made them naturally anxious and wary of change, unknown things and unfamiliar situations so they would be wary and keep away from any potential dangers. We became huge worry warts. And, finally the brain evolved to ensure our ancestors focused on bad experiences and remembered them better than good ones so they could recognize and avoid hazards they encountered before. Enter the negativity bias we all know and don’t love.
All these brain mechanisms, geared towards our safety, are as active today 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. Dr Rick Hanson has a great visual for this: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
Happily we have reduced the occurrences of saber-toothed tigers. But while our circumstances have changed dramatically, our brain’s “lizard brain” function has not. So, instead of preventing physical danger it obsesses about intangible threats to our wellbeing and our ego. It occupies itself with other people’s opinions about us, dwells on our mistakes and shortcomings and frets about distant, improbable menaces we imagine. We coaches call this “story fondling,” and it can really hijack your peace of mind.
So, our “Inner Critic” has a passion for the negative. It zooms into every tiny criticism, clings to signs of disapproval and gorges on tales of catastrophe, disaster and tragedy. All the while fueling our anxiety and destroying our self-worth. But, if it is our default nature to ruminate on the negatives, what can we do about this ancient function? Are we destined to be “worry warts?”
Your brain’s prefrontal cortex provides the tools to to outsmart this prehistoric “pea brain.” While our brains might be honing in on the negative, we don’t need to resign ourselves to a life of doom, gloom and self-flagellation. We can counteract our natural negativity instincts. Here are some ideas:
- 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 negatively about a situation, remind yourself that this is evolution trying to protect you. Bring a halt the story fondling.
- 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 ditch the news. You might be less informed. But who cares? You will be happier.
- Power up your boundaries (a.k.a. “shields”). It isn’t always possible to remove yourself from negative influences. But it helps to have a force field to protect you (like in Star Trek – “Shields up, Mr. Sulu!”). Imagine an invisible energy field that envelops your whole body and only allows positive energy to permeate while blocking negativity. Use your imagination for good!
- Shower your world with positivity and gratitude. Regularly cleanse yourself from negativity. Start a Gratitude Journal or, next time you take a shower, imagine the water as a stream of positive energy that washes out all negativity and replaces it with positivity, happiness, love and joy (or whatever else you fancy). Rinse and repeat.
- Heal low self-worth. With a healthy sense of your worth and the knowledge that you ARE amazing just as you are, it becomes much more difficult for negativity to grip you. Especially if the negativity is about yourself, your abilities and your life.
So, next time you feel negativity overpowering you, stop the madness. Decide to not be a worry wart. Notice what you are thinking and use your evolved brain to shift your mindset to all that is positive in your world, right this very minute.
CALL TO ACTION: What have you been worrying about? Let’s work on a plan to get your thoughts back in a more positive space. Schedule a 30-min complimentary Breakthrough Session here: https://karendarrin.acuityscheduling.com/ or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up for more Tips & Tools: Karen Darrin Blog and receive my free gift, “Your Inner Critic Worksheet.”