Why our brain tends to focus on the negative and how to overcome it
Have you ever felt dragged down by one single negative feedback, email or event? Have you noticed we tend to focus so much more on those negative thoughts than on the positive ones? One single negative comment can easily outweigh dozen of positive ones… and literally take over your head and stay there for hours! On the other hand, when something positive happens, I am always surprised at how quickly I can dismiss it. I tend to treat it like it’s the way it should be or like I don’t really deserve it anyway.
If this is the case for you, let me reassure you, it’s completely normal. Neuropsychologists even have a name for it: they’ve called it the Brain’s Negativity Bias.
Our mind is naturally inclined to give greater weight to negative experiences.
It’s a heritage from our evolution as a species. Negative experiences take more of our attention, take longer to process, are learned more easily and are better remembered than positive ones.
Why? Because it ensured our survival. Granted, the probability to have to fight on a daily basis to survive is quite low now in Switzerland!
I would argue that having a negative bias is valuable. It helps us stay grounded, realistic and pragmatic. It enables us play the devil’s advocate and identify the obstacles to overcome in order to reach our goal. Like with anything, it’s extreme behaviors that are unproductive. It’s when the negative is taking over way too frequently and/or for too long.
What to do when you find yourself in a negative spiral?
#1 | Become aware of it and call it for what it is.
It all starts by being conscious of what is happening – “Oops I did it again!” style – without judgment. And calling it out loud. “Oh, it’s my negativity bias taking over!”. You can even give it a nickname and personify it. For me personally, I have this picture of a little grumpy furry Gremlins mumbling to himself.
#2 | Divert your attention. Get distracted.
Did you know that the physiological impact of an emotion only lasts for a few seconds? It’s when we start thinking about it that we keep fueling the sensations in our body, which confirms our negative thinking and so on…
To avoid spiraling, you need to focus your attention on something else. The best is to have a good laugh! Time to watch those funny cat videos. You can also go for a walk, go to the bathroom and make funny faces to yourself in the mirror, put music on and start singing out loud, whatever will get you distracted from your mind mumbling.
#3 | Still hung up on it? Change your mindset from “not now” to “not yet”.
This is called Growth Mindset. Your mindset can impact your performance especially when things get tough.
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Growth Mindset people are more focused on learning than the actual outcome. They believe good performance takes work and work is a way to get better at what they do. They make the most of their deficiencies and capitalize on their mistakes.
Fixed Mindset people are focused on the outcome and not the learning. They believe good performance should come naturally and if you have to work hard, it means you’re not smart enough. They tend to hide their deficiencies and mistakes. When faced with a challenge that impacts negatively their performance, they tend to lose their motivation. Their level of self-confidence and self-worth drops and they start ruminating about it.
Growth Mindset people, on the other hand, keep their level of motivation. They are focused on the learning experience. They know that the road to success is made out of risks, failures, set backs and critics. As such, Growth Mindset is a key driver of resilience.
Don’t take me wrong, I am not saying that performance doesn’t matter and it’s all about the effort you put in. Of course it’s important to reach the goals we set for ourselves. But it’s equally important to realize that every set back doesn’t set your fate in stone. As Carol Dweck puts it, it simply means that you’re not there yet (with emphasis on yet!).
I am sharing with you a few thought starters and actions you can put in place to overcome negativity bias.
► ACTION 1 | Believe you can change mindsets
If you recognize yourself in the fixed mindset description, be open to the idea that it’s possible for you to change it. Just like you’ve changed and evolved throughout your life. And if you need some scientific proof, I invite you to read the research on neuroplasticity.
► ACTION 2 | Identify the areas in your life that could benefit from « the power of yet versus the tyranny of now »
In which area.s you feel you are not where you want to be? Add the word “yet” to it!
Write down everything you’ve learned on your journey so far.
Identify the next small step you can make as of tomorrow towards your goal.
► ACTION 3 | Celebrate yourself for where you are NOW
Take the time to appreciate how much you’ve grown and all the things you overcame to be where you are today. You can put it on paper and read it to yourself to register it at a deeper level.
Develop the habit of celebrating the small daily victories! You can have a ritual like treating yourself with a capuccino or a matcha latte. You can even turn it into a challenge with a close friend and have a weekly “bragging” call. This will help rewiring the mind to focus more on the positive.
I am sure you also have your own rituals and I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below to share your own experience on how you deal with your own negativity bias.