How to Reverse Your Tendency to Be Negative
With mindfulness, you can change the way you think.
Posted Jun 11, 2019
All of us could benefit from taking the time to pay attention to how we react to people and to events in our lives. Most of us think of ourselves as open-minded and non-judgmental. Another way to put this is that we think of ourselves as having a “positivity bias.” I thought I did—that is, until I started paying attention to how I react to people and situations. To my surprise, I discovered that I’m quick to jump to negative conclusions: “He talked too much,” “She didn’t ask me how I’m doing,” and “That meeting was a waste of time.” You get the idea.
Bottom line: I always looked for what I didn’t like instead of for what I did like. I also discovered that this tendency was a source of emotional pain for me. In other words, it didn’t feel good to always be judging and seeing the negatives in people and events.
This piece is about how you can change that tendency to “go negative.”
I’m not suggesting that you should be positive about everything. Being mindful of what’s going right in your life doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to always feel upbeat. Life is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences—of fun and not-so-fun. I can’t feel positive about a migraine, as in “Bring it on; I’m positive about everything." By suggesting that you work on overcoming the tendency to be negative, I’m encouraging you to strike a balance in life.
The negativity bias
The negativity bias refers to the brain’s tendency to pay more attention—and give more weight—to the unpleasant over the pleasant in our lives. Negative experiences stick like glue. Positive ones slip right out of our memory. This bias developed because, in order for our ancestors to survive, they had to be skilled at avoiding danger. It was more important (sometimes life-saving) to avoid unpleasant experiences (such as predatory animals) than it was to enjoy pleasant ones.
In his book, Hardwired for Happiness, Rick Hanson refers to the pleasurable as “the carrot” and the unpleasurable as “the stick:”
From a survival standpoint, sticks have more urgency and impact than carrots. If you fail to get a carrot today, you’ll have another chance to get one tomorrow, but if you fail to avoid a stick today—whap!—no more carrots forever.
And so, the brain’s negativity bias can operate as a survival mechanism. The problem is that this bias tends to spill over into aspects of our lives that aren’t essential to survival. Hanson uses the example of how, if we got 20 things done today and made one mistake, we’re likely to dwell on that mistake, even though it represents only a small fraction of the day.
When I first read about the negativity bias, I was skeptical because I thought of myself as having a positivity bias. So I decided to conduct an experiment by calling to mind what I think of as one of the happiest days of my life: my daughter’s wedding day.
I was surprised to find that I immediately thought of all the things that went wrong that day: the bread was late, so the post-ceremony meal was delayed for a bit; the driver I’d hired to whisk the bride and groom away wasn’t there at the appointed time. What came to mind first were the negatives, even though, not only were they minor issues, but the positives far outweighed the negatives: the bride’s father (my husband!) conducted the ceremony; the bride’s beloved high school music teacher played piano for the walk down the aisle; the bride’s brother (my son) gave a toast that had everyone in stitches.
My little “remember the wedding” experiment was eye-opening. It inspired me to see if I could turn my negativity bias into a more balanced view of my life. With that as an introduction to the subject, here are my suggestions on how to do this.
First: Become aware of your tendency to judge people and events negatively
You can’t change how you react to what you encounter in life until you’re aware of those reactions. Much of our behavior is the result of deeply ingrained habits that we’re often not aware of. We’re stuck in “knee-jerk” reactions and, for many of us, those knee jerk reactions are negative, judgmental ones.
Learning to recognize the tendencies of your mind—including a tendency to be negative—is a mindfulness practice. Start by setting the intention to pay careful attention to how you react to people and situations. You could even keep a running count. When you see people out in public, for example, do you look for what to enjoy about how they look or do you focus on what’s not to your taste: their hair, their outfit, their weight?
With practice, you can learn to catch your tendency to “go negative.” This is an essential first step in changing how you respond to people and events. I’ve found it helpful to say to myself: “Oops, I’m judging the way she’s dressed instead of enjoying her company;” or (in a light-hearted tone) “There I go again, focusing on the one thing that I didn’t like about that experience.”
Second: Intentionally counter the tendency to “go negative” by turning your attention to what was positive about your experience.
Once you’ve become aware of a tendency to react negatively and judgmentally, you’re in a position to change. In effect, you’re replacing a habit that’s not serving you well with one that will make you happier and more content with life. You could start this way: when you realize you’re focusing on everything that went wrong on a given day, intentionally call to mind what went right for you. Here’s an example.
A few weeks ago, I had a challenging day. As I went to bed that night, I realized I was saying over and over to myself: “Everything went wrong today.” The more I said it, the worse I felt.
What had happened that day?
I was by myself at home all day, and my dog Scout got sick. She started vomiting every half hour or so. I spent most of the day putting a leash on her, taking her outside my apartment, and then bringing her back in—not an easy task since I suffer from chronic illness and have limited stamina.
Accompanying this difficult physical exertion for me was a running commentary in my mind over whether or not to call the vet. I was reluctant because our usual vet was not available, so this would be a “cold call.” In addition, due to my poor health, I don’t make trips like this on my own. I’m incredibly fortunate that my husband usually takes care of these things, but he was gone that day (for a good reason). My stress level got more and more intense as I went back and forth, back and forth over whether I should call the vet.
And a bit of self-blame was contributing to my emotional pain. I’m pretty good at accepting the limitations imposed by chronic illness, but I found myself complaining that if only I weren’t sick (as if it were my fault), I’d be able to handle what was happening.
At 3 p.m., I finally called the vet. Of course, I’d waited so long that they didn’t have any appointments left (self-blame, self-blame). I did finally manage to get them to fit Scout in on an emergency basis. Scout was seen by a vet, given some tests, diagnosed, and treated.
So, what about that “Everything went wrong today” mantra I was repeating to myself as I got into bed that night? Well, not everything went wrong. Yes, Scout was sick and I had to exert myself beyond my limits. But a dear friend who lives across the country texted with me during the day, giving me suggestions and support. Then, when I finally did call the vet, I was assertive enough to get them to fit Scout in that day. In addition, she got excellent care at the clinic. And finally, when I got home, I was no longer fretting and worrying; that helped me a lot!
So, did everything go wrong that day? Of course not. I was just focusing on the negatives. When I realized what I was doing, I made a “course correction” by calling to mind everything that went right that day, including the bottom line: I got my dog to the vet when she needed to go!
I was amazed at how quickly this “course correction” eased my emotional suffering and allowed me to go to sleep feeling good about how I’d handled a very tough day for both me and Scout. (I’ve been working on turning what I did that night into a formal practice: when I turn out the lights each night, I try to remember to think about what went right for me that day.)
Before closing this piece, I want to add one more suggestion for those of you who get your news “on a screen”:
Third: Counter the media’s focus on the negative.
The media contributes to our negativity bias. It focuses on scary stories that frequently imply that we’re in danger all the time from every source imaginable. This onslaught can leave us in a state of constant fear. (Stephen Colbert satirized this tendency with his “March to Keep Fear Alive” segment some years ago.)
How can you counter the tendency to be frightened about the world you live in?
I recommend that you put your reaction to the media’s focus on the negative into perspective by telling yourself something like: “This fear I’m experiencing is my mind’s knee-jerk protective mechanism at work. Yes, in rare instances, that reaction could help me avert danger. However, more than 99 percent of the time, it’s the source of unnecessary stress and anxiety. Let me calmly and rationally assess the actual likelihood that I or those I love are in danger.”
Having rationally assessed the media’s focus on the negative, switch your attention to all the good that goes on in the world, such as people stepping up to help others in a crisis. Spend some time on this because, as noted at the beginning of this piece (and as I’m sure you’ve experienced), the negative tends to stick like glue, but the positive tends to slide right out of our minds. This means it’s important to intentionally look for the positives—to take the time to let the good and right in this world sink in.
At times it can feel like an uphill battle to counter a tendency to focus on the negative. However, by setting the intention to be aware of when you’re doing it, and then consciously countering it by focusing on the positives and on the nourishing aspects of an experience, you can change the way you respond to what happens to you. In my experience, your efforts and will make you happier and more content with your life.
In the words of philosopher and psychologist William James: “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”
Thank you for reading my work. You might also like “Turning Negatives Into Positives When You’re Chronically Ill.”