I became a big fan of psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Rick Hanson when he blew my mind in an interview stating that our brains are wired for negativity. Hanson explains that the brain responds to negative experiences like Velcro, while alternatively, responding to positive ones like Teflon. He went on to share the reasons and science behind this – all while I sat there stunned and thinking about how much sense it made.
If you really start to pay attention to your thoughts, you’ll see how true this negativity bias is. Our mind is constantly picking out our flaws, pointing out why things we want to do will be difficult, and harping on what could potentially go wrong. And that negativity spills out into all aspects of life. Think about it – every single thing in life begins with a thought. So when the default setting of our brain is churning out negative thoughts, it’s going to create a more negative life, from how we view the world to what we choose to do (or not do) in it.
But here’s the good news – we can change the setting. It’s that whole, neurons that fire together wire together thing. I’m not sure we can completely remove the negative thoughts and we certainly can’t avoid all negative experiences.
But we can even the playing field.
1. Create Space Between You and Your Thoughts.
“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind – you are the one who hears it.” – Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul
Reading that book rocked my world. It took me a long time to get through it because every so often I had to stop and really think about what I just read and really let it set in.
Our brain is ALWAYS thinking but we are rarely aware of it. Instead we allow our brain to just do its thing – to run our thoughts with little-to-no supervision.
Think about it – how often are you really aware of what you’re thinking? Maybe in conversations when you’re thinking about what you want to say next. Maybe at work when you’re trying to think through a problem to find a solution. Maybe when you’re trying to write something and you’re thinking through how it sounds in your head first. (Side bar – that’s why journaling is so beneficial – writing out our thoughts forces us to be aware of them.) But most of the time, we don’t focus on our thoughts. They move so quickly through our brain that we don’t even notice them.
This is because we are too close to them to be aware of them, let alone control them. We are so close to our thoughts – and our emotions for that matter – that we even identify with them.
This is what we say to describe our feelings – “I am.” But really think about that – we are not those things. We are feeling those things. We are experiencing them. Big difference.
We are separate from our thoughts and emotions. How do we know this? Because we can notice them. Think to yourself “I have so much to do.” You can hear yourself say it in your head. You can’t be the thought if you can hear the thought. You are the one who hears it. Now think of the last time you felt overwhelmed. You knew you were overwhelmed.
You were aware of that feeling. If we can notice something, hear something, be aware of something, then we are not that thing. We are the one noticing it.
The observer is never the object it’s observing.
This awareness – recognizing what we are thinking or feeling – is a critical first step to controlling our thoughts, as it creates the first bit of space between us and the thought or feeling. It begins to separate us from those things so we can question them or choose how to react to them rather than blindly follow them.
PRACTICAL TIP: If you have trouble recognizing your thoughts/feelings, set reminders on your phone for random times throughout the day. When the alarm goes off, intentionally notice what you were just thinking or feeling in the moment before the alarm went off. This will help train you to recognize your thoughts/feelings on a regular basis.
2. Call Yourself Out.
Once we recognize something, we can then name it. Call it out. We know what all our thoughts and feelings are. And knowledge is power because knowledge always gives us a choice.
Labeling negative thoughts and feelings strips them of their control. It’s like saying, “I see you and I know what you are,” as opposed to something that has completely taken over us. We are no longer unaware of them or consumed by them, but rather outside them and pointing at them. It’s further separation.
When you catch yourself thinking something negative – about yourself or someone else – call yourself out. Say in your head, “that’s negative” or “that’s mean.” When you catch yourself thinking of things that could go wrong, say to yourself, “that’s fear.”
Oftentimes our negative thoughts become negative statements that escape our lips before we are even aware of them. And then it’s too late – we’ve judged our friend, insulted our in-laws, or disrespected our coworker. Still say to yourself after-the-fact, “that was negative.” It will create some separation, and eventually the space will be wide enough for you to catch the negativity before it jumps out of your mouth.
That’s what I experienced. I first started to call myself out any time I said something negative. Slowly, I started catching those negative thoughts in time to stop myself from saying them. Oftentimes, I could find a way to rephrase what I needed to say in a positive way. Eventually, the positive reframes came naturally and started to infiltrate my thoughts. Before I knew it, I was talking and thinking more positively… without even thinking about it.
3. Find the Real Root.
Petty negativity will be the first to dissipate as your brain is rewired for more positivity. That’s the good news. That bad news is that the negativity that remains will be deeper rooted and tougher to beat.
(Side bar – you will also become much more aware of other’s negativity and you will likely find it very irritating. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Negative thoughts and feelings exist for a reason. They always reveal something about us to ourselves. They show us what upsets us, what angers us, and what scares us. The more we seek to understand them, the easier we can release them.
In order to understand them, we must find out where they are coming from. Something triggered them – what is that trigger? It’s rarely the actual event that occurred. It’s usually something deeper and you can uncover the deeper cause by asking, why?
Let’s take a very common occurrence a lot of people can relate to – someone cuts you off in traffic. What do we typically do? We get frustrated or angry at that person. In an instant, we’ve let some stranger turn our mindset into something negative.
When you really think about it, what’s the big deal? Sure, you could argue that they almost caused an accident… but they didn’t. No point in crying over milk that didn’t actually spill. So what’s really happening? Why does it upset us? The answer usually lies somewhere along the lines of, “they are being disrespectful, and we have somewhere to be too,” and blah, blah, blah. When you really start to dig into that, it’s an assumption. It’s an assumption about a total stranger that we know nothing about. Yet, we assume that they don’t value our time and think their time is more important. It’s a guess. What if the truth is that they have a dying child in the hospital and are rushing to go see them before they go in for emergency surgery? The point is that we don’t know but we tend to assume the worst – a worst that gives us a reason to be offended, disrespected, upset, angry, etc. It’s that damn negativity bias again.
We aren’t actually upset that we got cut off in traffic. We’re upset about what we assume it means.
4. Question Your Assumptions.
“The what if’s point in both directions” – Pico Iyer
So now that we’ve created enough separation to see that oftentimes we are unconsciously reacting to the negative conclusion our brain immediately jumps to, we can question those assumptions. Is it true that the person who cut us off in traffic doesn’t respect our time? Maybe. Or maybe it had absolutely nothing to do with us and they were caught up in their own world of why they were in a hurry.
But here’s the bigger question – does it matter? Does it matter that some stranger doesn’t respect your time? And if so, why?
This brings up a much bigger point in caring about what other people think of us, and it happens all the time. A friend cancels plans and we take it personally. A coworker questions our work and we take it as an insult. Your significant other doesn’t text back right away and you think they don’t prioritize you. We are constantly analyzing what other people do or say and assuming what it means. Question those assumptions and take it a step further by questioning if it really matters.
Does your coworker think you’re not doing a good job? Maybe. But does it really matter? Not really. They aren’t your boss. You believing you’re doing a good job matters much more. Does a delayed response from your significant other mean they aren’t prioritizing you? No. Maybe something unexpected came up or their phone dies. But does it matter if in fact they don’t prioritize you? Absolutely. See the trick is being aware of the bias, seeing where and how your brain jumps to conclusions, and weeding through it all to find the truth.
5. Choose Your Reaction.
This is the fun part. The phrase, perception is reality exists for a reason. The stories we tell ourselves – the stories we choose to believe – are the reality we live in. If you believe that strangers don’t respect your time, your friends are jerks, your coworkers think you’re unqualified, and your significant other doesn’t prioritize you, then that becomes the reality you live in. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not because it’s what you believe.
But as we’ve just learned, you have choices. You don’t have to blindly ride every negative brain wave. You can choose to believe in the good in people. You can choose to let go of things that don’t really matter. And you can choose to change the things that do.
Your brain is a tool for you to use. Not the other way around.
Use it for good.