“I’m so negative,” my clients often say. “You’re so human,” is often my first response. The truth is, aside from illnesses like depression or someone’s naturally more easy going persona, all people’s minds are wired towards negative thinking patterns.
Humans give more importance to negative experiences than positive ones, often referred to as a negativity bias. In a sense, seeing the glass as half empty is an evolutionary response. Why? Various theories exist, but the one I subscribe to the most in my practice is from an evolutionary perspective. 2 million years ago to just approximately 40,000 years ago, cavemen needed to constantly worry about death from the natural elements. Paying attention to predators and potential for frostbite for example, was necessary to survive. As I speak to often in therapy sessions, our brains haven’t evolved rapidly at all since the Paleolethic era. On the other hand, technology, industry, and the advertising world has blossomed. If it feels like too much stimulation, it’s because it is.
Researchers show that modern human’s negativity bias starts to form as early as our first year of life. Learn more here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3652533/ As babies age into toddlerhood, their propensity to catch onto and eventually learn distressing, fear evoking words is much higher than happy ones. We all know what it’s like to have a vivid memory recall of an emotional trauma and how happier childhood memories tend to slip.
As we age, our natural inclination towards the negativity bias is strengthened by a variety of other factors. One example of this is the constant streaming of news. News media manipulates the idea that negative input is more captivating to audience members than positive. Some studies also emphasize that Generalized Anxiety Disorder also partners with the negativity bias. One of the main effects of Generalized Anxiety Disorder is rumination and worry, so these type of self defeating thoughts tend to stick.
The negativity bias effects our relationships as well. Think about how quick most of us are to point out our partner’s flaws? In the workplace, the negativity bias keeps us from building trusting, effective relationships with our coworkers and supervisors.
Although focusing on the negative is our nature, there are some strategies that might help.
CBT isn’t my number one strategy in therapy- but it can help relative to challenging our mind’s negative thinking. How do you notice your feelings change when you are thinking this way? Does this thought include some distortions on your part (think: all or nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, or catastrophizing).
Mindfulness & meditation. So much of the work here is around simply noticing your thoughts. Noting is one of my favorite mindfulness techniques when it comes to negative thinking. Noting involves internally journaling your thought in your mind and simply recognizing it. In noting, we acknowledge the negative thought, label it, and then let it go until the next one comes up. While challenging at first, noting can create a wonderful sense of separation between our Self and our negative thoughts.
Engage your senses. Enjoy your cup of coffee by smelling it, holding the cup’s warmth, and sipping it slowly. Just reconnecting with our senses can help us tune into all of life’s beauty.
Think of adversity as an opportunity to change. So many of our negative thoughts bubble up when we face challenges. Journal or simply think about all of your biggest life growth experiences. Bet you they stem primarily from challenging situations! We grow most during hard times!
Rely on your friends. Folks often respond with a shutter at the idea of needing validation. I disagree. While relying solely on others creates major problems, our caveman brain also loves community. Forming and relying on community is one of the best parts of being a human being. Lean on your community to remind you of how far you’ve come. While your friends may stink at having a positive perspective on their own growth, I’m confident they’d be able to offer that to you.