“Research suggests that the human mind has a propensity to pay greater attention to and process the bad compared to the good, a phenomenon often called the negativity bias. Bad feedback has greater impact; bad impressions are quicker to form; bad information is processed more thoroughly…and negative stereotypes are easier to form.”
From Dr. Amit Sood, Chair, Mayo Mind Body Initiative, writing in: Train Your Brain, Engage Your Heart, Transform Your Life
“Your little lights aren’t twinkling.”
“I know, Art, and thanks for noticing. ”
We all know people who thrive on the negatives in life.
Some of us work for them.
Some of us are or were married to them.
You know this individual. They look at a picture that others describe as beautiful and immediately single out the flaws. They’re watchdogs against the possibility of perfection.
These nattering nabobs of negativity are capable of sucking the joy and beauty out of every situation if you let them.
And while the negative people around us are demoralizing, the real demon is that loud, negative voice filling the space between our ears.
We get down and stay down after receiving negative feedback. We focus on the impending catastrophe in our lives and our jobs. The disaster is usually just out of reach, but surely getting closer by the moment.
We forget to celebrate the victories and life’s special moments because we’re preoccupied on all that’s wrong in our lives, workplaces, and careers.
We lose track of the beauty and joy in our work and lives because we allow that voice to drown out our positive thoughts.
Why Our Brains Love the Negative
As Dr. Sood of Mayo describes, we have two primary centers of the brain that control our thoughts: the higher cortical and the lower limbic centers. “Increased activity of the lower limbic center makes you anxious, unhappy, depressed and stressed. Activation of the brain’s higher cortical center helps you be calm, happy joyous and resilient.”
And while the choice is ours regarding which center of the brain to activate, for many of us, our natural propensity is to focus on the lower limbic center.
Our evolutionary wiring seems to support our ease for accessing the negative versus the positive. Dr. Sood uses the analogy of a short, fast broadband connection to the lower limbic center and a long slow, narrowband connection to the higher cortical center, to describe our human wiring.
In other words, we’re predisposed to spend our time playing in the mental gym of negativity. It’s time to cancel your membership to this gym.
5 Ideas to Help Get the Negativity Out:
1. Quit seeking or expecting positive affirmations from those who see flaws.
You cannot control their tendency to preoccupy on the gaps. I’ve learned to accept that their view is to find the flaws—this is who they are. I also feel sorry for their inability to see the beauty in situations that humble the rest of us. Letting go of the need for this approval is liberating.
2. Read and apply the right advice.
Dr. Sood referenced in the opening quote offers a series of books to help “enhance attention, decrease stress; cultivate peace, joy, and resilience; and practice presence with love.”
I love his research-backed perspective and Mayo Clinic legitimacy—rare assets in the self-help community. (I particularly appreciate his work captured in The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living. )
Three other great resources for your push to go positive, include:
- Shirzad Chamine’s: Positive Intelligence
- Lifestorming: Creating Meaning and Achievement in Your Life, by Alan Weiss and Marshall Goldsmith. This wisdom-filled book from two remarkable professionals is a must read.
- Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris offers offers some great tips and approaches on overcoming limitations and adversity from many successful individuals.
3. Get Help to Eliminate the Negative Self-Talk
Many of my coaching clients struggle with “negative self-talk.” Our brains become grooved to go there in challenging or adverse circumstances. It is important to recognize our tendency to start barreling down this well-worn track and to develop strategies for switching to the positive track as quickly as possible. We need to retrain our brains to avoid the negative and focus on the positive. If you recognize your propensity to go negative, and if the books don’t cut it, get some qualified help.
4. Ignore Unsolicited Negative Feedback
The co-author of Lifestorming, Alan Weiss, regularly reminds his readers and audiences that not all feedback is created equal. The negative review of your book on Amazon or the consistently negative comments from your boss or a co-worker is gasoline for our negativity engine. While easy to say, train yourself to solicit and focus on feedback (both constructive and positive) from trusted, quality sources. Ignore everything else.
5. Work on Your Positive Communication
In my feedback courses and coaching, I find that one of the most difficult issues for people to grasp is the need to deliver ample quantities of positive (behavioral and business-focused feedback). I teach a technique for this, and I encourage people to spend a few weeks and keep a tally of their positive to constructive feedback ratio. Most start out heavily weighted to the negative. Your target is to get to a 3:1 positive to constructive mix with your feedback. Those who succeed at this describe a noticeable difference in the tone, tenor, and creativity of their team members adn a positive uptick in their own energy and enthusiasm.
A life or career mired in negativity is a life or career where potential will go unfulfilled, and happiness end up missing in action. Developing the discipline to drown out the negative voices in favor of the positive is critical for success. Strive to look beyond the gaps and flaws for the beauty in every situation. Take qualified feedback seriously and use it to get better. Just don’t let the negativity take control of your life.
Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.