How can you overcome the negativity bias?
But there is good news. Despite the evolutionary hand we’ve been dealt, the degree to which we’re able to override our “default” setting and avoid falling into an abyss of self-recrimination, insecurity, sadness, anger, bitterness and other negative emotions depends on a slew of factors including our upbringing, the input we’ve received from those around us whose opinions we value, and how we interpret what we’ve been told. “The single most important underlying factor is….how we talk to ourselves about our experiences,” notes Kenneth Yeager, PhD, director of STAR (Stress, Trauma, and Resilience) Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “If you challenge yourself…to be mindful of your daily activities, noticing what’s important [and what isn’t], you are more likely to have positive life experiences,” Dr. Yeager explains. Basically, you need to put effort into truly valuing all the good and positive aspects of your life so that you are not overcome by the negative. Even if you are facing a multitude of objectively negative situations, you can try to appreciate the positive aspects of your life, regardless of how small they may be.
Other ways to counterbalance our proclivity towards negativity? Grant Brenner, MD, Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center (New York), advises:
- Be poised to gently recognize what is happening when negative patterns start to get activated and practice doing something each and every time—even something very small—to break the pattern. If you are inclined to overanalyze parts of conversations that you assume are negative, figure out a hobby or habit that keeps you from overanalyzing, like reading, going for a run, cleaning your house up, or creating a music playlist that makes you feel happy.
- Notice your negative self-dialogue and substitute positive approaches. “You idiot!” becomes, “I wish I had made a different choice, but I will remember how I wish I had acted and apply it to future situations.”
- Another tactic that might feel strange at first, but can help to approach your mean inner voice with kindness, is talking to yourself as you would a friend. When negative thoughts intrude ask yourself, “Are you ok? What’s wrong? Why are you so angry? Are you feeling hurt?” The idea is to good-naturedly interrupt yourself whenever you start to trash talk yourself. It’s kind of like The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” except it involves treating yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you treat the people you love.
- Perhaps most important, notes Brenner, is to “cultivate a gentle, curious and patient attitude with yourself. Learn to celebrate small victories [over negativity and self-recrimination] while understanding that you may have days of back-sliding. It’s all a natural part of the learning and growth process.”
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