Do you ever feel like sometimes you can be your own worst enemy?
You beat yourself up. Trip over yourself. Get annoyed with others. Cry at diaper commercials. Flip the bird. Numb yourself with Netflix. Or worse, create your own internal horror movie, usually with B ratings.
It happens. You are allowed to be human.
Here’s the thing: We all have this inclination of the brain called the negativity bias… and it’s part of the human design.
The negativity bias is sort of what it sounds like but has a neuro-physiological basis. Think of it like a background surveillance system or operating system. Just like the heart beats and the lungs breathe, the brain is continually scanning the environment for danger… and all this happens below our awareness.
The negativity bias prepares us for action and to get out of harm’s way. Better safe than sorry, right?
Now, the most common stressors most of us face in day-to-day interactions are typically not life threatening. The stressors are around being liked, performance, friendships and relationships, money, news, and the future—and the stories we tell ourselves about them. It’s our perception of threat that ignites the stress response. We tend to overestimate the perceived threat as if it’s “do or die” and underestimate our ability to cope. When your inner alarm switch is stuck ON, your body can’t easily recover without rest. You can feel worn down physically, mentally, and emotionally.
But have you ever noticed how you interpret these kinds of stressors—whether it’s the stuff that’s happening in the real world or in your own mind?
Psychologist Rick Hanson describes 5 ways in which the negativity bias manifests:
- We scan for bad news as part of the human design (we can’t help it).
- We focus on the bad news and it becomes associated with pain and unpleasant emotions; we get tunnel vision.
- We overreact to it.
- We remember it. In other words, the experience or sensations fast-tracks into our memory banks.
- We can ruminate on the experience, reinforcing a negative feedback loop. I call this being caught in a “head spin.”
This negativity bias leads to cognitive habits like: overthinking, engaging in negative social comparison, perfectionism, procrastination, fixating on unhelpful thoughts and situations, and doing harmful or unhelpful things—usually to avoid the pain, like retail therapy, too much alcohol or other vices, social media stalking, oversleeping, or Haagen Dazs, to name a few.
Here’s the thing, no matter how intelligent, or kind, or confident you are, you can become negative, small-minded and mean without even realizing it—as you snap at people, become overly critical of yourself and others, and gripe with friends. It can be contagious, too. Misery loves company, right?
But in a state of personal distress and a narrow view with the negativity bias, it’s hard to get the clarity and empathy that will help you get perspective on things and be caring toward yourself and others.
A great image to depict this tricky state is that of an arrow. (Think The Hunger Games.)
Some physical and mental pain is inevitable in life. For example, I work with many students. Here’s a common scenario: You worked really hard on a project, spent hours in the library and even went to the writing resource center. But you get a less than desirable grade, maybe you even bombed. Ouch.
The first arrow is that unavoidable pain of disappointment or anger.
But your tricky mind steps in to interpret the situation… maybe you go into self-judgement: What is wrong with me? I must not be cut out for this job/school/program. I should just quit now.
Or else you might go into blame mode: That professor/boss/co-worker is terrible. What’s his problem? How could she?
Or let’s say you ask someone you’re crushing on to get coffee or dinner and that person says, ‘No thanks.’ Immediately, your mind will insert an elaborate ‘mind movie’ about what is wrong with you. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
We add insult to injury with our reactions with those 2nd, 3rd, and 4th arrows. It’s those arrows—the ones we aim at ourselves—that causes so much of our suffering. (So unnecessary. Trust me.) But we can practice deflecting those arrows.
It starts with noticing them!
So ask yourself when you might be directing unnecessary arrows at yourself. Just observe over the next week or so, without any judgment. Be curious about your mind. Observe your inner critic. Cultivate some self-compassion. After all, life gives us chances every single day to make different choices, to respond more patiently, and to get a bit of perspective.
Check out the next article on how to offset the negativity bias with a simple skill to practice (on positivity).
Resource: Resilient: Find Your Inner Strength by Rick Hanson