Negativity Bias

My new book, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens, is available now! To celebrate, I am running a five-part series highlighting some concepts from the book. I’ll talk about some different ways perfectionists struggle, and offer some tools for change. (By the way, although my book is technically aimed at teens, a lot of the tools work for adults too, and these blogs posts will focus on ideas for grownups.) This week’s post is about the negativity bias.

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Here’s an experiment: after you finish reading this paragraph, close your eyes and think about your day yesterday. Take two minutes to recall everything that had a significant impact on you — events, emotions, thoughts. When you are done, write or type a list of everything you remembered. Do that now, before reading any further.

How many thoughts, feelings, and events on your list were positive? How many were negative — complaints, criticisms, disappointments, etc.? If you are like most human beings, the majority (perhaps the vast majority) were negative. That’s because humans have actually evolved to be negative. For our ancestors, noticing what’s wrong — i.e., dangerous — was more important to survival than noticing what’s right. If they failed to notice a beautiful sunset or a juicy mango, they lived to fight another day. If they failed to notice the smell of rotten food or the sound of a tiger lurking behind a bush, that’s it — end of their genetic line.

negativity-web

So our brains have evolved to pay more attention things that are threatening, icky, scary, sketchy, and to easily forget about things that are tasty, pleasurable, exciting, fulfilling. As Rick Hanson puts it, our brains are Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.

While this brain pattern helped our ancestors survive in dangerous territory, it is less helpful for those of us living in relatively safe and stable environments today. Look back at your list of negative thoughts and experiences from yesterday. How many of those were actual survival threats? Most likely none of them were actually dangerous, but your brain and nervous system reacted as if they were. As a result, you may have spent a large portion of your day with your sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” branch) activated, causing you to feel anxious, self-critical, or depressed.

Now take the layer of negativity bias that you get just by being human, and add on a layer of perfectionist personality traits. What you end up with is an even stronger predisposition towards negativity. Perfectionists have high (sometimes impossible) standards, and as a result they are on constant lookout for the tiniest of flaws, the smallest imperfections. They are so focused on finding what “needs” to be improved that they don’t see the many, many things that are good. In addition, many perfectionists believe that celebrating successes is dangerous. Perfectionists think that feeling happy or relaxed will instantly transform them from hard-workers to lazy couch potatoes. They (falsely) believe that their negativity, self-criticism, and worrying is the key to their successes.

How do you re-balance the scales? On one side you’ve got a bucket full of dangerous, critical, anxious thoughts; on the other side you’ve got a leaky bucket with just a few happy, content, positive thoughts. The negative bucket gets filled all the time with no effort from you, thanks to the forces of evolution and perfectionism. The positive bucket needs regular attention if it’s ever going to catch up and get as full as the negative side. You need to make a concerted effort to notice the good things in life and actually allow yourself feel happy, proud, accomplished, etc.

Try this exercise from my book, The Perfectionism Workbook, to fill your positivity bucket a little more:

To build your capacity to feel happiness, you need to practice noticing the good in the present moment. Pick a simple activity that you do several times a day—something like turning a key in a lock or washing your hands. Each time you engage in that activity, pause and scan your internal experience, and notice at least three positive sensations, thoughts, or emotions. Alternately, you can set an alarm on your watch or phone to go off three to four times a day, and scan your experience whenever you hear your alarm.

Keep all your observations together in a positivity journal. This is a place to record all the things that make you feel happy, proud, and grateful—from the sensation of sun on your face to the thrill of finishing school for the summer. You can write in a blank notebook, on your phone, or on scrap paper. Recording pleasant experiences helps you be more aware of the good stuff in life. You can also read your positivity journal during tough moments, when you feel overwhelmed by negative emotions.

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