Week after week, a client enters your office and repeats the same litany of complaints and concerns, rehashing a history that frames him as a victim of circumstances or people at every turn. You often feel as if you are in a real life version of the film “Groundhog Day,” only this time, you are spared the repetitious rendition of Sonny and Cher singing, “I Got You, Babe.”
As a caring professional, you do your best to be attentive and supportive; using all of the tools at your disposal. On occasion, you are able to make headway, but the client seems to slide back into the familiar pessimism.
An apt analogy is that of a person wearing glasses. If she put her glasses on in the morning and they are smudged and dirty, that would be the way she would view the world. If, on the other hand, she cleaned them before putting them on, the rest of the day, her visual perspective would itself be clear.
Do you have clients who are the king or queen of ‘yes but…’? No matter what suggestion you offer, they respond with “You don’t understand, if I do this, then that will occur.”
It could be anything from having a difficult conversation with a loved one, to asking for a well -deserved raise at work. They would rather remain in the familiar, if limiting pattern, with the mindset that if they don’t ask, then they can’t be disappointed with the answer.
They may also be so accustomed to said disappointment that to have positive experiences might feel unnatural in the same way that folding your hands together with one thumb over the other and then switching to the other position might create a sense of anxiety, since you are not accustomed to it.
Why Is This Happening?
An article in The New York Times explains that some people are inclined to remember the negative over the positive to such an extent that happier memories are submerged. According to Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University. “Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”
“The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” said Professor Nass, who co-authored The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.
“Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said.
If that is the case, it could be expected that they overpower the positive, even if we might choose a brighter outlook.
One odd observation he made is that those who express negative bias are often viewed as more intelligent than those who are positive in their communication.
“If I tell you that you are going to give a lecture before smarter people, you will say more negative things,” he said.
It’s in the Genes
A 2013 study out of University of British Columbia, that was published in Psychological Science shines a light on a dark subject, as it reveals that there is a genetic composition to the tendency to see life through a negative lens. The gene that has such a powerful impact is called ADRA2b deletion variant, which influences the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine.
Negativity Bias at Work
Peter Van Houten, M.D. medical director of the Sierra Family Medical Clinic explains it in this manner, “When the brain records a negative and a positive experience of the same intensity, the negative experience is usually encoded much more strongly in the brain than the positive experience.”
Further, he goes on to say, “Our emotions are processed by the limbic system of the brain and its related structures, including the amygdala. The amygdala is especially important, for it encodes our memories with an emotional charge. This encoding process has a negative bias. By this I mean that the amygdala puts down a much stronger overlay of memory for negative emotional experiences than for positive ones. Because of that stronger memory overlay for negative experiences, we can remember in much greater detail instances when we were frightened than when we were happy.”
He views it as an evolutionary protective device that kept us from becoming prey. If we are on the lookout for the symbolic sabre tooth tiger, it is less likely to sneak up on us.
How to Overcome Negativity Bias
As the iconic song encourages accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, it is possible to shake off the effects of the inclination to experience emotional decline.
- Notice what’s right with this picture instead of what’s wrong with it.
- Hold the thought of positive aspects of your life for at least 30 seconds or flood your brain with a group of feel-good thoughts. Even if depression feels like it won’t permit any semblance of normalcy from time to time, it is still possible to replace it, at least temporarily.
- Keep a gratitude journal and write at least three things each day that you appreciate about your life.
- There is an adage that says we are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. Be with people who uplift you.
- Read inspirational books and listen to talks of those who are resilient.
- Go on a ‘news fast,’ even if once a week so that you are not flooded with negativity. While in cardiac rehab a few years ago, I noticed that when a certain sensationalistic news channel was on, I felt drained.
- Smile in the mirror, even if it feels contrived. A character in the television show Ally McBeal used to practice smile therapy to quell on the job stress.
- Laughter Yoga incorporates improvised exercises (not on the mat) that help alleviate symptoms of depression. Created by Madan Kataria, MD, it increases the flow of endorphins as it improves quality of life.
- If someone asks how you are, tell them at least once positive thing, before one negative, even if you are experiencing struggles.”
- Avoid all or nothing thinking in which a situation or person is all good or all bad.
- Prevent over-generalizing when sharing your feelings, in which you might be inclined to say, “You never listen to me” or “You always interrupt.”
- Steer clear of, “If this, then that…” thinking. An example would be, “If I make a mistake, then I must be a screw up.” Turning it around could look like, “Even though I made a mistake, I am still an intelligent and competent person.”
- Don’t take what someone does or says personally, if at all possible. don Miguel Ruiz espouses the concept in his book, The Four Agreements, as he says, “Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally… Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.”
- Consider that your track record to date, for surviving everything that has ever happened to you, is 100%.