How to Deal with Negativity
I feel constipated. No, not that kind of constipation.
It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, staring blankly at the screen. 10 minutes pass and still, no words come out.
I’m sure I’m not the first person who has struggled over their initial blog post, and I won’t be the last, but the thought doesn’t make it any easier for the words to come. The problem is there’s so much I want to say, but I don’t know where to start. After all, the first post is a momentous occasion–not only does it reflect the writer’s intent for the blog, it sets the tone of the entire blog from here on out. It carries so much weight and meaning in my mind that it feels almost crippling.
What if nobody reads this?
What if people read it and think it’s got the same appeal as that of an over-ripen banana?
What if …I fail?
My mind starts to wander back to all the previous times I’ve felt the gut-wrenching pain of failure. The zero on my grade 9 math test on polynomials. The scathing critique on my English paper in first-year university. The jobs that I didn’t get. The treatments that didn’t work.
Then it dawns on me. What better way to start a blog about positivity than by talking about its polar-opposite: negativity?
- 1. Negativity: The Shadow That’s Always There
- 2. Negativity – the Shadow That’s Always There
- 3. Practical Tips on How to Deal with Negativity
- 3.1 Accept that negativity is a part of us.
- 3.2 Recognize negative thought patterns as they come up.
- 3.3 Ask ourselves “what are the real reasons behind our negative thoughts?”
- 3.4 Deliberately notice and remember the good things that happen to us and around us.
- 3.5 Proactively generate positive experiences in our lives.
- 4. Learning to See the Positives is Like Playing the Piano
Negativity: The Shadow That’s Always There
Ever played that game where you try to run away from your own shadow when you were a little kid? I did, and I soon realized that no matter how fast I ran, or how carefully I tried to tiptoe away, my shadow always followed me. Negativity, just like our shadow, follows us around too. For some people, the shadow is more prominent and commands more attention; for others, the shadow fades into the background and becomes barely noticeable, but it’s still there.
No matter how hard we try to eradicate all existence of negativity, it never completely leaves us alone.
But why is that?
As I found out, we as humans, are wired towards negativity. Studies have shown that we tend to have a faster and stronger response to the bad versus the good, and the bad experiences stick out more in our minds and stay with us longer than the good experiences. The effect is called “Negativity Bias”.
Once upon a time, Negativity Bias served a real purpose in our species’ survival, but that was when we were still hunting in the Serengeti and running from hungry lions waaaaay back in the day.
So if it served our ancestors so well, why is negativity such a—excuse the pun—negative, now?
Before we talk about how to deal with negativity, let’s look at the reasons why we should.
Negativity—More Than Just a Buzz Kill
Besides the unpleasant feelings we get when we have negative thoughts and attitudes, negativity, if left unchecked, can lead to chronic stress, which has a significant impact on our body, right down to our DNA.
Chronic stress not only disrupts the body’s hormone balance, lowers the immune system, it also shortens our telomeres—the “end caps” of our DNA that gets shorter and shorter each time our cells divide. The shorter our telomeres are, the faster we age.
But that’s not all.
Negativity also affects our relationships with the people around us. Ask yourself this, who would you rather spend a weekend with? Sally who is upbeat and has a great sense of humour, who tries to have fun even though it’s raining buckets, and who quickly forgets about the teenage waiter who said something rude to you two at a restaurant and goes on with her day. Or Rick, the chronic complainer who moans about the bad weather, his yawn-inducing job, and of course, the rude teenage waiter who has just ruined his whole afternoon?
Happy people draw us in like how flowers attract bees. Negative people have the opposite effect on us. We’ve all heard of the old adage “misery loves company”, but unless you’re surrounded by equally miserable people, don’t expect the company you keep to love your misery back.
Practical Tips on How to Deal with Negativity
Although it may seem impossible to escape from negativity completely, the good news is that we can manage it.
Here are 5 powerful strategies that have helped me deal with negativity.
1. Accept negativity is a part of us
I used to feel sorry that I was being negative.
Other people seemed to have it all together, trucking through life with a poised smile on their face, while I felt I was being sucker-punched by life in all directions. Especially when I was battling cancer, everyone around me loved to tell me “just be positive” as if it was the end-all-be-all cure for what I had.
I felt that by thinking negative thoughts I was somehow letting others, and myself, down.
I felt guilty for being easily emotional, scared, and full of worry.
So I tried to smother away all negativity with an extra-strength dose of Ned Flanders-style enthusiasm.
If I was not happy, I told myself it was because I wasn’t trying hard enough. But one thing I learned is that negativity—like the villains of those 90’s slasher flicks I loved to watch as a teenager—the harder you try to kill it, the more ferocious it gets.
Then I learned about the Negativity Bias. I learned that this feeling is normal. So unremarkably normal that it requires effort for us to see things from a positive point of view.
Now, I accept that negativity is a part of me, and that it will always be a part of me. When it comes up I just acknowledge that the feeling is there, I accept that it is normal, and I choose to not hold on to it.
And it’s not all bad. Sometimes, as I’ll talk about later in this post, negativity can be a force of good—it can help us realize what’s important to us.
So don’t beat yourself up on feeling negative. It only fuels the negativity even more. Instead, accept it and try to think of ways to harness its power and transform the negativity into a positive force of energy.
2. Recognize negative thought patterns as they come up.
If we’re not aware of our negative thoughts and attitudes, we can’t do anything about them. We’re just passengers on this ride that our negativity takes us. Once we start becoming aware of our negative thoughts, we can start taking the steering wheel.
The good thing is that negative thought patterns and attitudes are fairly easy to identify, if we’re willing to catch them. They almost always leave a trail of physical and emotional cues such as muscle tension, restlessness, sadness, and shame. Our back hunches and we close our shoulders. Unlike neutral or positive thoughts, negative thoughts make us feel deflated rather than energized. We look and feel smaller.
And there are other clues. If there’s a transcription of your negative thoughts, you’ll be amazed by the number of over-generalizing terms they contain. Words like “never” and “always” — I will never be loved. I’m always getting the short end of the stick. I will never get better.
Now try to recognize negative thoughts as they come up. Maybe it’s that lump-in-the-throat sensation, the desire to curl ourselves up in a ball, or the word “never” in our sentence. Whatever it is, pay attention to the clues. Notice when and how these negative thoughts appear.
Are they most prominent after a long day at work, when we’re hungry and tired, or do they show up more often than not on a Monday morning?
Is there anything particular that triggers negative thoughts in us, or a pattern to how they develop?
The better we are at recognizing our negative thoughts, the better we can understand and even anticipate them.
Once we grasp the patterns of our negative thoughts, we can start taking steps to manage them before they take hold of us. It can be as simple as recharging our bodies with healthy snacks more regularly during the day, taking the effort to read an inspiring story every Monday at breakfast, or making a list of our accomplishments and reminding ourselves of them before that job interview.
3. Ask ourselves “what are the real reasons behind our negative thoughts?”
Negative thoughts are not fun, I get it. They make us feel like a piece of limp lettuce that has fallen out of a stale burger.
But what if I told you that negativity can be useful?
Negative thoughts can give us deep insight into our inner selves. They are the probing lens that reflects what truly matters to us.
After I received the news about my lung condition, I spent a good few weeks in a constant state of fear, disbelief, and sadness. I would spend hours researching my condition on the Internet (don’t do this, just don’t), sulking, worrying, and repeat. A single terrifying thought dominated my mind: I am going to die.
After the initial fear calmed down, I started to think: what is the real reason behind my anxiety and fear？ Death itself? The slow and painful process of deterioation? Not being able to see my loved ones ever again?
The answer was all of the above, but there was something else. It took me months to realize besides the fear of death itself, or how ugly the process was going to be, or how utterly crushing it would be to leave my loved ones, there was something else that was also nagging at me—the thought of exiting this world without finding the meaning of it all, discovering my true purpose, and creating something of value.
And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since—trying to find meaning and purpose. As for creating something of value—that ‘s what I hope to do now with this blog. If I didn’t ask those questions, I wouldn’t have been able to see just how important these things are to me.
So the next time you complain, worry, or sulk over something, ask yourself: what are the real reasons behind these thoughts and feelings? Don’t stop at the most obvious answer, keep digging. You just might find something you never knew was that essential to you, but now you can’t live without.
4. Deliberately notice and remember the good things that happen to us and around us
Our brains are already masters at capturing and storing negative experiences and news around us, they don’t need us making any effort at remembering the time when we took a tumble on one of the busiest streets in the city or how the love of our life dumped us. Instead, we have to balance the equation with more memories of positive things that have happened to us and around us.
It all starts with noticing.
Have you ever had that feeling of “gee, I never noticed this new building in our neighbourhood“?
Many of us go through our day in autopilot mode; we have a routine that we stick to—places we go, people we see, down to the type of food we eat. We stop noticing things because we’re used to things being the same.
It’s going to be challenging at first and it will take some serious effort if we’re not used to observing, but start noticing the good things that happen to us or around us. Jot them down somewhere on your phone, or take a picture to help you remember. Make a point to talk about them with your co-workers, friends, and family. That way, you’ll remember them better and the people you share these stories with will also get a positivity boost.
My husband and I recently started a routine of sharing the positive things that have happened to each of us over the course of a week. The structure is simple—we take turns presenting what we feel were the “highlights of our week” and the “3 things we’re most grateful for” this week. We do this every Friday over our “date night” meal, and we have a bit of a friendly competition on who has the most meaningful stories to share.
We joke about how we both seem to struggle with coming up with positive things that have happened to us and how repetitive we sound week after week. But the real game-changer for me came when I started taking notes, on my phone, of the good things that happen to me on a daily basis. Ever since I started writing down the positive experience, I started to have not only more stories, but better stories to share. By the look on my husband’s face, I can tell he’s secretly impressed and a little perplexed by the sudden explosion of positive things that have happened to me.
I’m going to savour the moment when he reads this post and realizes why I have more positive stories to share now and why he’s still stuck on “I had a burrito for lunch on Wednesday”.
5. Proactively generate positive experiences in our lives.
Did you know that it takes at least 3 positive experiences to balance out just 1 negative experience? The ratio goes up to 5 to 1 when we’re looking at relationships. That’s a lot of good things that need to happen in our lives! While some of them do show up when we’re least expecting them, many more require effort from us to make them happen. We need to take the initiative in making good things happen in our lives.
First of all, we need to develop the intention to have a positive experience.
Has this ever happened to you? You drive to work thinking you’re going to have a bad day—the pile of work on your desk, your annoying co-workers who don’t pull their weight, and your boss who sees right past you—and you end up having a bad, or even worse day than you had imagined?
Would you believe me if I said you can have a great day if you intend to have a great day?
I’m not saying the work on your desk, your unhelpful co-workers, or your unappreciative boss will magically disappear if you just tell yourself that you’re going to have a great day. These things will still be there, the only thing that’s different is how you look at them.
Instead of being a burden, the pile of work becomes a challenge that will give you great satisfaction when you finally get it off your desk. Instead of shaking your head silently about doing most of the work, you ask your coworker for a quick meeting to discuss how you can work more efficiently together, and you arrive at a mutually agreeable solution. Instead of sulking by yourself at your boss’s apparent lack of interest in you, you strike up a conversation with them first and try to find a common ground.
When your intentions change, your behaviours will also change to align themselves with your intentions. Positive experiences happen to us more easily and more frequently when we intend to have a positive experience.
What else can we do to create more positive experiences in our lives? Think about what we really enjoy doing. What brings a smile to our face, and invigorates us when we’re tired? What makes us feel full of purpose, and immersed in the moment? Spending quality time with our family? Writing for our blogs? Hiking in the woods?
No matter how busy life gets, make sure to carve out time to do the things that we enjoy, and be fully present when you do them. Put the phone down, don’t let your attention wander off, and don’t try to do too many things at once.
A good trick I learned is if I put the activities that I enjoy doing into my Google calendar (or any calendar that you use) and set a reminder, I’m more likely to do them even if I’m busy. The added bonus? I get to look forward to the activity and when I finally get to do it I get two positive experiences from just one activity! Planning something we enjoy ahead of time is a powerful way to boost our mental health.
Learning to See the Positives is Like Playing the Piano
When I used to take piano lessons, every new song was a challenge. At first, it was always choppy, awkward, and painful to listen to. But the more I practiced a song, the better I became at playing it, until finally I could just place my fingers on the keyboard and they would seem to play the music with a mind of their own.
The art of learning to see the positives in life is very much like the art of playing the piano. At first, it might feel a bit forced, clumsy, painful even, because it’s something we’re not used to doing. But over time, it will become easier and easier, until it becomes second nature.
Whenever I feel that I’m not as positive as I would like to be, I remind myself that positivity is a skill, and like most other skills in life, it will take time, effort, and patience to develop. I just need more practice.
So let’s practice together.