The new secret of success: balancing positive and negative thinking

For the past few months I’ve been contemplating the implications of internal conflict and the toll it can take on one’s life. It occurred to me that most times it’s easier to focus on the negatives instead of focusing on the positives or at least try to filter everything through logic. Of course, the latter is easier said than done. At the end of the day, we’re humans and that’s what humans do, right? Well…not necessarily. There are pros and cons for both negative and positive thinking and the good news is that with some simple but effective techniques we can train our brain to look at situations from a different perspective. 

So why is it easier to think negatively?

For the same reason we’re more likely to remember insults rather than compliments, and why most of us are drawn to read murder news rather than sports news, for example. During my undergrad, my Criminology modules’ lecturer always used to say: “If it bleeds, it leads” – meaning that the more horrendous a story is, the more interested people will be in reading it. For all of these, there’s a simple biological explanation: our brains’ negative bias towards directing our attention to emotional stimuli. Our brain is not designed to make us happy, but to make sure we are safe, by easily detecting threat, and responding to it. That is why we’re wired to be more sensitive to negative information. John Cacioppo conducted a study back in 2005 and found that people’s electrical activity was much greater when participants were presented pictures that are linked with negative feelings (a mutilated face or a dead cat, not to sound too morbid), compared to when they were presented with positive feelings pictures (pizza, Ferrari), or neutral feelings (plate).

What happens in our brain and which processes control emotional attention?

The control of our attention to emotional information is influenced by biasing signals that shift our attention from one stimulus to another which is controlled by the amygdala-based system. Furthermore, the anterior cingulate cortex and the lateral prefrontal cortex controls whether the attention is maintained or not on a particular stimulus, subsequently detecting and resolving processing conflict. (Bishop, Duncan, Brett, & Lawrence, 2004; MacDonald, Cohen, Stenger, & Carter, 2000)

So, what does this mean for us and how will it affect our day to day lives? Many of us are probably familiar with the saying “Is the glass half empty or half full?”, and depending on how you see the glass, you are either a pessimist or an optimist. But actually there’s a good and bad side to both of them! Therefore, the key is to find the right balance for you and take action. 

In my research, I have identified three key steps that can enable you to find the balance between the two. Before I do this, it is important to understand that changing our brain patterns always takes time. Luckily, using psychology research-based techniques in a persistent manner, you can modify your negative bias. 

1.     Identify and recognise your negative thinking patterns.

Us humans, tend to take our own thoughts extremely serious and believe them. For example, we can take a problem and convince ourselves it’s the worst thing that could ever happen to us, and we tend to believe it so strongly that it affects our mood and behaviour; it can turn into stress, fear, shame, unworthiness, anxiety, etc. In reality, our “big” problem could have an easy fix, and all the energy and time spent on it was not worth it. As Tony Robbins explains, a problem always seems big until you compare it to something even worse i.e. losing your job seems the worst thing ever, until you compare it to losing your 10-year savings; losing a leg seems tragic, until you compare it with having a terminal disease – you get my point. It’s all about perspective. 

Tip: Step back from the negative thoughts: Try this the next time you have a chore to do, instead of saying “I have to do this”, say “I get to do this”. See how your energy and mood changes! Most times, we tend to ask the wrong question: “Why is this happening to me?“ instead of asking “What can I learn from this?“

2.     Name it to tame it

This is a simple, extremely effective, tested technique proposed by Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and director of the Mindsight institute. Often people may seem in a continuous wrestle with pushing away the negative thoughts. A quick and easy method is to name the emotion you’re experiencing when you have negative thoughts. 

For example, from time to time I would get these negative thoughts that I am not good enough at my job, soon they will realise this, I will get fired and so on. When this happens, I realise it is the Impostor Syndrome  episode kicking in, and I would say to myself “Ahh, the Impostor Syndrome again” or “Self-doubt kicked in” and I try to let go-I remind myself it is simply a thought, not a reality, insecurity is a waste of time, and that me giving energy to it is a waste of time, worrying about it won’t change anything! 

Tip: Try to do this in a kind, peaceful voice tone. This will allow a stream of soothing neurotransmitters in the brain and will train your mind into new neural pathways of ease.

3.     Stay in the present

Our negative thoughts arise either from thinking about the past or the future, rarely about the present moment. Gestalt therapy explains how important this actually is. Instead of focusing on past experiences, focus on the way it makes you feel in the present moment, bring your past experiences to the present.  

Mark Williams from Oxford University explained that the key is not to stop your thoughts, but to shift your attention to your sensory experience-this is similar to mindfulness practice-be aware of your surroundings (the sounds, the smells), your skin contact to objects or the air. Of course this is not something you can constantly do, but it can be a quick and easy fix whenever you find yourself in negative thoughts. 

Tip: The simplest thing you can do to anchor yourself in the present moment is to take deep breaths and focus on the sensations in your body. You will notice that it has a calming effect so we can say it has a double purpose as it comes in very handy in stressful situations. It usually helps if you count to 4 on both inhale and exhale. Try it out! 

Psychology textbooks teach us two individual advantages of over confident people: it feels great even if you are delusional, and that delusion can help “trick other people”. BUT, there is a catch! Some scientists argue that there is a negative side to the positive thinking. Psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic found only 10% correlation between competence and confidence. This explains why overconfident people have more car accidents, suffer from compulsive psychological gambling disorder, and are engaged in activities that cause major health threats: smoking, drug use, compulsive eating- people who are in denial of their addiction and believe the harmful effects will happen to others but not to themselves. Also, overconfidence will develop a narcissistic society where we mistake confidence with competence. This is one of the reasons why many teenagers are so obsessed with being famous.

On top of this, arrogant and overconfident employees are commonly promoted to managerial levels and this is one of the reasons why there are not enough women in leadership roles: women tend to be more modest and under confident. 

So, maybe it’s better to see the glass half empty?

There are certain key adaptational benefits to having low confidence. Low  confidence can be explained as a threat detection signal that tells you not do a certain thing.

A lot of people suffer from low confidence because of the discrepancy of the person you want to be and the person you think you are. So, what is the solution? Try reducing the discrepancy by working on becoming better, not by reading quotes or self-help books that tell you: you shouldn’t be worrying about your self esteem, that you’re great, that you should not care what other people are thinking. Of course, there’s a time and place for that too, but we have to recognise that growth and self development is continuous and we should always acknowledge that we don’t know everything – in other words – there’s always room for improvement! 

More importantly, low confidence keeps us modest and humble. What’s so great about being modest and humble? Well for one it keeps us attentive to negative feedback: makes us more coachable and also more likeable.  

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the key is to find the right balance for you. As you’re probably aware by now, there is always a good and bad side to everything. Prepare for the worst, but never forget to live in the moment and enjoy things as they come.  

And remember, it’s all about perspective and how we choose to see things. As Charles Swindoll puts it

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it

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Would love to hear YOUR thoughts! What do you tend to do when you negativity takes over? Leave a comment below

Author: Ingrid Constantin

Published by IngridC

Co-Director and Head of Research @Behaviour Hackers

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