A while ago, I had what I’ll politely call a bloody awful week at work.
One negative experience with a client threw a dark cloud over my mood. Objectively, the number of positive experiences during those 5 days far outweighed the negative: I received cracking feedback from a client, I completed a training course on writing headlines and I heard from two past clients asking about my availability.
So why did I go into the weekend feeling that stomach-dread that we all know so well?
Apparently, science has the answer.
The negativity bias
As humans, we’re born with a survival instinct. We’ve evolved to react faster, stronger and for longer when we have a bad experience compared to a good one. It kept us safe in the days when there was danger lurking around every corner.
Even though most of us no longer face mortal peril on the regular, this instinct is still present in so many of the ways we interact with the world. We identify angry faces quicker than happy ones. We feel more pain at losing money than we do pleasure at gaining the same amount. A client sends us first draft feedback. Even if there are two small criticisms in a sea of compliments, which ones do we dwell on?
I’m not sure about you, but I take comfort in knowing my brain is predisposed to dwell on the negative. Already, the bad stuff feels smaller. It even helps me manage that well-known beast: imposter syndrome. My ancestral self is just trying to keep me at the top of my game. Thanks, mate.
Luckily, there are things we can do to outrun our negativity bias.
Disclaimer: I’m clearly not a scientist or a psychologist. What follows are some ideas which have helped me, nothing more.
Desperately seeking sunshine
By looking for and acknowledging the positives, we can retrain our impulse to magnify the negative.
I know this can sound a bit pukey, a bit sunshine and rainbows. So let’s first be clear about what it is not:
It’s not putting on rose-tinted specs and pretending everything is fine and dandy if it isn’t. (And let’s face it, right now, it isn’t.)
It’s not denying the fact that sometimes life is really shit. There will always be crappy clients, challenging feedback, quiet work months or worse. No amount of gratitude journaling, pretending to be cheerful or #blessed Instagramming will change that.
It’s about looking for that little kernel of appreciation for what we do have. Whether it’s that perfect temperature cup of tea, the cuddle from your dog or the out-of-the-blue message from a friend. The simple act of acknowledging brings the positive to the surface and might start to gently offset the negative story you’re telling yourself about your day, week or month.
At the end of my shitty week, I wrote a post on Twitter listing my wins. At the time, they felt small and a bit foolish compared to the big black shadow of The Bad Thing. Did it make me feel better about it? No. But did it show me that apart from that one horror I had plenty to be proud of that week? Yes. With a bit of hindsight, I can look back and see a more balanced view of what happened. The shadow has slipped away.
I try to set aside ten minutes every Friday to write down any victories, no matter how small. Not only do I get a little boost in the moment, I can also look back and see how much I’ve achieved over time. This will look different for different people: Sophie’s Smile File, a few sentences scribbled in your diary or a couple of cells in a spreadsheet.
A positive approach can also help with goal setting, particularly pertinent for this time of year.
I attended a webinar by Kirsty Hulse this week who explained her approach to goal-setting.
When it comes to motivation, we’re driven by two types. Push motivations are fear-based, they seek to take us away from the things that scare us or hurt us: like a challenging client meeting or failing an exam.
Pull motivations draw us towards the things we really want: to be more healthy or land our dream client.
Think about how you feel when you tell yourself, “I must stop letting clients cross my boundaries.” You feel negative, you’re judging yourself. But try thinking about the behaviour you can start instead of stop. How does this feel? “I will start setting boundaries with my clients.” Better, right? We’re more driven by pull motivations than push motivations because they focus on the positive outcome.
If any of your goals are rooted in fear or negativity, can you turn them around to become a pull motivation? By telling yourself, “I will only work on projects which align with my values” instead of, “I won’t work with oil barons and arms dealers any more”, you’re more likely to stick to your resolution.
There’s one more way we can if not outrun, at least temper our innate negativity bias.
Studies show our environment affects how we interpret events. If we’re surrounded by negative stimuli, we’re more likely to interpret ambiguous events negatively.
It follows then, that by surrounding ourselves with positive stories, people and media we increase our ability to cope with life’s great smorgasbord of experiences and respond optimistically.
I know what works for me: switching off the news from time to time, injecting Daisy May Cooper’s Insta videos into my veins and taking my daily dose of Schitt’s Creek/RuPaul’s Drag Race. These little actions prepare me to deal with the bad news and body blows when they come.
Oh, and I know I always bang on about this but: COMMUNITY! Find people who will celebrate your wins, commiserate your losses and coach you through the dark times and for whom you can do the same.
My closing thought comes from my yoga teacher (who — in true pandemic style — I’ve practised with every week for almost a year but have never met in-person):
We don’t have a choice about what happens but we can choose how we respond.
I hope you found this helpful. If you think I’m a massive hippy chatting a load of tosh, I’m fine with that too. Either way, take care of yourself.
Shout out to these folk for the thoughts and ideas
- The #ContentClubUK and extended freelance Twitter community
- Yoga legend Sammy Rainbow Furnival
- Kirsty Hulse and her Come the F*ck On webinar
- Sophie Cross and her Smile File
- Elaine Fox, Victoria Lesser, Ricardo Russo, RJ Bowles, Alessio Pichler, Kevin Dutton – Facial Expressions of Emotion: Are Angry Faces Detected More Efficiently?
- Jonathan Haidt – The Happiness Hypothesis
- Roy F Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, Kathleen D Vohs – Bad Is Stronger Than Good
- D Kahneman and A Tversky – Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decisions Under Risk
- Nichola Brydges, Matthew C. Leach, Katie Nicol, Rebecca Wright – Environmental Enrichment Induces Optimistic Cognitive Bias in Rats
First published on lumenandfoxwords.com.