Does this self-talk sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Humans have an in-built negativity bias: a tendency to judge ourselves harshly in relation to what others might think; to worry about what might go wrong rather than what might go right, and to focus on what we’ve done badly instead of what we’ve done well.
“You can’t do that!”
“What if you fail?”
“You’re such a terrible friend!”
But why are we so hard on ourselves? Why does the approval of others matter so much to us? And where does this negative default response come from?
The answers can be found in our evolutionary wiring. To stay alive, it served our ancestors to overestimate threats and to underestimate capabilities. Far better to imagine the worst, than hope for the best because we were far more likely to survive if our minds rushed to the worst-case scenario (the possibility of being eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger) and acted accordingly. It meant our fight or flight response could flood our brain with adrenaline and get our body alert enough to deal with what we might be about to face, rather than ignore the potential threat or be optimistic about our chances. Back then a positive outlook could prove fatal.
As a survival mechanism, this negativity bias prioritised pain and danger in our amygdala (our brain’s memory bank) above joy and pleasure, which were superfluous to our survival.
As psychologist Rick Hanson explains, our brains are therefore wired to “respond more intensely to unpleasant things than to equally pleasant ones. Like Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity.”
Nowadays this danger of imminent death has diminished, but our negativity bias remains. So, it’s quite normal for our brains to jump to worst-case-scenario conclusions and worry about unlikely possibilities.
Out tendency to judge ourselves negatively also stems from our evolutionary need to survive and thus belong. In our cave-dwelling days, being an accepted member of the tribe was critical to survival. Social disapproval could result in dismissal from the tribe and fending for ourselves increased our chances of an early demise.
This internalisation of rejection as bad and acceptance as good explains our human need for social approval. To belong we need to be viewed favourably by others. So, we give ourselves a hard time out of fear of rejection and exaggerate future peril as a means of protection.
The problem is, operating from a place of high alert and/or judgement no longer serves us. Judgemental thoughts can lead to depression and worry-based thoughts can lead to anxiety, neither of which are good for our mental health.
So what can we do about this? How can we change such deeply ingrained circuitry?
Thankfully our minds are malleable, so we can retrain our brains and counter the negativity bias enough to shift how we feel about ourselves and how we show up in the world.
1. Gain perspective
Consider whatever you’re worrying about, and run through the worst-case, best-case and most likely scenarios, giving each a percentage of likelihood. For example, if you’ve missed one mortgage payment you might jump to the worst-case scenario of your house being repossessed. Yet, the likelihood of that happening is small, say two per cent? Next consider a wildly best-case scenario of, say, winning a huge cash prize sufficient to pay off your entire mortgage, not just next month’s payment. Give that a percentage of likelihood. Two per cent? Finally consider the most-likely-case scenario, perhaps that you and your lender figure out a way to commit to reduced monthly payments to help you get back on track. A more likely outcome, say 96%? That’s better.
2. Replace your inner critic with an inner cheerleader
After a long day, your inner critic might reel off all the things you haven’t managed to do. Meanwhile, your inner cheerleader might focus on the fact that you DID go for a long walk even if you didn’t manage a run, and that you DID speak to your friend on the phone on their birthday, even if you didn’t drop off their card.
3. Take your thoughts to court
Dispute negative thinking by seeking evidence for and against. For example. You might tell yourself: ‘you’re a terrible friend.’ Perhaps you’ve been too busy or too tired to respond to a message. However, if you find a shred of evidence to dispute that thought, maybe you posted them a handwritten card recently to offer your support, this proves your negative assumption is inaccurate. Now you can reframe that judgement with a more accurate thought; ‘I’m a good friend, most of the time.’
4. Do good and feel good.
Spend a morning performing random acts of kindness and notice how much positive emotion floods your body. From leaving daffodils on friends’ doorsteps to sellotaping coins to a parking meter – positive psychologists have found, along with practising gratitude, that kindness is one of the most feel-good interventions available. It wraps you in what’s called “giver’s glow” and makes you feel as good as the recipient of your kindness. A win-win.
5. Find the good.
Negativity bias means it’s easier to focus on our fears, uncertainty and doubts so we may have to work at finding silver linings. This ramped up during the pandemic and daily news updates only exacerbated this. Yet, despite the adversity of being apart from family members and losing work, the pandemic also provided us with time to reset, to notice what and who we’d been taking for granted and appreciate what matters most. Redundancy may’ve motivated you to retrain. Being apart may’ve solidified your resolve to see more of loved ones now you can. There’s always something to be grateful for, even if you have to look hard to find it.
6. Create a ‘list of delight’ each week on your phone notes or on a notepad
Record those little ordinary moments that have brought some joy – from the smell of fresh coffee and the softness of a book page to hands in soil and the comfort of a favourite chair. Flick through this whenever you’re feeling a bit glum.
By noticing your negativity bias in action, then countering it with more accurate self-talk and positive actions, you can redress the balance to think and feel better. Because, when it comes to our mental health, balance, not bias, is best.