Imagine someone walking beside you every minute of every day, whispering into your ear: What’s the matter with you? You can’t do anything right. I can’t believe you said that. You look terrible in that.
If you had to listen to that constant barrage of negativity day in and day out, after a while it might wear you down. You may even resign yourself to the fact that this chatter is normal and consciously attempt to tune out the message. But your brain will continue percolating in a soup of negativity. The worst part of it is, more likely than not, that the voice is your own – a personal, inescapable prison of antagonism.
Most women do this to themselves every day; I think of it as the unfortunate soundtrack of our lives. We all have a tape that plays in our heads, and while some of us are very aware of this tape, others have seemingly tuned it out. But pay attention and you’ll hear that it’s there, and the sad truth of the matter is that the composition is almost always in a negative pitch.
PATTERNS OF NEGATIVE THINKING:
There are a few distinct categories that negative self-talk usually falls into. NAME CALLING: When we call ourselves the harshest of names. “Fat.” “Ugly.” “Loser.” “Stupid.” PERSONALIZATION: When others treat us badly, we often assume they were motivated to act in that way because of something we did; we take their actions personally. “She didn’t say hi to me. Did I do something wrong?” BLACK OR WHITE THINKING: Polarizing opinions with no grey space in between. “I’m right.” “You’re wrong.” “I’m a complete success.” “I’m an utter failure.” “You always do that.” “You never do that.” THE WHAT-IFS (A.K.A CATASTROPHIZING): We spend time and energy envisioning all manner of bad outcomes. When faced with a problem (real or imagined), we jump to the worst-case scenario. When facing money problems: “What if I die financially destitute?” Upon feeling abdominal pain: “What if I have some dreaded disease?”
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM: We all engage in pessimistic thinking, but why? Our brains have evolved to focus on negative events rather than positive ones – in fact, it’s a matter of survival. If at a cellular level the goal is to survive and pass on the strongest of genes, as an individual you had better be adept at detecting threats in your environment. Your brain is essentially a danger detection system. It pays attention to stimuli and determines if they are neutral or a threat, friend or foe. Once the determination is made that the stimulus detected is neutral or positive, it is quickly bypassed and the brain resumes scanning for more threats.
Neuroscientific research supports this negativity bias. Our brains react more strongly to negative than positive stimuli. Negative stimuli are encoded and stored faster in-memory than positive events. Negative stimuli are processed in a matter of split seconds, while positive events require at least 12 to 15 seconds to be stored in memory – meaning it’s a lot easier to retain the memory of you messing up your quarterly meeting presentation than the offhand accolades you received from your boss about your new report template.
HOW TO BEAT NEGATIVE THINKING
Worries overestimate the likelihood of unfavorable outcomes and underestimate their ability to cope. When faced with a problem, a good approach is to: ✓ Determine how much of that problem lies within your control. ✓ Focus your energy on what you can control. ✓ Devise a plan to address the problem. ✓ Implement your plan. ✓ Remind yourself that the rest of the problem is beyond your control. ✓ Cross that bridge when and if you get to it. ✓ Have confidence (and perhaps faith) that you will cope with whatever eventuality comes your way. ✓ Recognize that you may need to ask for help — but you are not helpless.
HOW DOES NEGATIVE THINKING IMPACT US?
Your brain is not very proficient at differentiating real from imagined stress. Both have the ability to elicit the release of stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline), which catapult us into a fight or flight response. Prolonged high levels of cortisol cause sustained high blood sugar levels, promoting fat storage in the abdomen. In essence, negative thinking is making your belly fat.
This leads back to the understanding of the power behind our thoughts and their ability to determine our moods. Picture this scenario: you wave as you see an acquaintance across a crowded room. She doesn’t wave back. Whether you think that your friend is distracted and likely didn’t see you or that your friend is rude and avoiding you has huge implications on how you feel following that interaction. Negative thoughts lead to feelings of frustration, rejection, and sadness; chronic negative thoughts may even lead to anxiety and depression.
Pessimistic thinking paralyzes you and prevents you from attaining your personal goals. Worrywarts ruminate about events that have already passed or that haven’t even materialized. Truly, it’s wasted energy because you have no control over your past or your future. Worriers are so adept at conjuring up negative outcomes that their brain’s alarm system is always firing. They are in a fight or flight or freeze state. Their stress and anxiety become so overwhelming that they are unable to act. Fortunately, there are ways to escape this emotional paralysis – but it will take some practice.
GREY IS THE NEW BLACK:
Another thing every person must learn is to live life in the “grey zone.” Black or white thinking leads to extremes. Perfectionists must learn to think in terms of partial successes instead of failures. Feeling that you only have two choices is limiting and may lead to you feeling trapped or overwhelmed. Black or white thinking doesn’t allow you to see the myriad of choices that lie before you.
JUST THINK MORE POSITIVE THOUGHTS?
Merely thinking more positively is not enough to combat negative thoughts. In order for positive experiences to stick, you need to slow down and really take them in. For suggestions on how to make this happen, we can look to neuroscience. The deeper we process information, the better we recall it. To consolidate positive experiences to long-term memory, we need to process them deeply – mediation can help, but simply stopping to smell the proverbial roses can go a long way in solidifying these memories deep within your subconscious.
GIVE IN TO GRATITUDE:
Gratitude allows us to process the positive events in our lives more deeply. Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation and thankfulness for what we have experienced or been given. One great way to remind yourself each and every day of the things that matter is by keeping a gratitude journal. As you reflect, focus on being grateful for people and their actions rather than things you possess. Remind yourself that though large events may tend to overshadow the smaller ones, you can’t forget the mundane – the smell of a freshly baked loaf of bread can be just as rewarding as gaining 50 likes on your most recent post. And to help you better appreciate the past when you turn back to your journal for inspiration, keep your reflections brief but detailed. In the future, you will thank me.
Fight your inner naysayer with your greatest inherent defense: your deep-seated ability to turn that negative solitude into your own power anthem. We tell you how.