How To Defeat Negative Thinking
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Project Displaced volunteer coach Michael Bartura has been focusing on mindfulness and self-transformation for more than 20 years. His clear and thoughtful approach helps a wide range of people – CEOs, business owners, community leaders and teams – reflect on their experiences and personal development to make sense of their past, present, and future. He talks about transforming negative thinking into something that works for you.
Negative thoughts can be one-off. But they can also become a habit, right?
There are three key reasons why we engage in negative thinking.
Firstly, our brains are wired to look out for dangerous experiences more than pleasant ones, and there’s a good reason for that. Imagine walking to the waterhole aeons ago; if you’re on the lookout for something that could harm you – like a predator on the lurk – your chances of survival are higher.
So our evolution gets the best for us by always looking out for what’s likely to go wrong.
Secondly, the way our society is now geared to seek success is making us miserable because there’s always something else to desire. Our brains are wired to compare situations and opportunities because that helps us decipher patterns and strive to improve our position.
We notice that lightning burns trees when it strikes in the forest, and we learn to make fire so we can get warm and eat tastier meals; we notice that closed spaces are easier to keep warm and safe, so we build shelters, and so on.
But in the context of our modern lifestyle, there is always more to yearn for – someone is usually richer, achieves greater success, or is more attractive. So this fills you up with negative emotions – when you judge yourself to be lesser in some way, it is easy to fall into self-loathing for all the evidence that someone is doing better than you.
Thirdly, our current world is really messed up and so we live in constant existential angst. If anything, the COVID crisis over the last year has proven to us we’re not in control of our lives. As mentioned, our brains are designed to seek patterns to ensure we survive. For much of our history, life has been somewhat regular and seasonal – nature and life cycles were familiar and repeated themselves in a way that was easy enough for us to recognise the patterns and know what to expect. Indeed, we could always trust the elements to support us and there was a security in knowing that we can find animals to hunt near the water; berries to gather under the trees, and (later in our development) arrange and expect crops that grow in season. Now we have climate change, pandemics, financial insecurity, geopolitics, and so all these contributes to a very consistent level of what you could call a red-alert state of mind.
Look at zebras in the savannah. What do most of them do? They’re just hanging out and chilling together – they are in a green kind of zone.... Suddenly there’s a predator attack, they all spring into action, and run away. But 20 minutes later, they’re back munching on grass, chilling away.
So our own nervous system has evolved in very similar conditions, and just as with other herd animals (we only became top predator after inventing language), it’s supposed to operate in a cycle of mostly green (no stress or fear), spike into red when there’s danger, and then return to green. But in our current environment, we are in a constant state of low-level and continuous red, with lots of higher red spikes, and it’s very hard to get into green. When you’re continuously under duress and operating in the red zone, it’s hard to look ahead and really focus on the positives.
What are some examples of negative thinking?
The mind is meant to prepare and survive. Instead, it says I’m not good enough, I’m not successful enough. Someone will always have more than us. We’re continuously being challenged with our own limitations, and because life success is defined by the media we consume, “success” is basically over-consumerism, more power, status, fame and so on, causing excess self-loathing and negative thinking.
We are complex beings. Our ability to communicate clearly with other people is often not as good as we think it is. The ego is continually assuming that life is centred on us. For example, let’s say we come to work, and someone is really pissed off; we’ll take it personally even if they’re just having a crappy day. And – because we are wired for negativity, we are likely to dwell on bad experiences more than the good ones. Think how often you run an argument you had with someone over and over in your head, trying to justify to yourself why it’s fair that you feel pissed off – or even, in a weird but very normal human way – kind of enjoying feeling wronged and righteous. Like I said – we are complex!
Also, evolutionally, we’re not wired to say ‘no’. If you're consistently belligerent and say no in the savannah, you’re likely to find yourself out of the tribe and your chances of staying alive are greatly diminished. We find it hard to say no to people we know fairly well (like relatives and work colleagues), so we often agree to do things we actually would rather not do, and then in turn feel too stressed, overloaded, even resentful.
How do you uncouple from negative thinking?
The good news is that it can be done! We used to think the brain only grows until our mid-20s. But through emerging technologies we’ve been able to determine that, although around that age the brain does start losing a little mass, it continuously rewires if we create new behaviours and new habits, even into our 80s. This is called neuroplasticity – the neural pathways in our brain can change and rewire over our lifetimes – in response to how we think and what we do.
And because of this, we have the capacity to decouple ourselves from our brain’s proclivity to think negatively by building up habits that strengthen our ability to be present with the many good experiences that most of us do have every day but tend to overlook or ignore. We always have opportunities and the option to appreciate, be grateful, to connect, to do meaningful things, to live more consciously. This is called Positive Neuroplasticity. Rick Hanson – who has developed a whole training on this which I was fortunate enough to attend, says it’s like building a ‘bank account of good’.
The Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb postulated that 'nerves that fire together wire together'. If you do something for long enough, it creates a new neurological pathway in your brain where neurons are now wired together . Your brain's synapses are formed around a collection of habits and you can create new habits of a more positive inclination through paying attention to new positive thoughts and behaviours. So now you intentionally and consciously interpret things more positively, embed good memories more consciously, which change your brain. And if your brain is wired for more habitually positive thinking, you’ll also perceive things in a positive way.
This is an important point - we don’t actually perceive reality as it is in an absolute manner. Rather, we assume a reality that pertains to our own prejudiced database of experiences, memories and recollections. In the whole universe, we don’t know of a more complex organic object than the brain. Yet what’s going on in the brain is just nerves firing each other along established routes.
So the brain perceives all the information – what you see, smell, taste, experience – and turns it into electrical impulses. And it can only use a small fraction of the immense number of data bytes that are stimulating the nerve endings at any given moment. Therefore, it is much more likely to convert those into something you’re already familiar with. In other words, from all the input coming your way, your brain is geared to reassemble a picture of what’s going on according to your already preconceived notion of how the world is. This is why two people can go through exactly the same experience and come out with completely two different versions of the ‘truth’. Two brains process different bits of data according to what they are most familiar with. If you think the world is full of arseholes, guess who you’re going to notice all around you!
But if you wire your brain for a more positive experience, it’ll start building your reality validating the more positive experiences around you. So our saving grace is that over time we can help ourselves to rewire our brains into a more positive disposition. When shit happens, instead of drowning into the quagmire of ‘this is awful’, or ‘I’m so unlucky’, you are trained to look for silver linings. ‘I can learn something here’; I am getting better at…’, and so on. The essence of making lemons into lemonade is great. But even better is to understand there are very few lemons – read real predators – out there. The American writer Mark Twain famously said: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened”.
Resilience has been talked about lately. What is it, and why is it important?
Resilience, essentially, is your ability to bounce back from some situation that’s out of your control. And so in a sense, it is the outcome of a resourceful way of thinking. And your ability to do that is a derivative of your capacity to engage with what’s going on in a more positive way.
Life is full of surprises. The brain is wired to be in control – so we plan things, like going to the work, run our errands, pay our bills etc. But we don’t have control over circumstances. When our daily plan derails because of traffic – or indeed a sudden lockdown – we get resentful, angry, even desperate. We try to readjust reality to what we think should happen. If you argue with reality – well guess who is going to win?!
Resilience allows you to recognise what’s in your control and what is not. Sudden change of circumstances is not. But what is in your control is the meaning you give to the situation. You can take it less personally. Can’t do the bank today? Let’s do it tomorrow. I’m on lockdown – what an opportunity to spend more times with the kids, or learn something I always wanted to and did not have the time. Resilience builds up when we learn to do that really well. How can I bounce back, get back into the groove, update my plan and get going with my life?
Also, you might notice that when something doesn’t go the way you planned, it often triggers an emotional response. We might feel sad, or frightened, or get upset. It’s an immediate emotional reaction to an occasion or circumstance. That’s normal – it’s the system’s way to adjust to the new situation, and if you reflect on the way it works, you realise that the actual reaction as a somatic and emotional experience is fairly brief – like a few minutes at most. But what do we do with it? We tend to take it into our heads and screw around with the emotions. For example, if we feel angry with someone, we let it get into our heads and stew on it for days, trying to rationalise why we’re right and they’re wrong, instead of just being present with the experience of anger as it flows through our body and subsequently subsides into a calmer state.
Or we get double layer emotions where we get angry about being angry, feel sad about feeling sad. This is a mental hectic dance with emotions and it just doesn’t work for us. Resilience is about learning to be present within your emotions, not getting tangled up, and moving back into balance. This becomes easier with time and practice, and when our brains are wired for a more accepting and positive disposition, our resilience is solid not just because we can handle the unknown and unpredictable better, but also because we don’t get too ruffled in the first place. We bend with the winds of change instead of arguing with reality. In fact, we can learn to like the wind. Life becomes a breeze.
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