Our brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative, which can make us feel stressed and unhappy even though there are a lot of positive things in our lives.
We learn immediately from pain—you know, “once burned, twice shy.” Unfortunately, the brain is relatively poor at turning positive experiences into emotional learning neural structure. The brain has what scientists call a negativity bias. I describe it as like Velcro for the bad, Teflon for the good. For example, negative information about someone is more memorable than positive information, which is why negative ads dominate politics. I’m not suggesting that we avoid dwelling on negative experiences altogether—that would be impossible. Instead, we can train our brains to appreciate positive experiences when we do have them, by taking the time to focus on them and install them in the brain
We will feel better about working at a job we dislike if we practice positive thoughts such as: “At least it pays the rent,” “I sure do like my paycheck,” and “I’m going to do the best I can.” If we are depressed or anxious, think of the opposite. Instead of dwelling on the worst case scenario, imagine the most unlikely best case outcome. Both are equally unlikely, it’s absurd to predict the future accurately. So at least by imagining the best case scenario we will stop accepting what pops into our mind and believing it to be true.
Pick an area in which we are having trouble, then create or invent new memorable, extremely favorable, ridiculously absurd options to deal with that situation. If we are uncomfortable around our supervisor at work or our relatives, imagine positive scenes in which we solve conflicts or make adjustments. If confidence and self-esteem are low, imagine scenes in which our confidence is increased. Imagine being praised for your efforts, being successful, or finally receiving the acceptance or affection from those who have not provided it in the past. If nothing else, by thinking of the best possible outcome we can feel more open to the shades of gray rather than the black and white world of all good or bad. It may sound strange, but our brain will think our life is better (it only knows what it’s told!) and will chemically lift our mood will gradually lift.
Yet, it may not be so simple. For example, we may be fighting low self-esteem because of a negative experience in the past. To change our self-image, we can repeat the affirmation, “I am good, beautiful, worthy, and strong.” However, our unconscious mind sabotages our efforts to create a new positive identity by releasing the negative counter-thought, “You are an insecure, awkward, unlovable loser.” This negative thought has had control of our self-image for years. It is a well-established thought circuit that does not give up its power so easily.
The negative thought maintains its power unless neutralized by a stronger, positive thought. With practice, eventually the positive thought will grow and associate with other positive thoughts such as, “I am a good person. There are many successes in my life. People actually do like me. I have a lot to offer.” We can choose at any time to deploy an army of positive thoughts that will rapidly and effectively neutralize the negative ones. Then, when the same provocative situation arises to test us, our mind stays positive, poised, and peaceful.
There is no danger that these personalized encouragements will go to our head. We will not become smug or arrogant. We will feel encouraged to go on to the next task and do the best we can with it. We can work on building our confidence from within and trusting our judgment regardless of external influences. We can choose to replace our need for outward approval with some self-validation, such as:
- I am a caring
- I will deal with it
- I will get through this
- I can do it
- I am a good person
- I am ok right now
- I can handle this