Why We Focus on the Negative and How Can We Change It
I was inspired to write this post after a conversation with my friend. We both have bipolar disorder. We noted how there’s actually a lot of positive events in our lives, but our brains seem to focus on the negative much more.
We discussed why this is and how we can change it. I converted our conversation into this post, which will go through in detail:
- Why do we focus on the negative?
- How to notice our thoughts without attachment
- How storytelling in our brain works
- How to separate the truth from the stories we tell ourselves
- How our suffering is mostly caused by these stories
- Why it’s important to acknowledge your feelings
- Learning from your mistakes
- Reprogramming your brain to look at the positive through gratitude
- Manifesting positive events into your life — the scientific version
Why Do We Focus On the Negative?
The first thing to understand is why humans have a pattern of focusing on the negative. It’s not just us bipolar folks, everyone has a predisposition towards it. Most humans worry about the future, over analyze the past, and look for worst case scenarios.
That’s because it’s an evolutionary advantage, baked into our DNA. Or rather is was an evolutionary advantage, for most of existence.
If you’re a caveman, you experience many threats every day. You will get eaten if you’re not careful, you will starve if you don’t find the right food sources. If you receive a serious wound, you will perish. Danger is around every corner, and you will likely die if you don’t hyper focus on it. This applies to practically all living things besides humans today. Life is dangerous!!!
The primary goal of evolution is not to keep you happy, it’s for you to survive and pass on your genes.
Survival — it’s pretty much the only goal of evolution, and it’s a self selecting process. The cavemen who hyper focused on not being eaten by a tiger survived and reproduced. The ones who stopped to appreciate the warm sun, smell the fragrant flowers, and appreciate how amazing it is to live their wonderful caveman life, shortly got eaten by a tiger, didn’t pass on their genes, and their “positive” attitude disappeared along with them.
So you see, it’s not your fault that you focus on the negative. It’s a mechanism meant to protect you. A mechanism that worked very well for billions of years and is deeply engrained into your very being.
The thing is, humans have a unique ability to re-learn some behaviors consciously. We learn habits from our parents, friends, and society and incorporate it into our day to day lives. Unfortunately, most of our upbringings and environment only adds fuel to the fire.
Our parents likely exhibit this negative thinking behavior themselves, many times unconsciously. Media focuses almost exclusively on the bad news, instead of the many wonderful things going on. Schools teach us that life is about success, place a very high penalty on mistakes, encouraging us to avoid them at all costs and be ashamed of them.
Whether we look at it evolutionarily or environmentally, we are set up from our birth to think this way.
Does it Still Apply Today?
The last few centuries, a major shift has happened. It’s become very difficult to die accidentally. If you live in the US, you are essentially guaranteed your basic needs — food, shelter, and even health care. Even if you’re homeless, your chances of dying due to starvation or the elements are practically nil. You will likely live at least into your sixties, well past reproduction age, and your genes will go on.
So this very very useful survival mechanism engrained in our DNA, is no longer so useful. Instead of focusing on surviving, we can focus on something higher on Maslow’s pyramid — quality of life.
Once we get past the first 2 levels — physiological needs and safety, the evolutionary script is flipped — people who are focusing on the positive, investing in best case scenarios, stopping to smell the roses, and practicing gratitude, tend to be happier, more successful, more loving, have higher self esteem, and become their best selves.
Noticing our Thoughts through Meditation
Once we realize why this pattern — of looking at the negative, exists, we can start changing it. And the very first step of changing it, is noticing it happening.
This is where meditation comes in very handy. Meditation teaches us to observe the thoughts in our minds, without attaching ourselves to them as the truth. Meditation is training for when you experience emotions in day to day life, teaching you to reprogram the way you deal with them.
When we feel sad, angry, scared, it feels real. Very real. We don’t tend to question if our thoughts are true, it seems obvious that they are.
Something that practically everyone has experienced are the feelings that come after a breakup.
“I’m such a loser”.
“I will never find a good partner”.
“Nobody will ever love me”.
“I’m doomed to feel this way forever”.
“Things never go my way. I’m so unlucky”.
Sounds familiar? Just about everyone has experienced variants of these thoughts.
But if you look at these thoughts objectively, are they really true? Think about it — you’ve met your last partner, you had a relationship, and they loved you. You’ve attracted multiple partners before this one, and you’ve had lovely moments with all of them. What information would indicate that you won’t find another partner? Experience more joyful moments? You’ve had plenty of happiness in your life, why would it magically stop now? It’s illogical.
When we stop, and look at these thoughts objectively, we realize that they’re vast exaggerations and inaccurate extrapolations of the truth, lies.
But still we don’t question the validity of these lies. We marinate in them and let them run our experience of life.
Why? Because they feel real.
You can use meditation to separate the fact that you’re feeling these emotions from the feeling that they are real. You can see them for what they are, and what they aren’t. And you can make more logical decisions about how you experience your life.
Learning meditation can be difficult and slow. It’s not natural for most of us to examine our thoughts in this way and disassociate our experience of them from how they feel. For the longest time, I didn’t believe meditation was for me. And believe me, I tried, over and over. But eventually it just “clicked”. I promise, if you keep at it, you’ll get it. Just like working out, you won’t see the results for the first few weeks, maybe even months. But if you can consistently do it, everyone will see huge changes.
Don’t blame yourself or rush yourself to “get” meditation. That in fact impedes the process. Trust that you will get it eventually, practice as best and often as you can, and you will “get it”.
Stopping for just 10 minutes every day, and letting your thoughts pass, without being lost in them, tagging them as I will explain in future sections, and rewriting your scripts, will make a drastic change in your happiness.
Our Brain — A Storytelling Machine
We don’t live in the “now” most of the time. We spend most of our time thinking about our past, analyzing it, forming conclusions from events that happened. Or we think about the future, worrying about how we can prepare for it. In both cases, we “time travel”, by getting lost in an elaborate story our mind creates. When we experience this story in our minds, it’s not actually happening. Our brain “makes up” significant portions of the story, and we experience those details, not reality, as if was the truth. The more often we run these stories in our heads, the more diluted the real details get, and the more we believe that our story is real.
Like any good storyteller, our brain keeps our internal stories very concise, exaggerating the facts that serve the story, omitting the ones that don’t. If the moral of the story is “You are an unlovable failure at relationships”, it will pick out and exaggerate the details that show you’re a failure, highlight all the rejections you faced. And it will conveniently leave out all the details that don’t “fit in”, like all those times people were attracted to you, loved you, and all the fun times you had together. Remember, these stories are a lie — a lie of omission.
Thinking about the future is even more absurd. There is simply no way we can know what the future looks like. Yet when we experience our stories — this made up “future failure”, “future grief”, “future pain”, feels almost as real as if it were happening right now! Thinking of the future is pure speculation. Talk about a lie.
Very few of our thoughts are factual. Most of our thoughts are stories we tell ourselves, very loosely based on reality.
So, with this knowledge we can do something very important:
When you experience pain, sit with it. Acknowledge the pain you feel, and acknowledge your thoughts of the future and past as what they are — stories, without identifying with them as the truth. Then, examine your stories, to differentiate the fact from the lies, exaggerations, and speculation.
Most Suffering Is Created By Our Brain
This part is very important.
In Buddhism, there is a concept of Duhkha — the feeling of suffering, unhappiness, or pain. According to its teachings:
Most Duhkha, suffering, is created by our brain. An initial event (ex: a breakup) evokes a feeling of pain. But the majority of the suffering we feel, is created by our brain, telling stories about what happened, adding new pain.
We don’t have to identify with the stories our brain tells us. By catching our feelings early, as they happen, and sitting with them, we can override the default behavior of our brain, creating and identifying with stories. We can save ourselves from that 90%+ of pain that we create ourselves.
Identifying and Acknowledging Your Feelings
When you experience a feeling, you should first determine what that emotion is (anger, sadness, hurt, betrayal) and acknowledge that the pain you feel from that emotion is real and valid.
A lot of times we say to ourselves “we don’t have a right to feel this way” or “we shouldn’t feel this way”. We push away that pain, drowning it out with distractions such as food, TV, and activities. That initial pain is never acknowledged, and therefore keeps gnawing at us in the background. This pain is brought up over and over, and each time, your brain generates more elaborate stories about what it means, which you unconsciously accept as the truth.
Here’s the key to stopping this process. Whenever you experience an emotion, stop immediately, go to a quiet space, acknowledge the feeling, and be on the lookout for the story that follows. Next you can start labeling that story. Which parts of the stories are fact (my girlfriend broke up with me), and which parts are just made up (“my girlfriend broke up with me because X” or “My girlfriend broke up with me, therefore I’m unlovable”).
It’s important to acknowledge the truth, the most obvious being that you indeed feel your feelings.
- “I feel sad” — yes you do
- “I feel angry” — yes you do
- “I feel hurt” — yes you do
While it’s important to acknowledge your feelings, you should try to explicitly not identify with them.
- You are feeling pain right now. The pain is not you and not a part of you for life.
- You are feeling anger right now. The anger is not you and not a part of you for life.
- You are feeling sad right now. The sadness is not you and not a part of you for life.
Even though you are feeling your feelings right now, they are ephemeral. They will pass.
Treat Emotional Pain Like Physical Pain
Try to think of your feelings as if they were a physical injury. If you stubbed your toe — it hurts. Most people won’t deny that their toe hurts. Yet they may deny the sadness they feel from an emotional injury.
Also, most people don’t make up extensive stories about their physical pain — stubbing your toe doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or doomed to always stub your toe for the end of life. It simply means you stubbed your toe, this one time. Perhaps you weren’t paying attention when in a dangerous environment, so you might learn a useful lesson — to pay attention when you’re in a dangerous environment. That’s great. Now, you will be less likely to stub your toe again. But other than that, you make nothing more of your pain.
Try to treat your emotional pain with the same objectivity as your physical pain.
Separating the Truth From the Fiction
Identifying which parts of your story are made up takes some skill. But here are some pointers:
- Any part of the story that makes a judgement on who you are “My girlfriend broke up with me, therefore, I am unworthy of having a relationship with”. Yes, your girlfriend broke up with you, that’s fact. But the rest of that sentence is a judgement.
- Any part of the story that guesses at why somebody did something “My friend didn’t call me back, because he’s bored of me”. Yes, your friend didn’t call you back. But that’s a wild assumption that he’s bored of you, and an even wilder assumption that it’s the only reason he didn’t call you back. It could be a million different things. His life could’ve gotten busier, he could be going through some emotional issues, he could be tired. You have no way of knowing the full picture of someone’s life, even if they tell you parts of it. Why would you assume the worst case scenario that doesn’t serve you?
- Any part of the story that makes a prediction. “I got fired, therefore I’ll never find a stable job again”. Yes, you got fired. But what will happen in the future, you have absolutely no way of knowing. You could find the perfect job that utilizes your talents. You could discover a new skill. You could get hit by a car tomorrow. Why would you believe any of these scenarios as the truth, especially the negative ones? Predictions are useful to guard against possible negative scenarios. But believing that they will happen will only hurt you.
- Any part of the story that is an exaggeration. “I got dumped, and nobody loves me.” Yes, you got dumped. But nobody loves you? Come on. Your parents probably do, your friends. Your partner, in the past has probably loved you, and you have no reason to assume that nobody will love you in the future. Most of these statements including “nobody”, “never”, and “always” are gross exaggerations, and not the truth. “I will never be happy” — yes you will. “I will never find a partner” — yes you will. “Bad things always happen to me” — no they don’t.
- Any part of the story that gives too much credit to a reason. “I forgot Valentines Day, and that’s why my girlfriend left me”. Yes you forgot Valentines Day, which probably didn’t help with your relationship, but likely there were plenty of other problems in your relationship. Your girlfriend wouldn’t leave you if everything has gone perfectly well, and you forgot one event. Be very careful about attributing too much blame to a single reason. Many times, when a traumatic event happens (break up, getting fired, losing a loved one) we attribute a disproportional amount of blame to a single event, failing to realize that life is complicated. There’s a whole patchwork of reasons why something happened, most of which you don’t even realize. Acknowledge that an event contributed to its effect, learn from it, but don’t fixate on it! See the full picture. And remember that problems contain 3 types of factors — what you did, what they did, and what the environment did.
Learning From Your Mistakes
It’s also important to learn from your mistakes, and make adjustments for the future. It’s tricky to find that line between story and truth, but you’ll get good at it with practice.
For example, the following are good truths to learn from:
- “I spent $2000 eating out this month, and now I can’t afford to pay the rent.” — you objectively spent that money, and it was a contributor to why you can’t pay the rent. Just about everything else around that “I’m a bad saver”, “I have no self control”, “I will always be broke” is a story. But the fact that spending $2000 on eating out leaves no money for rent is a useful fact to base your future behavior on — spend less money on eating out.
- “I got fired for yelling at a coworker” — you objectively got fired because of an incident. Now, the tricky part here is that it’s probably not the only reason you got fired, there’s probably other stuff you did before that didn’t build your case very well. But objectively, you only know that incident contributed to your firing. So next time, control your anger when talking to a coworker to avoid the same situation.
- “I got into a car accident because I was drinking and driving” — you objectively got into an accident because you were drunk. There are tons of statistics that say it massively increases your chances to get into an accident when you drink. Now that doesn’t mean “you’re a drunk” or “you have no self control” or “you’re a bad person”. The only thing you should take away is that you shouldn’t drink while driving if you want to avoid future accidents.
Again, this is tricky, separating facts from assumptions, the line is blurry sometimes. But eventually you’ll build that objectivity.
Remapping Your Feelings to Gratitude
This is perhaps the most important part of the process. I cannot understate how much it helped me to reframe negative events in a lens of gratitude.
Here’s the thing — your brain needs to do something to pass the time. It’s used to thinking negative thoughts, making up stories of the worst case scenarios. While at most points of evolution this was useful, it’s not anymore! Quite the opposite, it’s in your best interest to focus on the good.
With the help of the tools above, you can train your brain to stop making up those stories!
There’s still a problem though — what will your brain do with all that time it spent on spinning sad yarns?
It’s very hard to stop a bad habit, but it’s easier to replace it with a good one.
That’s why smokers have a much easier time quitting if they use the same stimulus of craving to map to another behavior — working out, eating sunflower seeds, chewing gum.
Those neural pathways you spent your life building — reacting to negative events, won’t just go away. And why let them go to waste? Instead remap them to something useful.
Gratitude is a very useful emotion to feel. It causes wonderful feelings, and actually helps your life become better.
Almost any event trigger can be remapped to gratitude. Simply use your brain’s storytelling power in reverse! Look for all the positive events and memories when looking at the past, and build your future using the best case scenarios.
Keep a gratitude journal for all the areas of your life. It will help you remember and reframe a situation when a negative event happens.
After a breakup
Think of all the amazing experiences you’ve had with the person. You got to experience a lot of joy, love, and fun. Remember all the times your relationship was a success. And reflect on how much it changed you as a person, made you stronger, prepared you for your next relationship!
When I look back at my last relationship, instead of remembering the bad times — the disagreements, the pain, the unhappiness, I feel gratitude for the overwhelming amount of good times.
Our wonderful trip to Africa, playing and laughing in the shower, holding each other in our arms, where everything in the world just stopped and faded away, and all we experienced was pure love. I got to experience all that and more! I’m so lucky! And likely, I will experience similar things with the next person I date.
I like to keep a “happy moments” list during a relationship where I write down all the little things that made me happy. Maybe it was a gift she gave. Maybe it was something sweet she said.
Maybe it’s an amazing trip we had together. Or a major fight that we got through, and how much we grew from it.
Now, when you look at the future, instead of focusing on thoughts like “I will never love some like this again”, imagine the best scenarios. “I learned so much about myself from this relationship, the next one is going to go so much smoother”. “I am so good at caring for someone. Any girl (or guy) will be so lucky to have me as a partner”. “She helped me unlock so much of my creativity and see the beauty in life. Now I will be able to see my life from a totally different perspective and be able to enjoy it even more!”
After losing your job
Think of all the amazing projects you accomplished at your job. Think of all the people you interacted with, the friendships you made, how they supported you, and what wonderful things you got to create together.
I try to keep a list of my accomplishments that I add to daily. It contains any task I accomplish, no matter how small. For example, if I’m editing, I may add something as small as “edited my Why Focus the Negatived article to make it flow better”. I don’t just list the end product. It’s so easy to forget those little things, which combined made a huge difference.
Later on, when I feel that I haven’t accomplished anything for months, I look at the extensive and impressive list of everything I did. It’s also useful for performance reviews ;)
When looking at the future, you can reframe it using all those accomplishments. “I was so good at refactoring that code, next time I get that kind of task, I know I’ll do a great job”.
“I learned that I’m very good at documentation and simplifying things. I will get a job which values those skills and utilizes my full potential”.
“I met some very caring people and learned how to work with them in a team, and mentor more junior developers. I will meet more amazing people at my next job, and be a great leader for anyone who needs it”.
After experiencing a personal loss
Whether it’s a person or an item, it’s easy to focus on how bad it feels not to have it in your life anymore. Instead you can remember all the good memories you had with that person or item, and thank God (or the universe) for bringing them into your life.
Realize your immense privilege compared to the rest of the world. You got to experience something that most people never will.
When looking at the future, realize that you will meet more people like this, and own more items like the one you lost. And experience more experiences just like the one that passed. “I really loved my trip to Africa. It really fueled my love of traveling. In the future, I can become a nomad, and travel to even more amazing places”. “I had a really great friendship with Ron. We spent so much time together, and were so vulnerable with each other. Now I know what’s possible in a friendship, and will experience an even better one in the future”. “I loved my iPhone 7. It was such a useful tool. But now that I’ve lost it, I can get the iPhone 10, which is even faster and more useful!”
There’s an added bonus to transforming your thoughts to those of gratitude!
I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept of “manifesting”. There are all these books like “Super Attractor” and “The Secret” saying that if you believe hard enough you can “create your own reality”. I initially viewed them with a lot of skepticism. While some of their thoughts are a little “woo woo” or “wishful thinking” for my taste, I’m realizing the immense power in their main idea, this new style of thinking.
Here’s how it works. Our brain has a great filter. There are thousands of little bits of information that enter your brain every second — the feeling of the clothes on your skin, the feeling of the breath in your nostrils, the color of the couch you’re sitting on. The majority of this information doesn’t have too much bearing on your life. If we were to consciously process all this information, we would never get off our couch!
So most information never reaches our conscious mind. It’s simply “thrown away” as useless.
There are millions of events and opportunities happening every day. You may overhear a conversation about the perfect job offer to boost your career.
You might meet the perfect boy in class, barely overhearing some interest that connects the two of you.
You might see the perfect activity to do today, scrolling through meetup.com.
Stop for a second and think how many positive opportunities you passed up on, because you didn’t pay attention to them.
Why isn’t your brain bringing all these amazing things to your attention?
The problem is your brain is still in survival mode! Going back to those caveman days, we learned to hyper focus on danger. A leaf stirring on the ground, might be a snake. A glimmer in the distance might be a tiger crouching. A noise in the distance, may be an approaching enemy tribe.
The brain is naturally quite good at catching all the negative information in your life, because it think it needs it to survive.
These books say that you “manifest” negative events by thinking of them. There is some truth in this. When you obsessively think of a certain outcome “No girl will ever love me”, you will find all the information that supports that outcome. You will focus on all the girls that reject you, stew in all the negative comments you receive.
And you’ll ignore all the opportunities of meeting a girl that loves you, because that simply don’t fit into your narrative. Sure there’s a cute girl in your yoga class, who winked at you. But why would you talk to her? She is somebody who might actually like you, and that doesn’t line up with your story at all! You’ll miss the wink, dismissing it as “irrelevant information”.
The thing is, you can reprogram your brain to bring your attention to positive information instead! This is done by having a gratitude practice, described in the section above.
Once you get your mind out of survival mode, focusing on the negative, and instead train it to search for positive information — what to be grateful for, seeing the best case scenario, it will naturally start “attracting” positive experiences which have been around you all along, but you just dismissed as “irrelevant information”. Yes, there will be plenty of failures, but you’re not focusing on them any more, they’re “irrelevant information”.
So, can you “magically” manifest whatever you want into your life — debatable…But can you open up your mind to all the possibilities which will compound to you getting what you want — most definitely yes.
I hope that this article has helped explain the processes going on in your brain, and how to use that knowledge to your advantage to become a happier, healthier person.
Thank you so much for reading!
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