Sometimes we can get caught up focusing on the negative; but with a little encouragement, we can train our brain to pay more attention to all of life's positives.
Why does the negative thing somebody once said about you seem to stick in your mind far longer than the nice things people say about you? Why does it feel like your teachers always focus on what you can’t do, rather than congratulating you for what you’ve done well?
If you experience this tendency to remember negatives more readily than positives, you’re not the only one. It’s a common human trait. Perhaps some of the following sound familiar?
- Your teacher marks a piece of homework and you dwell on the one mistake corrected, rather than the many positive comments.
- You have an argument with a friend. You find yourself continuing to think about their attitude and then their other imperfections. You forget the many positive characteristics that usually make them such a good person.
- You vividly remember embarrassing yourself at the swimming pool years ago and now try to avoid the activity, even though everybody else has most likely forgotten the incident entirely.
WHAT STICKS IN THE MIND?
Research suggests humans do, unfortunately, remember negative events more than positive ones and recall insults more clearly than praise. Overall, people might have had a great experience – such as a fun and relaxing holiday – but, when talking about it, often the first thing recalled is the one small negative – perhaps the train was delayed by a few hours. Annoyingly, it does seem to be that bad things stick in the memory, while the good stuff is harder to recall.
WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?
Psychologists call this a negative cognitive bias – humans are drawn to noticing the things that aren’t so good. It’s thought to be a result of evolution. For thousands of years, our ancestors needed to pay close attention to threats and hazards. For example, missing clues about nearby wild animals or bad weather coming would have been a matter of life and death, so the human brain developed the ability to recall previous signs of danger quickly. It’s simply trying to help us to stay safe by keeping in mind events from the past that proved to be in some way negative.
IS THAT A GOOD THING OR NOT?
So, recalling negatives is a natural response – but one that’s not always helpful if it means you forget all the good that’s happened or if it influences your future actions (like giving up swimming after one embarrassing encounter). However, it isn’t necessary or helpful to try to eliminate any unfavourable recollections altogether. Sometimes it’s useful to explore the less positive. Taking on board constructive criticism, for example, enables improvement, and reflecting on differences of opinion leads to increased empathy and insight.
WHAT CAN HELP?
By understanding a little about how the brain works, you can learn to recognise when you’re giving a negative experience too much headspace. The following strategies might help you to cultivate a more balanced outlook…
RECALL THE POSITIVES.
Do you sometimes go to bed overthinking something small that’s upset you? At the end of each day try writing down three good things that have happened. A calm activity such as reading, yoga, or drawing before bed can also help to clear your mind.
SANDWICH A PERCEIVED NEGATIVE BETWEEN TWO POSITIVES.
For example, this could be:
POSITIVE: I usually love going to the after-school art club.
PERCEIVED NEGATIVE: Today I was irritated because I couldn’t get the hang of the new printing technique and didn’t produce anything. I feel like I’m not good at art and I don’t know if I’ll go back next week.
POSITIVE: However, I know I’ll improve with practise, and I always feel better after catching up with my friends there.
REFRAME THE SITUATION TO GAIN A MORE BALANCED PERSPECTIVE.
Two examples to ponder:
INSTEAD OF THINKING: My English teacher criticised my work. I’m obviously not good at this subject.
TRY: My English teacher pointed out areas where I could improve, so that I can get better at this subject. She also told me what I’m doing well.
INSTEAD OF THINKING: I can never go to the school canteen again after I dropped my lunch and humiliated myself.
TRY: I remember feeling embarrassed when I dropped my lunch and everyone turned to look, but they carried on with their conversations and forgot all about it.
REDIRECT YOUR ATTENTION. If your mind keeps returning to a negative incident, focus on something else to give yourself a break from the constant internal chatter. Try spending time with friends, exercising, or doing something creative, such as cooking, sewing, scrapbooking, or painting.
It’s normal to overthink negatives from time to time. But if you feel unable to concentrate on your schoolwork, friends, or leisure activities because of it, talk to a trusted adult or contact a service such as kidshelpline.com.au