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A dress, ancestors, and the art of reshaping negative thinking


Colourful fabrics


Many years ago, I got a new dress in New York City that was unlike anything else I owned at the time. It had a bold pattern with bold colours. I was very proud of it. I wore it to work one day with a blazer and was showered with compliments. Everyone loved it. But then, as I walked down the hall, one guy I worked with said “WHOA! You look like Don Cherry!” For my non-Canadian and non-hockey-fan readers, Don Cherry is a now-disgraced hockey commentator who was known for his gawdy outfits that often evoked memories of grandma’s old sofa or wallpaper from the 1970s. So, this was not a compliment.

 

I probably received over ten compliments on that dress but all I could focus on was the “Don Cherry” comment.

 

This is negativity bias at its finest.

 

Negativity bias is the tendency to dwell more on negative events or possibilities than on positive ones.

 

And we ALL have this bias. It’s innate.

 

We came by this honestly. Our ancestors from long ago lived in perilous conditions. At any moment, they could be eaten by a saber-tooth tiger, trampled by some beast, or accidentally poisoned by a toxic berry they foraged while looking for a snack. (And you think you have it bad when you run out of cookies...) Our ancestors had to be negative because danger awaited them at every turn. Their lives depended on being hypervigilant of all potential dangers. (Imagine speed-dating existed in that era? They were negative all the time and hadn’t invented toothbrushes or soap yet. Yeesh.)

 

Our living conditions have vastly improved since those times but our innate negativity bias remains.

 

I want you to know this because, when you focus on that one deriding comment about your new dress instead of the ten complimentary ones or when something unexpected happens and you automatically jump to the worst-case scenario, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not some glass-half-empty kind of person. This is just your negativity bias at work.

 

It’s true that some people come across as being more negative than others. However, the difference is not really in the negative thoughts they have. We all have negative thoughts. Most of our thoughts come from our subconscious. This means we can’t control the thoughts that come up.

 

What we can control, however, is which thoughts we choose to engage with.

 

So, those “more negative” people I mentioned above are just engaging with their negative thoughts more. As the saying goes, what you focus on grows. So, the more we engage with our negative thoughts, the more we involuntary seek them out. The “less negative” people are just not engaging with their negative thoughts as much.

 

We can train ourselves to engage with negative thinking less.

 

If you’re lucky enough to catch yourself in the middle of negative thinking, you might say “Okay, I’m going to focus on something else.” I strongly recommend that, in this case, the “something else” be your senses, your breathing (smelly ancestors excepted), or whatever it is you’re physically doing at the time (washing dishes, typing, changing into a different dress, etc.).

 

This is going to seem like an impossible task at first. It will seem like a battle. The negative thoughts will keep muscling their way back. You will have to keep shifting your focus away from them. You will probably get frustrated. Don’t; that back and forth is part of the process. Be compassionate with yourself. You’re grappling with thousands of years of DNA on this one! Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, your thoughts aren’t going to be corralled on the first try. You’ll never get to 100% efficacy on this. It’s a lifelong journey. All you are looking for is a bit of progress.

  

And, in retrospect, the dress absolutely did look like something Don Cherry would wear.



With gratitude,

Stephanie 


LORA Concepts Inc.

workplace confidence & engagement




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p.s. The information, insight, and advice I share through my work is meant to exist alongside whatever else you may be doing to bolster your mental health, manage stress, or improve your well-being. Nothing I share is meant to replace directives or treatment plans provided by your doctor, therapist, or other healthcare professional.

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