Dealing With Our Negativity Bias And Stopping The Overthinking Chatter
In this article I look at how overthinking can be exhausting and limiting, and how we can manage it and get our energy from the positive.
Our Negativity Bias
We all focus on the negative. Because of the brain’s negativity bias, we tend to fixate on what’s wrong – with ourselves, with others, with work. We all naturally tend not to focus on what’s right or what has gone well. There is an inner critic inside each of us nattering away, looking for and highlighting faults, to the extent that the good stuff often doesn’t get to see the light of day.
That chatter can sometimes get so loud we can’t hear or see the things we do well anymore. And it can become an unhelpful habit that saps our energy and kills our confidence.
It is called rumination or overthinking – and research has proven women do it more than men. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema in her book ‘Women Who Think Too Much‘ describes this at its’ worst as “morbid meditations… getting caught in a torrent of negative thoughts and emotions”.
Research also tells us that women are more inclined to turn things inward, blaming ourselves and thinking everything is our fault – whatever went wrong was all down to us. Men are better at moving on and not taking it all so personally.
As we stew over stuff we can feed our fears, working away at our worries into a spiral of negativity, letting negative things about our work stick like Velcro and not slide off like Teflon.
What’s the Problem with Worrying?
We need to make sure we are worrying about the right things because going over and over things that you can’t change just wears you out. Taking responsibility for things that you can’t control is carrying an unhelpful burden that just slows you down.
Constant rumination is a handbrake on our careers because it knocks our confidence and wastes the time and focus we need to be putting into moving forward. It’s simply a waste of time and energy, and frankly time and energy are the currencies in our lives we simply can’t afford to squander.
Ruminating also makes you negative about things in general, including your future possibilities and how you can impact as a leader. It means we look at things through a distorted lens, often blinded to new ways of moving forward while we just use up the energy we need to get there.
Be on Your Side, Not on Your Case
And frankly beating yourself up is not good for your health – it just makes you feel bad. It is a form of self-torture AND it is a habit we need to, and can, learn to break.
This is not about avoiding our negative emotions nor does it mean that all our worries are about the daft, niggly stuff like – do I look fat in this, will they like me, – we also sweat the big stuff. A lot. Am I a good enough wife; mother; am I letting my boss down, my team down; I guess I was lucky to get that raise, will I ever be good enough for another one; I handled that meeting badly; I wonder if that client is going to drop us because I…. and on and on…
Learning to be Teflon
Because of our negativity bias, the brain focuses on what’s wrong so to counter that we have to adjust how we see things consciously. We need to actively stop adding fuel to the fire, rummaging around in our handbags for the things we’ve done wrong and instead reminding ourselves regularly of what we do well and what has worked well.
We need to learn to turn off our negative chatter, remember it is not all down to you. So next time you’re in a meeting, and hear your self-talk nattering away, wondering if you sounded stupid when you said that, or if someone was offended or if your presentation was the worst they’ve ever seen. Say “Stop!”…to yourself, that is.
You are not responsible for other people’s reactions and concerns so liberate yourself from all that self-flagellation. How can you liberate yourself from all this ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ thinking? Try asking yourself next time you hear “should”. Say’s Who?
When you start revving up your rumination get out your calendar and diary your worry for another time. Save all your upcoming worries into that time block e.g. Tuesday 10.30a.m. Push it out there. You will probably find you can free up that 30 minutes by the time you get to Tuesday.
Breaking an Unhelpful Habit
Sally Helgeson has a great chapter on Ruminating in her book ‘How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back‘, where she states rumination keeps even brilliant and talented women stuck. Listen to my interview with Sally on my podcast.
The thing is our brain builds new pathways based on what we pay attention to – “neurons that fire together, wire together”. So as in all of our thinking habits that do not serve us well, we need to learn to consciously change the channel.
Tell that inner critic to go away and just shut up.
As Rick Hansen in his book, ‘Just One Thing‘ says, ‘get your inner protector to come to the party instead, that’s the voice that reminds you of what you’ve done well, what was simply an unskilled mistake that you will be better at next time.’
Move on and let it go. Be on your side, not on your case. Learn to be more Teflon and flag being Velcro.