‘All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt and fear. That’s just our minds doing the job they were designed to do: trying to anticipate and solve problems and avoid potential pitfalls.’
Susan David and Christina Congleton. Australian Financial Review, Dec to Jan 2014.
Negative thinking gets a bad rap. Without negative thoughts you would be dead already. Every time you drive a car or cross a road you consider the negative consequences of possible actions. Your ‘negativity’ is keeping you alive.
Negativity also helps us to avoid social dangers. If we are careful in how we relate to people we increase the chance that they will enjoy our company. Someone who lacks that caution lacks friends. Negativity can keep a person socially acceptable.
Negativity helps us plan and prepare. If we are going for a job it is in our best interests to anticipate awkward questions and prepare for them. If we are planning a holiday, imagining potential problems can avoid tears.
Negativity is a gift to be treasured.
Alan and Ben are about to visit Thailand, a politically safe country in which there is malaria. Alan prepares in advance for the trip by reading about the country, taking preventative medication, and so on. He anticipates potential problems and prepares for them, while looking forward to the trip.
Ben makes the same preparations, but unlike Alan, Ben is sure something will go wrong. He has ‘heard stories’ about Thailand, and might go to England instead, where he thinks it’s safer.
Both men are employing ‘negativity’ to avoid unnecessary suffering, but Ben is overly negative, and his fears are disabling him.
Why is Ben overly negative?
Alan has travelled abroad to other Asian countries before, and feels comfortable that he handle Thailand. Ben hasn’t been abroad before, and is concerned he won’t handle the ‘dangers’ of an Asian country.
It’s the same for all of us. When we are overly negative it’s because we have doubts about whether we can handle a situation. We might not think we are good enough, or talented enough, and we fear the consequences.
(It’s different when it’s a fair judgement of the situation: if I don’t believe I can handle a bull charging at me I’m not being overly negative when I run for my life.)
Someone insisting, ‘I’ll fail for sure’ when they might pass, fears being unable to handle the consequences of failing. Someone saying, ‘Everyone around here only cares about themselves’ might fear being unable to deal with their own loneliness and isolation. When someone says, ‘No one will come to my party’ when there is no evidence to suggest that is true, might fear the emotions associated with being rejected. In each case, the person is preparing themselves for the worst. The trouble is, they disable themselves. Their negative self-talk undermines them and gnaws at their confidence.
There are two ways of reducing our unnecessary negativity:
1. Develop the feeling that whatever happens in life, we can handle it. If we can shrug and say, ‘I can handle that’, fewer negative thoughts will come to us. This book is about developing that feeling.
2. Until we develop that feeling, we need to find ways of dealing with unwanted negative thoughts when they do pop up. This section looks at that.