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Why Negative Thoughts Are So Powerful Negative Thoughts Can Leave Us Anxious

  • Negative thoughts often carry more weight than our positive ones.

  • Negative bias can leave us anxious and full of self-doubt; it can work against our best interests.

  • Understanding negative bias is powerful in controlling our thoughts and beliefs.

Whether they’re positive or negative, thoughts are powerful. When receiving feedback on a project at work, an athletic performance, or an academic paper, we tend to be more affected by negative feedback than praise or words of encouragement. Likewise, our negative thoughts — about something we would like to attempt, achieve, or experience — often carry more weight than our positive ones, making us anxious and fearful.


When we feel capable of handling whatever comes our way, have faith in our skill set and feel good about our prospects, our affective forecasting — that is, how we think and feel about our future happiness — remains positive, and feel optimistic. But when negative, self-limiting thoughts and beliefs come along, they can impact us in many ways. They can lower our confidence, self-concept, and self-esteem and diminish our openness to new experiences and opportunities, despite our achievements, capabilities, and attributes. Regarding negative versus positive thoughts, the odds are stacked in favour of the negative regarding negative versus positive thoughts stacked in favour of the negative.



Negativity bias

The reason for this, in a word, is survival. When it comes to making life choices, and assessing fears or threats, we are hardwired with a negativity bias as a means of self-protection. This negativity bias — a heightened awareness of any sense of a threat to our well-being — is a function that served our ancestors well, and played a crucial part in our survival as a species. But this same sensitivity in the modern world often works against us and leaves us feeling incapable, threatened, and unwilling to take chances with few real risks and many benefits, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.


When we allow our negativity bias — or fears — to overshadow or outweigh evidence to the contrary, we find ourselves settling for less, perhaps refusing that promotion, deciding against choosing to take a meaningful risk that will enable us to learn a new skill, grow, or achieve a goal. In short, when we yield to our fears and self-doubts, we diminish our potential and limit our opportunities to fulfil our hopes and dreams.

The old adage, if it bleeds, it leads, underscores the reality of the prevalence of bad news, and our seemingly endless appetite for it. This tendency carries over into our own lives. For example, on a Friday afternoon, looking back over an overall productive and successful week, if we received negative feedback from someone on Monday, chances are that’s what we will be dwelling on, and ruminating over, and it’s what we will remember long after all of the good stuff is forgotten.


Processing the powerful negatives

As with any challenge, when it comes to dealing with our innate negativity bias, understanding and acknowledging what it is and why it is there is a powerful first step. We can then begin to process our negative thoughts by staying attuned to our feelings. When we are feeling less than optimal, we can examine the thoughts that are triggering our sense of disappointment, lack of confidence, or sense of hopelessness.


Once we identify a negative thought, we need to challenge its veracity. We can ask ourselves how accurate is: the thought that I never do anything right, what made me think I could pass this course, learn a new skill, travel the world? When we begin to challenge our negative thoughts, we will see them for what they are, harmful, inaccurate, and self-limiting.


Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones

Once we’ve examined a negative thought and found it to be inaccurate, we can rewrite, reframe, and replace a negative thought with a more accurate, healthier, and life-affirming one.

Think about it. We are here to live our best lives, not to move through life over-burdened by self-doubts and fears. Understanding how to balance our innate negativity bias through awareness and mindfulness of what is working and positive in our lives is a powerful and life-affirming practice that will make a real and immediate positive difference in our lives.


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