Why is it so much easier to accept something negative compared to something positive?

I recently attended a ‘Secrets of Hypnosis’ weekend with Richard Bandler and Paul McKenna. Whilst there I got to know another participant and they gave me some lovely feedback - however, I dismissed the compliments. 

Some of these remarks were in direct contrast to things I had been told at school. Yet, I found it easier to hold onto these [very] old comments, and beliefs about myself from people that are no longer in my life, have probably never thought twice about the comments made, and from people that definitely didn’t know me as I am today, than to believe and accept the comments from a person who had interacted with me and was generous enough to share these comments with me.

How rude of me!

It is actually very rude of me to have dismissed his kind words. He was offering his opinion [of me] and although I have every right to believe, or not believe his words, by definition his opinion can’t be wrong, it can just be different to mine. By offering me his opinion he was offering me a gift. He was freely giving me [positive] feedback and the polite response is ‘thank you’. 

Even if my underlying thoughts were that I didn’t agree with him, I could have just said thank you. I’m sure this would have made him feel better or more appreciated compared to my rebuttals. I may also have felt better by just saying thank you. By arguing with his opinion, I had to recall events that I thought disproved his comments - these are things that have happened but may no longer be true, or may be things I’ve learnt from but I was just taking myself back to the negative event and reliving it. 

Negativity bias

I can easily recall finding school photos where I had been disfigured. I still feel like I’m not a good enough friend at times based on a flippant remark made when I wouldn’t go out with my best friend after school. I still refer to myself as a swot and ‘goody goody’ because these were labels given to me at school. Why have these become part of my identity but comments about who I am now have not?

It is likely this is evidence of the negativity bias - that we are more ‘tuned in’ to negative comments and thoughts. Even if we receive negative and positive comments with the same intensity, research suggests that the negative has more effect on our psychological state than positive comments. 

You can probably think of your own examples that ‘prove’ your own negativity bias. For example, have you ever had a fantastic day with a friend, and they make one comment you didn’t like, and when you recall the day you spend more time fixated on the comment and analysis of the potential meaning, rather than the positive aspects of the rest of the day? Or maybe you have received a large bonus at work but when you check your payslip you see the tax on this; you then focus on the unfairness of the tax rather than the recognition of your work by receiving the bonus [and the amount you have actually received into your bank account]?

Is Pollyanna thinking the way forward?

If it is in our biology and chemistry to be predispositioned to negativity, how do you overcome it? Becoming mindful of the stories you are telling yourself about your situation is key.

When you catch yourself going into a ‘woe is me’ moment, evaluate what you are saying. Is it actually true? What is an objective view of the situation? 

Catching your thoughts and stories and trying to put an objective filter on them gives options for how you see any given situation. It isn’t necessarily about changing how you feel, but giving yourself choices - it could mean X, but it may also mean Y. Instead of then just having the negative bias and reacting off of this in an unconscious way, you have a different view to consider and can then form a reaction in a conscious way.

For me, instead of thinking that the person paying me a compliment is just being nice, or finding something to say to me, objectively, maybe they are just expressing how they are feeling at this point in time. Maybe their sole intention was to share this with me. Maybe this is their truth. Maybe they were being nice, but they didn’t have to be. 

So, thank you to that very kind stranger that shared his opinion with me. I am grateful and humbled by your beautiful words.

And sorry for my delay in this appreciation.