“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened” – Unknown.
Nobody will ever be harder on us than ourselves. Nobody can highlight our flaws and failures quite so aptly as the critic in our mind. Nobody is as willing to throw our mistakes in our face, make us cry, and want to give up like that part of us that seeks greatness.
Such self-criticism can take a heavy toll on our health and development, and here’s the real bad news: the problem isn’t a result of our upbringing, education, or even our egos. We’re actually designed to be like this.
The very first humans in history developed ‘negativity bias’ as a means of surviving in the wild. It kept them alert, expectant of danger so that when danger did arrive, they were well prepared.
We might not have to worry about lions walking through our front door at night anymore, but our negativity bias is as strong as ever, and it is manifesting in disturbing ways: depression, substance abuse, and, ironically, decreased productivity. Yep, criticising yourself for not ticking everything off on your daily checklist is making you less likely to ever complete it. And yet we still beat ourselves up over it.
In 2000, a team of researchers tracked over 17,000 Canadian men and women to see if they changed their lifestyles after being diagnosed with a chronic illness.
12 years later, their findings were published, and they revealed not much had changed. Most smokers with respiratory diseases continued to smoke. As a whole, those who had overcome illness were still less likely to exercise than those who were healthy. And only a few changed the composition of their diet.
What the researcher’s findings suggest is that we are so used to feeling the brunt of negativity in our lives, that not even something as severe as a chronic illness is likely to inspire change.
So what hope do those of us who simply want to silence our inner-critic have? Can it be done?
It’s not easy to fight the hardwiring of our brains, but yes, it can be done via two methods.
The first is to learn to accept your faults through self-compassion.
“Research shows that the No. 1 barrier to self-compassion is fear of being complacent and losing your edge”, Dr. Kristin Neff of the University of Texas told The New York Times.
“And all the research shows that’s not true. It’s just the opposite.”
By accepting our mistakes, learning from them, and leaving them to the past, our brains can address the present with more clarity and commitment. It’s as simple as that…but, of course, simple isn’t always simple. And that’s where the second method comes in:
Promote a positive focus through small actions.
Psychologists have discovered a golden ratio for bringing positivity to just about every aspect of our lives – five to one.
Due to the potency of negativity, it takes five positive events to nullify the impact of a single negative event.
The key, therefore, is to look for small ways to make each day more positive. It could mean taking a little time to yourself in order to enjoy a morning coffee, chatting with a colleague, or sitting down to watch a television show, knowing that doing so will ultimately prove beneficial to your health and happiness.
That way, when something does go wrong, the bank of positive moments can buffer the bad, and make it easier to accept, and move on.
The truth is that negativity bias isn’t ever going away. It’s fundamental to our survival now, as much as ever. But surviving is one thing, and thriving is another. To thrive we must embrace the good with the bad, and remember that for all our mistakes, all our flaws, we will carry on.