Why Are We So Negative?
Negative thoughts come from our brain’s instinct to survive. Our brains are always trying to make sense of the world and processing things around us.
Our brains are not wired for us to be happy, but to SURVIVE in a world that has many threats.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors lived in very stressful environments where one had to be hypervigilant and on the lookout for danger whether it be from a wild animal, tribes of people, natural disasters or famine. This meant anticipating that something bad was going to happen.
If our remote ancestors remained overly positive, they probably would have been mauled by an animal, crushed by unsafe landscape, pillaged by other humans trying to survive or would have starved to death. It was unrealistic for those living in this dangerous time to be optimistic because there was always a chance that one wouldn’t make it through the day.
Therefore, the negative mindset was born!
Being pessimistic led to a higher chance of survival. If you need an example, think of the Pixar movie, The Croods! This wonderfully hilarious film follows the adventures of a family trying to survive in what seems like the paleolithic era where danger lurks everywhere and getting food to survive is a team-based task that took the efforts of everyone in the family.
The father in this movie keeps his family alive the longest out of all the neighbors, because he advocates “always being afraid and not doing anything new.” For those of you who have seen the movie, you realize that this is a very comical depiction of thinking negatively to survive, however it still rings true.
Of course, these days we no longer require this sort of vigilance to survive as those same threats no longer exist. However, that doesn’t change the way our brains are wired. We are more likely to tune into the negative versus the positive due to our brains conditioning to protect us from perceived dangers.
This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Negative thinking can keep us safe.
When we get into our cars and put on our seatbelts, that’s an example of us expecting a possible negative event such as a car accident to which we are now prepared. When we look both ways before crossing an intersection, that’s us anticipating being hit by a car, which by looking for danger (cars coming toward us) we avoid being critically or fatally injured by oncoming traffic. When we practice safe sex, that’s an example of us anticipating unsafe pathogens or infections entering are bodies to which we are protecting ourselves from.
So, one can conclude that there is value in negative thinking in the sense that it helps to keep us safe from things that can lead to physical harm. With that said, this doesn’t mean that we are doomed to feel bad for the rest of our lives. This just offers more of an explanation for why it’s easy for many of us (not all of us) to think and feel negatively rather than positively.
The good news is that we are complex and sophisticated beings who can redirect negative thinking. There are things we can do to challenge our negative thoughts for the purpose of feeling better if negative thinking becomes problematic and interferes with overall functioning.
If we’re stuck in unbalanced negative thinking, this can lead to anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and negative self-talk, all of which can keep us from living our best lives and limits positive experiences when we have them. When we feel anxious and depressed our negative self-talk is likely to become extreme and we will focus on the negative aspects of a situation and miss out on the positive.
There are several things we can do to better cope with negative thoughts such as reality testing, looking for alternative explanations, putting things into perspective, and using goal directed thinking.
For reality testing, asking ourselves questions such as “what is the evidence that supports my thinking? Are my thoughts based on fact or my interpretation? How can I find out if my thoughts are true?
Looking for alternative explanations means asking what else could this mean? Is there any other way I could look at this situation?
Putting things in perspective is critically important as well. This means asking, are things as bad as I’m making them out to be? What is the worst that can happen and how likely is it? What is likely to happen, If the worst happens, what does that look like and would that really be as bad as I make it out to be?
Goal directed thinking asks one’s self, what can I do to solve this problem? Is there something I can learn from this situation? By utilizing this form of self-talk, we could redirect of negative thoughts to more realistic and positive thoughts.
While dangers still exist in our new world, we no longer need to anticipate the negative as our remote ancestors did. We are not prisoners to our primal conditioning and with these grounding questions we can feel better and tune more into our positive experiences as easily as we do the negative.
I'm Jackie Schwartz, LMFT, and for more information on this subject stay tuned and if negative thinking and negative self talk is something that you struggle with, contact me here for your complimentary consultation to discuss how I can be helpful!