I’d be willing to bet that almost every one of us can remember something negative someone has said about us at some point. Those things that sting, that go straight to the heart, that are unfair and untrue or just hit too close to home.
The other day one of my coaching clients burst into tears in the midst of telling me what someone had said about her — not actually a bad thing, per se, but something that felt unfair and hurtful at the time. And still does. She is not unusual. Almost all of the people I know, especially the women, have moments like this — those times that the negative stories you’re hearing from others and yourself that are seared into your mind crop up to the surface and unravel you.
Yet if we were asked to think of something that someone had said to us or about us that made us smile, that made us warm with pride, that made us feel like we’d been truly seen for who we are and who we’re trying to be in the world … how long would it take you to think of one of those moments? It would probably take a bit longer.
This is pretty normal — science tells us that:
This is called the “negativity bias” and it is a real thing: “Your brain is simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. The bias is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain’s information processing”. “Research over and over again shows this is a basic and wide-ranging principle of psychology … It’s in human nature, and there are even signs of it in animals,” says Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, author of a journal article from 2001 in The Review of General Psychology “Bad Is Stronger Than Good”. He claims “losing money, being abandoned by friends and receiving criticism will have a greater impact than winning money, making friends or receiving praise.”
There may be a biological basis for this “negativity bias”, but it’s not necessarily serving us well today in our personal or professional lives. The biological theory is that those “more attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased the probability of passing along their genes” but today one of the problems with this approach is that it means we are constantly plagued by the fear of potential or actual negative feedback, and our self-belief and self-confidence. While “negativity bias” is so well recognised it has its own Wikipedia page and has been the subject of psychology studies such as those featured in Psychology Today, it is time to kick it to the curb in our lives.
(image credit: the Awkward Yeti)
How can we reduce the impact of the negativity bias in our own lives? Let me tell you about one of the steps I take in my own life: I keep an “Evidence Book”. It’s not fancy, it’s not pretty, but it lives on a book stand on my desk right next to my computer, and everybody who has been into my office has seen it sitting there, often open to a random page. In it I keep a record of the positive things people say to me or about me or the emails or cards that people send. I print out FB messages or glue in greeting cards, or write out words that people have said in passing. If you’ve said something positive about me in the last few years and I’ve heard you say it, or you’ve sent me a kind note or message, chances are it’s stored somewhere in this book!
Why? Because my brain is so good at remembering all the negative shit but not so good at remembering the awesome stuff! So I use this as a way of reminding myself that I am awesome and I have done awesome things and that people think good things about me. When I’m having those days or moments when I feel down, and we all have them, I go back to my Evidence Book and I open up to a random page and I read until I remember that I’m OK and that I’m not only the sum of the negative things — I use the positive things to balance that out.
Now, before you get worried about the fact that this is encouraging you to rely on the validation of others, it’s not. I don’t just rely on the validation of others, but it’s pretty normal to care and be affected by what others say about you. We all need kindness and positivity in our lives, and while we are largely responsible for creating those environments for ourselves, it can also be really hard to do this when we are feeling inadequate, depressed, or just plain sad. That’s when taking a step back and seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, especially those that care about us, can really help.
And that’s why I call it an Evidence Book. Others have different names for it — a “Feel Good Folder” on their email, or a “Happy Book”, or one of my coaching clients just decided to make a “Bees Knees Book” to remind herself that she is the bee’s knees (because she absolutely is!). For me, and many other amazing women I know who are lawyers, we’re used to dealing in facts, evidence, logical thoughts, and those negative emotions can really throw us. It’s times like this when we most need to look at the evidence provided by others around us to assess are we really seeing ourselves in the full light of how others perceive us? Are we letting the negative bias influence us too much, and forgetting those positive aspects that rationally also exist? By seeing, in writing, in an easy to find and accessible place, that positive “evidence” of what others have said about me or to me, I can reshape my thinking.
My Evidence Book is a @Resketch notebook that I bought from Kickstarter, an experiment at reusing paper from a print shop, which is filled with some creative prompts and reclaimed paper of different colours and weights … it’s not super pretty, but it’s ideal for glueing stuff in, re-writing little love notes, drawing doodles, and sitting open at my desk as a constant reminder of how I have at my fingertips a simple way of beating that negative bias whenever it pops up. On the front cover I’ve written myself a reminder (sticking with the reuse, rethink, resketch theme, thanks #resketchbook):
Remind yourself why you matter. Remember your worth. Reshape your thinking.
And you know one of the best bits about keeping track of things like this? You notice it more when people do say positive things! I’m not saying they stick in your head any more easily, because I still find I open my book on random pages and am reminded of something I had completely forgotten about, but the more I keep a record of the positive things, the more I see them happen. And the more random positive friendship cards that appear in my letterbox or people send me messages of love for no reason. It’s pretty magical!
Who else has their own version of an Evidence Book? What do you keep in it? If you don’t already have one, when are you going to start? It’s a terrific excuse to satiate your stationery shopping obsession and I give you full permission to go shopping and get started right now!
Here’s some inspiration for you (remember, it’s not about me and what people have said about me, it’s about showing you how you can easily do this for yourself!):
Care to share your version of your Evidence Book in the comments below?