Last month I wrote about the surprising downsides of positive thinking. This month I want to flip that around and consider four reasons we might want to change our perspective on negative thinking.
1. You’re going to do it anyway
Cast your mind back to the last time you were worried about something. If someone had told you to stop worrying (and maybe someone did) would you have ceased immediately? I doubt it. We don’t have that much conscious control over our thoughts. Just as a little experiment, try not thinking about a polar bear for a minute. A big, white, majestic polar bear. Don’t think about it. Not that easy, is it? We can’t just will our thoughts away.
2. Negative thoughts can be helpful
Positivity and optimism are lovely qualities and often a joy to be around. But they’re not always that helpful. I recently heard a radio interview with a man who’d spent his career as a safety supervisor on North Sea oil rigs. An extremely dour Scotsman, he probably wasn’t a wow at parties. But if I was going to an oil rig, I’d be reassured to know that its – and my – safety had been entrusted to someone who constantly thinks “what else could go wrong?”. This is known as ‘defensive pessimism‘ and it can be a useful strategy. If I’m ever unlucky enough to need brain surgery, I’d hope for a pessimistic neurosurgeon, as they’re apparently the most successful. And the best psychotherapists combine a mix of self-doubt and self-compassion – in other words, they worry about whether they’ve been doing the best they can but don’t beat themselves up if they decide that they haven’t.
3. Too much harmony is dangerous
If you picture a well-functioning team, you probably imagine a group of people focused on a common goal, working harmoniously, all pulling in the same direction. This sounds great but it has its downsides. If you’re over about 40 you may recall the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, when the spacecraft catastrophically broke apart just after take-off. Engineers will tell you that the cause was the failure of an O-ring seal. Psychologists will tell you that the cause was the team dynamics. This was a good, cohesive team, all highly motivated to (literally) get the project off the ground. Concerns about the O-ring were well known but no one mentioned them. Nobody wanted to be the one who derailed the project and, if none of their colleagues had said anything, well then maybe it wasn’t that serious anyway.
To counter this, some teams working on high stakes projects hold a ‘pre-mortum’, where instead of working out what went wrong once it’s too late, they try to flush out potential problems while there is a chance to do something about them. The fact that it’s all hypothetical seems to give people permission to voice issues they might otherwise keep quiet about.
4. Negative thoughts and feelings are telling you something
It’s not generally comfortable to experience so-called negative emotions like anger, fear or shame but they serve a purpose. They tell you something about what is going on in your world. Anger tells you that something is definitely not the way you think it should be; fear that you may be at risk and shame that you may have violated the norms of society. Often these emotions are entirely appropriate. Without anger, we might still have a slave trade and women wouldn’t get to vote. I rather hope that Mike Ashley feels enough shame about running Sports Direct like a Victorian workhouse to make amends, though I’m not holding my breath.
Sometimes, of course, these emotions are out of proportion. If you are triggered to murderous rage because someone cuts you up at a roundabout or got served before you at the bar, then clearly that emotion is not a reliable guide as to how to respond to the world. But it is telling you something; it is data. If you have enough self-awareness to stop yourself acting out your anger, then, rather than trying to suppress it – “I shouldn’t get this angry” – it can be worth looking at what it’s telling you about your inner world. What is triggering this level of reaction? What does it mean for you if people don’t behave exactly as you think they should? What are you making it mean about you? The same kind of exploration is useful with other disproportionate responses, such as feeling fear, anxiety or embarrassment in situations which do not really warrant them.
Of course, the granddaddy of negative thinking is self-criticism and that’s a big enough topic that I’m going to save it for next time. In the meantime, I hope that the negative thoughts that will inevitably pop into your mind over Christmas – “Will these visitors ever go home?”; “I don’t think he really liked that present I chose so carefully”; “I’m bored now”; “Oh no, someone’s mentioned Brexit in front of Uncle Bob” – are far outweighed by positive ones.
Polar bear: Maia C
Team: Creative Sustainability