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Danger: Negativity Ahead

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"...'I wouldn't have it any other way.' In other words, why dwell on what you can't have? Focus on what you do have."

Many times when I first meet clients some comment, “I've tried that positive thinking and it doesn't work.” What they don't expect is that I tell them I am fully in agreement with them that positive thinking doesn't work. However, negative thinking doesn't work either. We need to develop realistic, believable thinking. Positive thinking is believing “Everything will be all right” whereas realistic thinking is “I might encounter some obstacles but I can figure it out.” As you can see, realistic thinking is more believable than positive thinking and that is what makes it effective.

However, all too often, people believe that their negative thinking is realistic. Therefore, they need to be able to evaluate it and determine how to look at the problem more realistically. The two main problematic areas of negative thinking are negative evaluation whether of yourself, others, or the situation and negative labeling of yourself or others. Let's examine each of these types of thinking.

Negative Evaluation of Self

1) Expecting the Negative. When negative evaluation is directed at the self it tends to expect negative outcomes for your actions: “No matter how hard I try, I'm not going to get that promotion” rather than “Hard work pays off but even if it doesn't I can have the personal satisfaction that I did a good job.”

2) Seeing Only the Negative. In addition, negative evaluation is the tendency to see only the negative aspect of yourself when there might be something more positive, “I tend to let people take advantage of me” rather than “I am a generous person although it is unfortunate that some people will take advantage of that.”

3) Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Notice that even though we are addressing the same issue, the realistic thinking allows the person too feel differently about themselves. In fact, one of the dangers of negativity thinking is the development of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is when we make a prediction about the future and then because we made the prediction we are likely to create the outcome. So, for example, if a person says “I'm not going to get that promotion” what is the most obvious thing he or she is likely to do? With such a belief, that person is less likely to try. As a result, when he or she doesn't get the promotion the comment is “See, I wouldn't have gotten it anyway.”

4) Judging the Self Harshly. Frequently I see people who would never dream of judging others as harshly as they judge themselves. I explain to them that this is a good clue that their thinking is irrational. If it's not something you expect of other people then it is not something reasonable to expect of yourself. Or if you wouldn't criticize someone else and call them names, don't do it to yourself. Now I'm certainly not saying that it's okay to treat yourself badly as long as you do the same to others. No, I'm saying this is just a helpful way to examine your thinking and determine if it may be unreasonable.

Negative Evaluation of Others

1) Direct Evaluation. Negative evaluation can frequently be directed at others. The same types of comments we make about ourselves we can make about others. Unfortunately, sometimes these comments may be directed to others. An example that I've experienced is when a teacher told my teenage son “If you don't take school seriously, you'll never achieve anything.” Before I could respond (due to my shock) my son politely responded “How do you know that?” I knew at that moment that whatever path he chose in life, he would be successful because he wouldn't allow himself to be bullied by someone else's negative evaluation.

2) Subtle Evaluation. However, not all negative evaluation is so direct. Years ago, for instance, a researcher did a study to examine teachers' negative and positive expectations of students. However, this researcher told the teachers that testing had indicated that certain students would make considerable progress although in reality students were chosen randomly and not based on test scores. However, the students the researcher's identified as having potential did make considerable progress. The researcher attributed this to the teacher's positive expectations which led to certain behaviors towards the child such as helping him or her understand or giving more positive reinforcement. The implications is that a negative expectation could be as powerful, if not more so. In fact, this type of research wouldn't be conducted today as it could negatively influence the teacher's behavior with the other students who weren't identified as having potential for improvement.

3) Projection of Self Evaluation. Many times people who are self-critical will also tend to be critical of others. The negativity towards others is a reflection of their expectations for themselves. I had a client with road rage once who stated “I drive courteously. They should do the same.” Such an expectation led this person to chasing people down and berating them about “inappropriate” behavior.

4) Projection of Negative Traits. However, some people who are other-critical are not particularly self-critical. They tend to blame and to view others as wrong. In fact, they may engage in the same behavior for which they criticize others. One of the defense mechanisms described by Sigmund Freud is called “projection” which is the tendency to see certain flaws in others that we refuse to admit in ourselves. For instance, a dishonest person claiming that no one can be trusted anymore is “projecting” his or her own flaws onto others.

Negative Evaluation of Situations

1) Choice to Be Negative. Frequently, people will evaluate a situation in an excessively negative manner. I hear people all the time complain about the weather. “It's too hot. It's too cold. It's raining too much.” If we have the capacity to complain about the weather, certainly it is in our capacity to find something to enjoy about it. Most situations aren't all bad or all good. In other words, we have a choice as to which perspective we want to take, or how we want to focus our attention.

2) Protecting the Self. Many times people say to me, "I imagine the worst because then I won't be blind-sided. I don't want to be disappointed." This attitude doesn't make sense unless there's actually something that can be done to prevent the outcome. Otherwise, the way I see it is that if you have some event that is going to occur in a month and you imagine the worst-case outcome, you will spend the month being miserable. Then, if the outcome is bad, you still feel disappointed in spite of having felt bad for the month. If the outcome is good, you just wasted a month feeling bad. However, if you imagine the best-case scenario, you'll spend that month feeling good. If the outcome turns out to be bad, you'll be disappointed but not any more so than if you had imagined the worst-case scenario.

3) Making the Choice. Therefore, we can make a choice what perspective to take. The nice thing about taking a positive perspective is that we may create a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. At least we can create a positive prophecy of coping. My husband suffers with chronic pain and I see him make a choice every day to focus on the positive things in his life. In fact, a statement he frequently makes is "I wouldn't have it any other way." In other words, why dwell on what you can't have? Focus on what you do have.

Negative Labeling, Self-Directed

Sometimes during my first session with a client, I will count how many times the person makes disparaging self-statements: "I'm so lazy" or "This is stupid" or "You're going to think I'm crazy." At some point I will remark "Do you realize how many times you've criticized yourself in the last 15 minutes? If you can criticize yourself that many times to me, I can't even imagine how much you must be doing it internally." The point of this statement is to draw their attention to the negative labeling. Sometimes, just by being aware of it a person can be able to reduce it.

Now, you might say "But the person might still have a negative self-image even if he stops the labeling." And certainly, that is true. However, you can't change the self-image until you stop the labeling. So, being aware of the negative labeling and trying to stop it is the first step towards changing the self-image.

Negative Labeling, Other-Directed

Negative labeling can also be directed at others: "What an idiot!" However, we need to keep in mind that often we are observing only a small portion of a person's behavior so how can we judge the person in totality. We all make mistakes and do stupid things at times. But that doesn't make us an idiot. Just as you would appreciate the benefit of the doubt when you're in error, realize that other people need the same. The nice outcome for you, however, is that it reduces anger and rage which has positive health benefits.

Challenging Negative Thinking

Is it the most probable outcome? Is the label accurate in all situations? Are there other possible ways to view a situation? Can you re-word a negative label to make it more neutral? Or even more positive such as people do when writing a job resume?

However, if it comes down to a choice between a negative explanation or expectation and a positive one because you can't determine which one is likely to be accurate, then why not choose the positive thinking? At least we know the positive thinking feels good while you're engaging in it, so why feel bad unnecessarily?

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