- Negativity schema is believing you are likely to fail if you try, the world will not provide for you, and you are better off not trying.
- Negativity schema may come out of an experience of genuine deprivation, neglect, and emotional hardship.
- Too much negativity leads to paralysis of action, making positive change even harder, which reinforces a negative outlook.
Negativity schema, a term used in schema therapy, is a pattern of thinking and feeling, originating in early to middle childhood, where you believe you are likely to fail if you try, that the world will not provide for you, and you are better off not making an effort. While you may believe this saves you from disappointment and rejection, the schema feels grim and limits opportunity to make realistic improvements.
What Are the So-Called Advantages of Negativity, and Why Does It Feel So True?
Negative thinking, or the belief that outcomes will likely be bad or unfavorable, originates in our evolutionary psychology and may begin as early as infancy, with negativity bias, or the idea that negative information teaches how to adjust in order to survive, so we are naturally inclined to prioritize the negative.
This may explain why negative thinking, in the words of Andrew Solomon, “feels like a kind of knowledge” and becomes a deeply held belief. Negativity can feel as true as the fact that you’re reading these words right now.
The truth is, the world is a tough place, and it doesn’t bend to our will, so the process of growing up and learning how to thrive is naturally about adjusting to difficulty and working with it. In this sense, negativity bias is about being realistic and adjusting in order to reach our goals.
The problem is when negativity bias turns into negativity schema. Negativity schema is an overemphasis on negativity to the point that your outlook on what is possible is no longer accurate. Too much negativity leads to paralysis of action. And when action is limited, making positive change becomes even harder, which reinforces a negative outlook.
Negativity schema may come out of an experience of genuine deprivation, neglect, and emotional hardship, so there may have been a time when negativity was actually a useful way of coping. The problem comes when, becoming an adult, relatively in charge of our own goals, we hold a negative outlook.
7 Signs You May Have Negativity Schema
- You are “just trying to be realistic” about your limitations by assuming you aren’t up to taking something on.
- You believe the world just doesn’t offer good options, and it’s better to accept your situation.
- You believe that taking on a new challenge will just reveal your flaws and be a painful humiliation.
- You think it’s better “not to get your hopes up” or disappoint others by trying.
- You believe that failing as you try is unacceptable and not part of growth.
- You think that trying and failing will lead to rejection and harm existing relationships.
- You have no “proof” that making an effort leads to results.
What Causes Negativity Schema?
Early childhood experience of emotional hardship or neglect leads leaves a child making a realistic assumption that personal effort will not lead to praise or good feelings, so negativity protects from hurt feelings of disappointment or rejection. There are a number of reasons negativity and deprivation of affection can play out in a family system.
In fact, negativity schema can run across generations of a family, where one generation experiences profound hardship, such as living through economic hardship, a brutal immigration experience, or coping with prolonged and profound structural violence. This leaves elder family members with a belief that life is tough and effort won’t yield good results, which is passed to younger family members as “being realistic," and that showing emotion and affection is somehow foolish or undignified—or even weak. A family history of trauma, neglect, and addiction can lead to a strong belief that we cannot expect affection or loving care from family members, leading to negativity schema.
4 Ways to Change Your Thinking
- Understand your history. Write a narrative of your childhood in the third person. What did this kid have to cope with growing up? Did they go through a period of hardship and emotional neglect or worse? During that period, did it make sense to be negative? Understand that, now that you’re an adult, you do not have to stay stuck in a negative outlook. You can provide for yourself in ways that children cannot.
- Do a cost–benefit analysis. Cognitive behavioral therapy offers a simple but powerful tool called the “cost–benefit analysis.” Make a simple chart with four columns, with the first labeled “negative thought,” the second “costs of having that thought,” the third “benefits of having that thought,” and the fourth “Likely outcome of following the thought.” This will help you see in black and white whether it makes sense to heed a negative outlook.
- Accept that failure is a necessary step toward success. Writers and artists understand that their first efforts on a new project will stink but that they can build out of these “failures” a final product they are proud of. The key is tolerating initial efforts being “bad.”
- Learn to cope with feelings of rejection and disappointment. Like failure, rejection and disappointment are feelings that belong to a larger picture of thriving. We must experience these feelings while living a fulfilling life, rather than completely avoid them as though they are unacceptable. Consider what makes these particular feelings so intensely difficult for you. Consulting a therapist may help.
You Deserve It
If you have lived much of your life with negativity schema, you may also be coping with depression and anxiety, as well as other schemas. It takes courage and boldness to confront one of the foundations of your way of being in the world. The stakes may feel high, but, if you are already living with a negative outlook—really, what do you have to lose? And what you have to gain is a new, more caring relationship with yourself and a relationship with your future self, which will realistically bring better outcomes. You can learn more about improving your relationship with yourself from my book. And, remember, it can be useful to have a mental health professional in your corner helping catch those negative thoughts and change them.
Leahy, Robert L. (2017). Cognitive Therapy Techniques: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York, Guilford Press.
Solomon, Andrew (2015). The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. New York, Scribner.
Vaish, Amrisha , Grossmann, Tobias , & Woodward, Amanda. (2008) “Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development.” Psychological Bulletin, Vol 134(3), May 2008, 383–403.