- Negative thoughts and emotions are part of being human, yet have serious consequences on one's life.
- Conventional wisdom tells people to resist their negativity.
- Acceptance of one's negativity is the first step to embracing positivity.
When you read the title, you may have had a double take: “A mental coach is telling me to accept my negativity? How can that be?” I realize that my statement is counterintuitive, but let me show you why accepting your negativity is actually the best thing to do whenever anything unhelpful enters your mind.
To begin, negativity is one of the most common reasons why people come to me. Despite having demonstrated in your life that you can achieve your goals, your mind may be filled with negativity, uncertainty, doubt, worry, “what ifs,” anxiety, frustration, fear, or anger, particularly just before important events when positivity is so critical.
There are two reasons why you go to the “dark side.” First, regardless of your objective abilities, you may lack confidence in that ability. This disconnect is so important because you may have all the ability to be successful, but if you don’t believe you have that ability, you won’t give your best effort to fully realize that ability.
Second, that negativity keeps your expectations low, which reduces the pressure you put on yourself. It also protects you from the pain of failure if you do give it your all and you don’t achieve your goals; you have an excuse for your failure. This reaction relates to a fear of failure (a topic you can learn more about by reading my four-part series). In other words, by being negative, if you end up performing poorly (at work or in school, or in some other setting), you won’t be that disappointed because you will have expected it. And if you actually exceed your self-imposed low expectations, then it feels like a bigger victory than it might actually be (and a big relief that you didn’t fail).
Regardless of the cause of your negativity, it will only hurt you in your efforts to push your limits and realize your goals. So, the question you must ask is: “What do I do when negativity rears its ugly head in my mind?”
Negativity is very large and heavy psychologically and emotionally, meaning once it gets in your mind, it is very difficult to remove it. The typical reaction that most people have is to tell themselves, “Stop being so negative.” In other words, you try to push that negativity out of your mind. Unfortunately, that approach usually doesn’t work. Here’s an exercise that explains why: Don’t think about a pink elephant. What did you do? You likely thought about a pink elephant, despite my asking you not to. But really, don’t think about a pink elephant, don’t think about a pink elephant, don’t think about a pink elephant. What happens? You can’t get that pesky pink elephant out of your mind. Here’s why. Imagine the pink elephant in a room and you want to get it out of the room. Have you ever tried to move a pink elephant (or any colored elephant, for that matter)? Probably not, but I think it’s safe to assume that, because of its size and weight, you would not be able to move it. Negativity is like that pink elephant.
Inside the “room” that is your mind, your negativity also remains stubbornly in place. Like the pink elephant, it just doesn’t want to move. In sum, resisting psychological or emotional negativity actually entrenches it more deeply in your psyche and it is virtually impossible to force it out of your mind.
In doing so, it hurts you in several ways. First, it is monumentally distracting, causing you to devote far too much bandwidth to thoughts and feelings that are decidedly counterproductive. Second, the negativity feeds on itself, thus adding volume and intensity to the negativity. What might have started out as, for example, uncertainty and self-doubt, can metastasize into self-criticism, frustration, or worse, that can fill every corner of your mind and none of which plays nicely with performing your best, connecting with others, or just being happy. Third, it burns a lot of unnecessary emotional energy that just doesn’t feel good.
Accepting negativity doesn’t mean believing or embracing the meaning or feelings behind it. Instead, it means acknowledging that it’s there and that resisting it won’t make it go away. You can say, “Okay, I’m feeling some negativity.” By accepting, rather than resisting the negativity, you let the negative energy flow past you, rather than wasting energy pushing back against it. You also deflate the negative energy because you’re not adding to it by resisting it, thus reducing its corrosive impact on you.
You can also recognize that some negativity in life is normal; most everyone has doubts that crop up when confronted with a challenge. So, no, you’re not a freak for experiencing negativity; to the contrary, you are just decidedly human (despite your best protestations to the contrary). Yet, in beating yourself up for being negative, you add insult to injury by feeling negative about feeling negative.
Then, ask yourself where the negativity is coming from. Perhaps it comes from long-standing insecurities, insufficient confidence, lack of preparation, or someone important to you expressing doubts about your chances of accomplishing your goals.
If you have negativity, you might consider whether that negativity has any basis in reality. For example, negativity might simply be an accurate reflection of your current lack of readiness to achieve your goals. You may simply not be ready so your negativity is reasonable. If so, you can either choose to try another day or decide that, despite your lack of complete readiness, you are going to do your best with what you have.
If your negativity isn’t grounded in reality, then you can challenge it. Tell yourself that it’s not true and why it’s not true. By actively challenging your negativity, it will affect you less because negativity is like a bully; if you stand up to it, it will back down. With practice at replacing your negativity with positive alternatives, you take away the power of the negativity until it no longer has a hold on you.
You can also create some positive alternatives you can say to yourself when you go negative. Make a list of some of the negativity you say to yourself. Write down positive options that can counter the negativity. When you start to go negative, repeat the positive statement to yourself. This swap from negative to positive “polarity” in your thinking has several benefits. First, it disrupts the negative thinking loop you can get stuck in. Second, it redirects your mind in a positive direction. Third, with practice, you can retrain your mind away from the negative mental habit and replace it with a positive and more productive mental habit.
Finally, often negativity arises when you feel helpless to control the situation. To counter that feeling of lack of control, shift your focus onto something that you can control and that will actually help you achieve your goals. As you gain a sense of control, the negativity will likely subside because control will give you confidence and reduce the threat that is causing your negativity.