Think of Your Setbacks as Experiments, Not Failures

Overcoming the impact of negativity bias.

Posted Mar 07, 2018

I heard a wonderful pearl of wisdom on a public radio show that my colleagues, friends, family, members, and counseling clients deeply value hearing as well. 

This simple, yet powerful insight is for us to stop seeing our mistakes, mishaps, and disappointments as failures. We will feel much happier, instead, if we can learn to see our lives as a series of experiences and experiments. 

My book, Mindfulness for Teen Worry, quotes noted psychologist Rick Hanson, who wrote, "In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades 'implicit memory' – your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction. And that's just not fair, since probably most of the facts in your life are positive or neutral."

The evolutionary story of our negative thinking bias goes back to the ancient beings. Their brains had to constantly be on the lookout for scary beasts, along with highly adverse environmental conditions. This "on the lookout" part of our brains still exists and is housed within the limbic area (our mid-brain's built-in threat detection system). 

Bearing the above quote in mind, many of our daily thoughts are negative in content. So it really is a set-up to think that we can completely stop thinking a certain way, especially those negative thoughts. 

The great news, however, is by employing advances in our knowledge about neuroplasticity, we can carve out new, more self-compassionate, and empowering pathways in our brains! One way to do this is to start seeing (and practicing staying mindful of) our lives as a series of experiences versus failures. Making this shift in how we relate to our struggles can really deter us from feeling like—and actually being—our own worst enemies! 


Aimone J. B., Li Y., Lee S. W., Clemenson G. D., Deng W., Gage F. H. (2014). Regulation and function of adult neurogenesis: from genes to cognition. Physiol. Rev. 94 991–1026. 

Davidson R. J., Lutz A. (2008). Buddha’s brain: neuroplasticity and meditation. IEEE Signal Process. Mag. 25 174–176. 10.1109/MSP.2008.4431873 [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]

Schaffer, J. (2016) Front Psychol. 2016; 7: 1118. Published online 2016 Jul 26. doi:  10.3389/fpsyg.