How a negativity bias can be hijacking your success

For most of her life, Kim Forrester would end up in an emotional tailspin when she received negative criticism. Living with a deep-seated sense of unworthiness, she found that any mean or careless feedback triggered her insecurities. She could feel incredibly loved, supported and appreciated by those around her. But a single negative comment would send her over the edge.

For instance, the 52-year-old holistic wellbeing educator once appeared on a TV panel and was flooded with praise from the cast, crew and audience. But reading four negative comments, which referred to her as “pathetic and dumb”, on Twitter afterwards completely soured the whole experience for her. She spent weeks ruminating over those words, with the pain they inflicted eclipsing her joy. “All I could focus on were these few comments,” she says.

Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer says Forrester was experiencing the effects of the negativity bias, whereby negative comments carry far more weight than positive ones. Consequently, such remarks penetrate deeply, while positive ones slide right off.

The negativity bias has its roots in evolution, says Brewer. Because early humans needed to be on the lookout for a range of threats and dangers, their neurobiology was “primed to be on higher alert” for things that were negative.

These days we’re on equally high alert when faced with criticism, says Brewer. It sparks our feelings of being in danger, which means we pay far more attention to it than we do to positive feedback.

But just because the negativity bias is an in-built mechanism, it doesn’t mean we have to feel bogged down by criticism. Instead, Brewer says knowing about the bias is a great first step in stopping criticism from bringing you unstuck. Then, instead of taking every unkind word to heart, Brewer recommends trying to maintain a holistic view of situations. If we’re honing in on one negative remark, we’re unlikely to take in the positive ones that are also coming our way.

Staying immersed in conversation, and listening for uplifting comments, not just the negatives, can help us gain a more-rounded view of ourselves.

Criticism can spark our feelings of being in danger, which means we pay far more attention to it than we do to positive feedback.

Over the years, Forrester has come up with several measures to help her retain equilibrium when criticism came her way. Understanding that we’re “wired to acknowledge negative stimuli much more than positive stimuli” has helped her cope at times when she would otherwise have fallen apart.

Now if Forrester receives criticism, she’s able to coach herself through her feelings. She reminds herself that it’s just one negative remark; that she’s likely amplified it to be much bigger than it really is; and that she shouldn’t let such comments topple her feelings of self-worth.

Actively seeking positive feedback has also helped. Forrester says people thrive best when they balance, not alleviate, negative feedback. She also stays deeply attuned when listening to others, so she can absorb comments where she’s openly appreciated and supported and allow such praise to really sink in.

Practising self-care and self-love has also given her a greater understanding of herself, which has in turn boosted her confidence. These days when she’s accosted with a hurtful comment, she’s better able to discern how valid it is. If it’s accurate, she’ll let it on board, while trying not to blow it out of proportion.

And if it doesn’t ring true, she no longer spirals into feeling unlovable or unworthy. Instead, she simply shrugs it off.

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