As human beings and writers, we all struggle with maintaining a healthy balance between the positives and negatives of life. A disappointing review, a less-than-successful launch, critique feedback that wasn’t what we’d anticipated, a manuscript disfigured by an editor’s red strokes—it’s so easy to get stuck focusing on the “bad” rather than the good. I find it encouraging to know that this isn’t us just being sulky and self-centered; this propensity is part of who we are. Elizabeth Foster is here today to explain the psychology behind negativity bias, and how to beat it.
I am, by nature, an optimistic person. Like everyone else, I am averse to pain. However, writing comes with its very own set of pain receptors. As the release date of my first book draws closer, I have been struck down with launch flu: an emotional throwback to those early days of writing, in which I navigated a whole constellation of self-doubt, during which my sentiments toward my own writing seesawed from wild hope to utter despair.
So what exactly is this propensity of ours to let positive feedback slide on by, while being negativity sponges? I’m not one to reject praise outright. I welcome and appreciate it, but a bouquet just doesn’t have the sticking power of a brickbat. Am I particularly thin-skinned? Do I need to develop a thicker one? Being psychologically-minded, I went hunting for answers.
I was surprised to discover that there’s nothing unusual about our acute sensitivity to criticism. It’s completely natural to obsess more over bad news than good. It’s built in to us, and it’s called the negativity bias.
As humans, we are hard-wired to react more strongly to negative stimuli. From an evolutionary viewpoint, we are less advanced than we think. Our amygdala is vigilant, always on the lookout, primed to detect threats. Early humans had to focus on the negatives – the nearest threat – at all times, or they would perish. Research on memory has shown that negatives burrow right in to our brains, transferring immediately to implicit (long-term) memory. Positives do slide right on by, literally – unless we hang on to them. In fact, it has been shown, through research, that it is only when positives are held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds that they move from short-term to long-term memory.
So how do we hold on to positive news for more than a millisecond? How do we train ourselves to focus on the good stuff, rather than just ruminating on the bad? Plenty has been written on combatting the second, but not much about the first.
Here are some suggestions:
Give yourself permission. We are so primed to deal with negativity and threat that we don’t often let ourselves ‘waste’ time enjoying positivity. If you’re a true workaholic who finds this hard to do, think of it as a future ‘investment’: a brain that’s not weighed down with self-doubt and anxiety is, in the long run, a far more productive one!
Next, do a stocktake. Gather up positive sentiments about your writing or other achievements – maybe even in a single file on your desktop or in a journal, so you can dip into it whenever criticism gets to you.
Finally, link the positivity with emotion. Positive experiences which carry an emotional charge are the ones that make it into our long-term memory banks. The rest, untethered, float away.
According to psychologist Rick Hanson, this linking process is a seemingly simple one: you have to literally let that initial feeling of warmth from good news sink into you, and hold it there. In theory, this sounds effective, but how do we put this into practice? How, exactly, do we ‘hold on’ to something as ephemeral as the warmth of praise for as long as a dozen seconds?
Well, we actually do something similar all the time, whenever we ruminate on negative criticism. When we are criticized, we feel it in our body: we go into shock, our heart rate spikes, as we examine critiques from all angles, questioning how we could have done better. The trick to retaining positive sentiment is much the same: take the time to mull over compliments about your writing, and allow your body to experience them as well, creating a sensory association which will carry those memory traces all the way into implicit memory.
For example: as you absorb a compliment, imagine the enjoyment of sinking into a warm bath, or the sun on your skin on a winter’s day, or your hands cupped around a warming mug of something. Or literally take yourself somewhere else – go for a walk in a nature, near water, anywhere that predisposes you to a pleasant reverie. Spend a few moments immersed in the beauty of your surroundings, and link it to the beauty of someone’s kind words to you. As writers, we strive to immerse our readers in a sensory world – there’s no reason we can’t apply the same techniques to our harried writerly selves!
Immersing yourself in this feel-good soup isn’t a waste of time or an act of conceit: it’s an act of self-care, which helps build your resilience. The point of this exercise isn’t to ignore criticism, which can be incredibly helpful at times, but to provide a buffer of positive experiences to fall back on when you feel attacked. If you develop an internal sense of balance, you’re less likely to swing from proud highs to abysmal lows with each review, and more likely to take criticism in stride, improving your writing in the process.
As the launch of my own debut novel draws closer, the question remains: will I be able to deal with the snark which, in our current climate, inevitably comes the way of almost all authors? I don’t know – I’m not there yet. What I do know is that I want to enjoy my future writing life, and not be always looking over my back for slings and arrows. Maybe by practicing these habits and actively embracing the positive, I’ll be able to do just that.
Keep a green bough in your heart, and a singing bird will come. Lao Tzu
Are there any compliments you’ve received about your writing, or other accomplishments, that you’ve never really taken the time to appreciate? Don’t be shy – I’d love to hear them. Share below!
Elizabeth Foster hails from Sydney, Australia, and on her way to becoming a writer, picked up a degree in psychology: hence her fascination with behavior and the brain. She now spends her days spinning stories about other worlds. Her first novel, Esme’s Wish, a fantasy/mystery for younger teens, will be published by Odyssey Books in September 2017. You can find out more about her journey here, and connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.