Seeing the negative is our brain's default mode, born of a primal need to identify dangers in life and protect ourselves from them; rooted in the brain's limbic system and close to our emotional processing centre. Powerful stuff.
All well and good when you have to be wary of marauding sabre-toothed tigers, but less useful when you are trying to get a piece of work done at your desk, manifesting itself in the form of negative thinking.
You know the scenario: you start doing something that's a little outside your comfort zone, it's making you a tad anxious, and then that self-sabotaging thought pops into your head: it's too difficult; I can't do it. Or worse: I'm useless; it's all hopeless. And you want to give up. Go home. Retreat under the duvet.
Suddenly you're into a spiral of negative thought processes every bit as distracting as the tinny baseline coming from a teenager's iPod headphones.
That internal critic can sabotage your efforts better than anyone else you know - if you let it.
The good news is that because negative thinking can become a habit, just like biting your nails, it's a habit you can - and should - break.
Identifying cycles of negative thought is a first step - do you recognise any of these?
- Equating how you feel with your sense of self: I feel stupid so I must be stupid. It's just not true. You may have made a mistake (see below) but it doesn't make you stupid.
- Making mistakes: a mistake is just something you do that gets you a result you don't want. No more than that. But there's no need to make the same mistake more than once. It's an opportunity to learn.
- All or nothing thinking: one small mistake, and you're a complete failure? No, you just made a mistake (see above).
- Awful-ising: always anticipating an awful outcome means that you are constantly preparing for the worst. How many times does the worst happen? Not that often. Save your emotional energy for when it does, but don't waste time anticipating something that might never happen.
- Personalisation: assuming that anything that goes wrong is your responsbility. It's not your fault! Sometimes, stuff just happens.
Negative thinking is an all too easy habit to get into. Recognise it, park it, and get on with whatever it is you want to do...