step into the sun: the pathway for finding opportunity in negativity

Sunshine peeks behind clouds.

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Find yourself fixating on experiences like a bad meeting, family conflict, or romantic rejection? Despite what your brain may be telling you in the moment, there’s nothing wrong with you.

In fact, getting hung up on negative emotions is how our brains are meant to work. 🤯

The reason, psychologists say, is that we have more to learn from bad experiences than good ones.

Here’s how to redirect the very human tendency towards negativity to self-knowledge, adaptation, and ultimately, greater positivity.

Take stock of how you’re feeling.

In our earliest hunter-gatherer days, learning quickly could be the difference between surviving and succumbing. Those who made new connections based on experience were more likely to pass their genes along.

That’s how, from an evolutionary perspective, negativity is valuable. Overthinking the bad stuff helps us tease out lessons 👆 for the future.

“Negative reinforcement, as opposed to comparable positive reinforcement, leads to faster learning,” evolutionary psychologists wrote in a 2008 study.

Of course, we don’t face the same challenges as hunter-gatherers, and the stakes of our negative feelings tend to be lower. Negativity simply doesn’t serve us the same way it did our ancestors.

To combat negative feelings, the American Psychological Association suggests putting them into one of four buckets.

  • fear and anxiety 😢
  • sadness and depression 😓
  • guilt and shame 😣
  • anger 😡

You can then ask whether those feelings are proportionate to the situation.

The lesson: Label how you’re feeling and ask whether it serves you to feel that way.

Reframe your challenges.

Taking stock of your feelings positions you to act. Once you’ve identified your negative feelings, you can begin to turn away from them.

In cognitive behavioral therapy, this is known as cognitive restructuring. The purpose of CR is to replace unhelpful thoughts — the kind that can paralyze you or make you miserable — with thinking that supports your living the life you want.

CR has two main components: 1) articulating your specific thoughts and 2) objectively evaluating the evidence supporting them. A great strategy for being objective is to think from the perspective of a third party. If someone else were coming to you with your challenges, what would you tell them? 🧐

Often, you’d encourage them to think in terms of opportunity. That is, you’d suggest looking forward to what the experience can help them accomplish.

A missed connection could help you better understand what you want from a partner. A bad meeting is a chance to communicate what you need from your colleagues. Family conflict may be an opportunity to practice patience.

Reframing challenges in this manner is really about gratitude: a hugely powerful force for effecting change.

“Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait — more so than even optimism, hope, or compassion,” a 2013 study says.

The lesson: Practice reframing to forge a path forward from your negative experiences.

Rewire your brain.

As impactful as gratitude can be on your mental health, you want to make it stick.

In addition to seeking out opportunities for gratitude (of which there are many), it’s vital to flip your brain towards greater positivity. Instead of fixating on negative experiences and emotions, you want to do the exact opposite, neuroscientist Rick Hanson says.  🙌

“Once you’ve got that good experience going, really enjoy it,” he writes for UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good initiative. “Take five, ten, or more seconds to protect and stay with it, and open to it in your body.”

The objective is to take the neural circuits that drive negativity and rewire them in the other direction. This is an ability everyone has because, in Hanson’s words, neurons that fire together wire together.

“We need to focus on the good facts in life, let them become good experiences, and then help these experiences really sink in,” he says.

The lesson: Reflect, and try to dwell on, the positives in life to rewire your brain for positivity.

How do you make positivity a part of your life? Share your experience with us on social media @illumyinc.

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash.

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