You’ve probably heard me say many times that our brains have a strong negative bias. We remember painful events from childhood and easily recall moments in our lives when we were criticised, made a mistake or embarrassed ourselves.
Even clients approaching middle age tell me how readily they can revisit the experience of being bullied in the schoolyard or feeling ‘different’ to their peers.
What we sometimes fail to recognise is that we don’t always recall the everyday moments when life was peaceful and pleasant.
When we’re focused on negative memories, we’re inclined to ruminate on our flaws and become overly critical of ourselves. While we’re in this negative mindset, we can also become more focused on perceived faults in others and hyperaware of all the frustrations in life.
Rick Hanson, one of my favourite authors, explains that these patterns of thinking are normal. He writes, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. The result is tilted against lasting contentment and fulfillment.”
Our habitual thinking patterns move us away from inner peace. The brain’s negative bias makes us more sensitive to worry and stress and unchecked, these things can lead to ongoing feelings of regret, resentment, a sense of helplessness and ultimately unhappiness.
When we understand just how strong the brain’s negative bias is, we begin to appreciate that we need to work hard to balance it. Not because we want to overlook or ignore the painful aspects of life, but because when we cultivate a more balanced approach, we’re able to also take in what’s good.
This is not just beneficial for our mental wellbeing, it’s good for our physical health too. Negative thoughts and feelings send signals to our bodies that can have physiological consequences.
Please note: If you’re dealing with past or current trauma or feeling strong emotions, it is recommended that you do the following exercises with the support of a trained therapist.
1. Recognise the causes of your inner conflict
Take some time to journal about your most common frustrations and negative thoughts. Use the following three journal prompts to reflect on the aspects of your life that are currently causing inner conflict.
You might consider concerns with the world at large, within your relationships, with your career, finances, health and finally, with yourself.
As you note your frustrations, it’s helpful to remember that your mind is having these thoughts, you are not the thoughts themselves.
“My most common frustrations in life …”
“How my relationships are letting me down…”
“The ways my brain criticises me most….”
2. Acknowledge your experience
After you’ve finished journalling, tune in to where you feel one of the manageable frustrations (rather than a deeply painful emotion) in your body. Notice the sensations you’re aware of, including irritability, anger, hurt or resentment.
Instead of trying to force the sensations away, see if you can open up to the experience by resting your awareness on the places you feel those sensations.
Can you breathe a little room around the discomfort and allow it to just be?
We sometimes think that tuning into difficult emotions will make them more painful but research tells us that resisting those emotions and trying to force them away takes more energy than acknowledging and allowing for our experience.
3. Have compassion for yourself
As you recognise difficult thoughts and feelings, you might also notice that you’re critical of yourself for having those feelings. Common self-criticism includes thoughts such as, “I need to get over myself,” or “other people have it way worse than I do.” This kind of thinking negates your experience and creates an ongoing cycle of self-criticism.
After reading this paragraph, close your eyes for a minute or two, place both hands on your heart and say to yourself, “These thoughts and feelings aren’t easy for me.”
Learn to quieten the voice of your ‘inner critic‘ as you discover the voice of your ‘inner supporter’. Consider the kind words you might offer a friend who was having the same experience. Even something as simple as, “I can understand you feeling this way,” will help you to create a more compassionate and supportive relationship with yourself.
4. Cultivate a balanced mindset
Positive things happen around us all the time, but we often skim over them or dismiss the details. Make a daily practice of becoming aware of everything that is good in your life. Take in nature’s beauty, a favourite meal, the kindness of a stranger or a minor win at work.
Savour positive experiences by making them last for 30 seconds or longer before your attention drifts to something else.
It can help to visualise the good being soaked into every cell of your body. Do this in whatever way feels natural to you. Some examples might be imagining warmth or light coming into the body or maybe feeling an expansion of your heart area as you breathe in the good. Try to keep your body relaxed as you fully absorb the sensations, emotions and thoughts that accompany the good experience.
As Rick suggests, we enrich a positive experience (and the memory of it) if we are able to truly savour it.
5. Actively choose peace
Reflect back now on your journal entries and ask yourself, is there any benefit from having these thoughts?
Maybe you believe it’s important to be vigilant about your frustrations with world events in order to be well-informed or to be an effective activist, for example. Consider how often you need to stay informed and ask yourself where you can genuinely make a difference. Choose one or two causes to invest your energy in and take some kind of considered action, while letting go of the things that you will never be able to impact.
As you reflect on your relationships, consider whether you can address any of the current concerns with an open conversation or a more compassionate approach. Sometimes it helps to simply acknowledge that the people in your life are doing the best that they can. Actively choosing peace doesn’t mean we don’t have boundaries but rather, it involves communicating from a grounded place where you’re able to move toward one another in order to maintain a connection.
Next, reflect on the journal entries about how you most commonly criticise yourself. Your ‘inner critic’ might believe that being vigilant about past mistakes will stop you from making the same errors in the future, but this voice can also drown out the voice of your ‘inner supporter’. Make a decision to actively notice self-criticism as it arises every day for the coming week and see if you’re able to offer yourself kindness as an alternative.
The most important thing to remember as you try these techniques is that it takes an active effort to change the way you think. It can help to set a regular time each day to practise, such as first thing in the morning or at the end of your day.
One method that has worked well for me is tacking this habit onto an existing habit. I reflect on my thoughts and feelings at the end of my morning meditation. Try tuning in immediately after exercise or as you close down your computer at the end of a workday.
As Rick says, “The brain takes the shape of what the mind rests upon and as we know, more often than not, it’s resting on negative thoughts and experiences.” Positive experiences can soothe and heal our bodies and our minds and they help us to make a connection with genuine inner peace.
6. If you’re not feeling peaceful, try these
If (like so many people right now) you’re experiencing anxiety, stress or any kind of difficult emotion, try one of the following guided meditations, freely available on the Insight Timer app.