Tag Archives: reducing negativity

Taking on the Voices in Your Head

Let’s be real here.  We ALL hear voices in our head. They tell us all kinds of things – that that we should try harder, how we can be “safe” and sometimes, if we’re lucky, they tell us we did a great job.  But often these voices trigger a negative spiral, taking one minor thing and fabricating an entire story that makes us feel bad about ourselves.

Today we’ll be discussing some tactics for quieting those voices (or at least minimizing their impact!).

Be a detective

First take time to listen in on what you are saying to yourself.  Sometimes our thought patterns turn so quickly with our negative emotions, that we don’t even realize we’re causing the downward spiral ourselves.  Next time you find yourself becoming demotivated, nervous or sad, listen in to those thoughts carefully.  What are you saying to yourself?

For example, last week I didn’t even start a project that I’d planned on finishing, and I noticed I was feeling stressed and down on myself.  So, I listened in to the flood of thoughts that was quietly going on in the background… “I never stay on schedule. I let myself get distracted too easily.  I ALWAYS take so much more time to do things than I should.   I just have to face that I’m lazy and unfocused.  I’m never going to get this new project launched.  I may as well not even try.”

Put it in neutral

Research shows that we do our best self-assessment when our brains are set to neutral or positive; when we’re in a negative space, we do a poor job accurately assessing a situation. I had to break that grip of rumination (link) with a healthy distraction, so I accelerated my planned lunchtime walk.  When I got back, I felt better and ready to tackle my negative self-talk.

Externalize that voice and ARGUE with it

Imagine an actual person is saying those things to you.  Would you let a work colleague talk to you like that?  Would you just sit and take it if your neighbor started in with those statements?

Heck.  No.

You’d stand up for yourself and counter each of their arguments.  So don’t let the voices in your head get away with speaking to you in that tone or saying those outrageous things.  Fight back.

It took me over 30 years to realize that not every thought that went through my head was true or worthy of believing.  Sometimes, my mind can be mean-spirited and aggressive.   So when the voices in your head are taking you down a path you don’t want to go, turn and fight those assertions.  Dispute those thoughts like a good lawyer by using the following:

Use the real facts

What’s true about your situation and what is conjecture?  For me, I missed my deadline.  That’s true.  But the idea that I never meet my deadlines?   Completely false.  As soon as I start to look for evidence to the contrary, I find it.   When I bring up the fact that I’ve posted my newsletter on time EVERY WEEK for the past 6 months, the idea that I can’t meet deadlines is laughable.

So take a good look at that negative self-talk and seek out the evidence to refute those statements.  You will often find that your mind isn’t playing fair. It’s your job to show it the big picture.

Alternative interpretations

Most events have many causes.  What are the other possible explanations for why an event happened?

Did I click over to CNN or Facebook when I should have been working this week?  Sure.  But it was also our first week back after vacation and I had ALL of my clients scheduled on the same week.  I also lost a whole work day because the kids were off school on Friday.   I didn’t get that project started because I had a lot less time than usual, not because I am lazy or too easily distracted.

Remember that it won’t be as bad as you think

Our minds are great at taking a few real facts and leading us down dark paths.   Yes, I missed a deadline, but does that mean I should quit the whole project?  Or, as I think in some of my darker times, that I should quit this whole happiness thing and go back to the comfortable money of my old career?  No way.  Yet when our brains are set to negative, potential catastrophes can seem reasonable.  Once out of the fog, ask yourself the likelihood that the worst case scenario will actually come true.

Even if the worst case happens, will it be as bad as we imagine?  Here, the research is very clear.  Work from Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, shows that we are terrible at estimating how bad we are going to feel.  When a relationship ends or we don’t get that promotion, we feel bad, yes, but not nearly as bad or for as long as we imagined.

Thousands of years of evolution have made us really good at adapting to even the most extreme circumstances.   Often knowing that you’ll be able to adapt to the worst case scenario takes away some of its power to produce fear and anxiety.

Your task this week:  Listen in a little more closely to those voices.  Evaluate those statements as if they are coming from someone external.  Then explore how reasonable they are and practice some of the tools above.  These are some of most powerful ways to fight gratuitous negativity (link) and they will get stronger with practice!

Check in next week as we explore some more ways to counter those voices.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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Only Sociopaths and the Dead Don’t Feel Bad at Times

Or “Happier, NOT happy all the time”

I created this newsletter because there is a LOT we can do to sustainably increase our happiness and decrease our negative emotions.  Choosing happiness in this way can help us achieve the incredible benefits of living our lives in a more positive emotional space.  But as you embark on your own path towards more happiness, I want to make clear that this work is about becoming happier, NOT about being happy all the time.

If we are going to live and love in this world, we are going to feel negative emotions.  They are simply a part of being human.  One of the most powerful things we can do in our quest to become happier is paradoxically to give ourselves permission to be human and let those negative emotions be experienced and felt.

Bad things happen.  The happiest people embrace the negative emotions that come with these real challenges and problems.  Science has shown conclusively that if we suppress those negative feelings, they inevitably grow stronger and surface in other parts of our lives.

Some negativity is necessary to live a happy life.   It grounds us in reality. It is natural to mourn the loss of someone dear to you, to feel guilt when you do something you know is wrong, to be angry when you see an injustice done or disappointed when something doesn’t go your way.   These inescapable physical or mental discomforts can be seen as the ‘first darts’ of human existence and are examples of necessary negativity.  They should be acknowledged and given space to be fully experienced.

These first darts can be unpleasant, to be sure, but we often add layer upon layer of gratuitous negativity that multiplies the amount of negative emotions we feel.  These ‘second darts’ are the ones we throw ourselves and is where we can significantly reduce our own negativity.  For example, on top of a disappointment that we didn’t get a promotion at work, we can add a cascade of second darts…

“I’m not good enough.”

“I knew I should have done x instead of y.”

“Why do I never get anything I want?”

“He stole that promotion from me.”

“Oh God, this is the first step to me getting fired and then we’ll have to sell the house and move in with the in-laws.  Everyone will know what a failure I am.”

And on and on and on.

Next time you notice feeling bad, try to distinguish the necessary negativity (first darts from the outside world) from the gratuitous negativity of our reactions (second darts).  Many people find that just adding this awareness of necessary vs. gratuitous can significantly reduce the amount of negativity they experience.

There is a lot of great science on how to reduce  gratuitous negativity.  I will be sharing this in the newsletter early in the new year.  But if you are eager to jump in right now, check out chapter 9 of Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson.

The key take home point for today:  Our goal is to become happier, not to completely eliminate negative emotions.  Give yourself permission to be human. Allowing ourselves to feel necessary negative emotions gives us the ability to fully experience our positive emotions.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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Negative Media: Is it worth the cost?

Earthquakes!  Murder!  Genocide!  Environmental destruction!  Lions!  Tigers! Bears!  Oh, my!  The media – from news to television series to popular novels – often feeds us a continuous diet of violence, destruction and suffering.  What’s the effect of this?

Research has shown that the more television a person watches, the more violent they judge the world to be and the less happy they become.  News broadcasters are masters at pulling our emotional strings with stories of tragedy and violence that feed off our fears.  Novelists and movie-makers come up with some pretty outrageous ways people can treat one another (yes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m talking about you!).  While this keeps us tuned in and buying tickets – it comes at a significant cost to our emotional well-being – that fear, sadness and anger really register in us and make it difficult to reach that 3:1 postivity ratio that can lead us to living a flourishing life.

Several years ago, I made the conscious decision to stop listening to NPR during my commute.  Instead of getting riled up about the most recent political decisions, I decided to listen to books about how to be happier in my life.  I kept up-to-date on the outside world from a 10-minute look at CNN.com each day where I could consciously decide which stories got my full attention.  My worry that I wouldn’t be as educated about the world was put aside when I saw the results of another set of studies: it turns out that people who watch less TV are more accurate judges of the degree of risk we all might encounter each day.   TV gives us a sensationalized and one-sided version of news that makes the world feel significantly less safe than it is.

And it’s not just about news.  Other forms of media – video games, movies and even fictional books – can have the same effect.  Personally, I saw my own negativity skyrocket this past spring when I got sucked into an epic fantasy series with grand battles of good vs. evil.  I was so engaged in the story that it started taking over my mindspace even when I wasn’t reading it.  I started blowing off my daily gratitude journaling and meditation to spend more time reading; I even rushed through story time with my kids to get to ‘my time’ with the books.  This constant feeding of conflict, narrow escapes and evil deeds kept me in an adrenaline-infused negative space.  And that leached into other areas of my life.  I started being more suspicious of everyone – empathy and kindness fading to distrust — and kept seeing what was likely to go wrong in every area of my life.  After about a month, my world view became bleak and I felt the fear of failure get a strong hold on me.   When I finished up the series, it took me a couple months to dig myself out of this negativity trap I’d fallen into.  That a series of fictional books was able to have such an effect on my real life was a shock.

This has been a difficult post for me to write.  I don’t like how preachy this topic sounds –”Halo is bad for you!” or “Watch less TV” – but our elders who tried to get us outside and doing anything more active were on to something.  We do take on the emotions of what media we consume – both real and fictional.  So if video games or tv is a good way for you to decompress, you don’t have to completely remove them from your life.  But notice how you really feel during and after these experiences and ask if it is how you want to spend your time.  If you are serious about upping your ratio, reducing violent media exposure is a relatively easy way to lower needless negativity.

Stay tuned over the next couple weeks as we talk about how to make long-term changes in your life – whether it’s starting an exercise routine, bringing on a gratitude practice or watching less tv.  I’ll be sharing scientifically proven ways to implement new habits into your life.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach


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