Overcoming Negative Bias and Starting Again

Learnings from dusting myself off and getting back in the game

It’s said that the hardest part of anything is to start. While that might be true, I feel that starting again is even tougher.

Getting up after you fall and hit rock bottom, driving again after an almost fatal accident, building a business again after failing once, recovering from a nervous breakdown and stepping out — these are few of the many instances where it’s the hardest thing to start again.

The main reason why it’s so much harder the second time around is because when we encounter something traumatic and nerve-wrecking that breaks us, our brain tends to develop a heavy negative bias.

The negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, refers to the notion that,things of a negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things of same intensity.

Negative bias is a normal characteristic of our brains and it’s just the way they are wired. Positive stuff tends to roll through it while negative stuff gets flagged and captured. For example, we tend to forget the compliments soon enough but mull over criticism for days.

Negative bias is always present to a certain extent in all of us.

But when faced with one or more traumatic experiences, the same negative bias can make the most terrible moments of our lives replay in our head over and over again causing us to relive the pain and agony associated with them. It can override our thinking processes and damage our ability to think clearly.

I say it with certainty because I have been there. And it’s definitely not a happy scenario.

Think of people who suffered from sexual abuse as a child or people who were bullied or those who were badly body shamed. It’s unfortunate that they suffer from almost a lifelong negative bias and forms of anxiety/depression or both.

Our brains are wired in a manner that the most terrible things are made the hardest to forget and let go of. But, if the negative bias is so bad, why are our brains wired that way?

Here are a few things you should know and understand about negative bias-

  • It was supposed to help us

Once upon a time, when we were cave people, we really needed this type of ‘fight or flight’ response system. We needed our brains to be sensitive to dangerous sounds around us that could mean a potential attack by animals. We don’t live that way anymore and most of the things in our life’s daily routines — like exams or meetings and presentations are hardly life threatening.

However, the little part of our brain called amygdala still works in old primitive ways. So, we find ourselves often freaking out and losing sleep over things that are well, probably not that scary after all.

  • What you are today is heavily based on your memories —

Our memories are like a reference map that we use to predict our future. We know we will get burnt if we put our hand in fire because we know from experience or from being told so.

We are always extending our past experiences into the future whether we realise it or not.

And that’s not always good for us.

  • Every time we revisit an event in our memory we change it. —

Our memory is not as reliable as we think it to be.

This might be a little hard to believe but it’s really true. Have you ever realised that you can sometimes think about the same thing in two or more totally different ways?

“Every time you remember a certain event, your brain changes the memory a tiny bit. This means that the more you think of one past occurrence, the more likely it is that you are remembering it wrong” — Brain, The Story of You

Interestingly, when we revisit our past events, while we are suffering from a heavy negative bias, we look at them in a way that is probably way worse than what it really was.

It’s like looking at your own memories from a perspective that makes things look way more uglier than they were while at the same time completely overshadowing the positives.

Hence, it is best to not get caught up in ruminating about the past too much.

I really recommend watching this amazing animated movie by Pixar ‘Inside Out’ if you haven’t watched it yet because it beautifully illustrates what negative bias and depression can do to your happiest memories.

  • Negative bias can cripple you —

What happens when you extend your past bitter experiences to your present and future?

You begin to see the world as this really terrible place where nothing ever goes right, where things are always tough, where there are probably no good people. You could even start thinking about the negatives in the overall big picture every where. Poverty, overpopulation, climate change and so on. The list is endless. It can even make you think that the world is going to end. It can make you think that life is purposeless and your existence doesn’t matter at all.

Now, even if all of that I said before is true, where does this kind of thinking lead you? Does it make you feel good and make you spring into taking action about it all or does it cripple you and make you feel helpless? Like a small insignificant piece of flesh and blood in this huge expansive universe?

Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues that crime, violence, war, and other injustices are steadily declining, yet most people would argue that things are getting worse — what a perfect example of the negativity bias at work.

Getting caught in cycle of thoughts resulting from negative bias leaves you nowhere, it only cripples you.

Maybe it even gives you an excuse to not care so much about anything at all and just go on living like it doesn’t matter that you are alive.

So what to do to overcome such a negative bias?

First of all, I am NOT going to tell you to ‘think positive’. I don’t really like that advice. I don’t think it works that way really. If it did, anyone could do it.

I dislike delusional thinking and looking at world through ‘it’s all positive’ lens. Because, well it is just a sort of denial.

While I am on the topic, let me me also tell you that just like negative bias, heavy optimism bias also exists in some people. Owing to their own really happy childhood and past accomplishments, they tend to develop a bias that they are at a lesser risk of experiencing failures or anything negative. And, that is not so good either because it kind of makes them overlook the negatives that are right in front of them.

So, negative thoughts also have an important role too.

The most important thing is to look at things the way they really are without extending our own biases to it and skewing the reality.

Once, I was looking at the world in the darkest way possible. My mom had recently gone through a surgery and I was in hospital just noticing suffering around me among people who were waiting in queues. And I texted and asked this friend of mine, “Do you think world is a really bad place or there is an equal amount of good but we don’t see it enough?” and she replied that “Yes, there is always enough of good if we are willing to look at it.”

And she was right. Think about it. Some people will always complain about how terrible the healthcare system of their country is while some people will go out there and do something about it and build better healthcare systems. Some people will be complaining about how the population explosion is killing the planet while there will be people strategising ways to reduce pollution and traffic on road by building the most perfect metro rail network.

And so I concluded and wrote it on my heart. That if you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.

And I am sure that the people who go out there and solve these problems are not pure optimists either. An important part of solving the problem is properly noticing and understanding how grave the problem is.

So, this brings me to the ways that I suggest to overcome your negative bias-

  1. Negative thoughts are also a form of strength

I was surprised when I came across this peculiar piece of writing by James Altucher which advised about always thinking about — What could go wrong”

It sounded really pessimistic to me. Why would someone do that? Are we not supposed to be thinking positive to attract positive things? Won’t thinking about what could go wrong overwhelm us with fear?

But then, there was an interesting catch. And it was TAKING ACTION.

And the advice was so simple. Yet, it’s the hardest to follow.

How do you kill fears? By facing them in the face and doing something about them. How to do you overcome the feeling that something will go wrong? By addressing that feeling and doing something about it.

And this can become a habit if you develop the muscle for it.

For instance, a few days back when I uploaded my first design for sale after taking a year long break from business was — I won’t make a single sale. The fear was growing over me killing any desire to learn how to design.

I knew I had to overcome it anyhow. So, I made the best possible attempt to design an artwork for Father’s Day because that occasion was coming up and I knew people might search for it. Then, I optimised it for search results. The next night, I received my first order hence killing my fear forever.

This is really small example but my point is that I wouldn’t have taken that step had it not been for the all those negative thoughts.

2. Be willing to look stupid. Again

Remember when we were babies, we tried to walk over and over. We looked silly when we fell down a lot. But we got right back up and went at it again without remorse.

That’s precisely how we learnt to walk.

And believe me, that’s how you learn ANYTHING.

Now that we have grown older, we experience the emotional pain or remorse when we make mistakes which make us look stupid. But, we need to understand that the only way to grow is to look stupid over and over again.

People talk about these really successful people as their idols without taking a count of how many times they did something stupid. Because, really that’s what matters.

Did Richard Branson feel stupid when he when he dropped out of college to start his first magazine Student which didn’t work as well as he thought it would? Did he feel stupid when he tried to build Virgin Cola thinking he could compete with world’s leading companies Pepsi and Coca Cola but failed badly? Or when he tried another drinks venture called Virgin Vodka which also failed?

I don’t know. But it seems like it didn’t really bother him that much and he didn’t care about looking stupid again and again.

People who were not afraid to look stupid are now the people we look up to the most.

Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again. — Richard Branson

3. Make sure you are having fun

There are some people who glorify ‘being busy’. But I don’t think it’s really about the hours you put into something. It’s about being excited about what you are doing.

If it doesn’t excite you and fill you up with energy, it will burn you out. AGAIN.

Be it your business, your relationship, your job. And burnout is never good.

It can happen even if you are doing your own thing. If you are really miserable while trying to do something, it doesn’t mean the end of the world. It probably means you have given your everything to make something work and it hasn’t worked for you. You are probably better suited for something else.

But look at the bright side, you figured out one thing that doesn’t work for you and you are way closer to figuring out what will. And that’s just how it works. You just don’t discover your so called ‘calling’ one fine morning, you figure it out by doing many things.

Yann Girard says that admitting failure, even if it’s just temporary, even if you’ve learned a hell lot is never easy. It’s one of the toughest things out there. Telling yourself “Yupp, that’s it, I’ll have to pack my things and leave” It is a lot harder than it sounds.

But knowing when you are supposed to do it is very important. So, when you start the next just ensure that you are having fun with what you do.

If you don’t then don’t worry too much and start over. And that brings me to my next point.

4. Re-invent yourself

What exactly happens when people start over? They change a little bit from their experiences. They become a better version of themselves. They know themselves a lot better than before. It’s a transformation in itself.

It’s wonderful how life is always giving you a chance to re-invent in all sort of ways. It’s crazy actually.

You could start pursuing a totally new thing. You could start hanging out with a completely new group of people. You could start reading books that are completely different from your usual taste. You could just move to a different place, maybe a village and live there for a few months. You could be anyone. And it’s so exciting if you look at all of this in a positive light.

So, the point is do not try to define yourself by one thing that should never define you — Failure.

Be the story of most amazing ‘starting over'. Let your defining story be about — how you got back on your feet and started to be this amazing person that you always wanted to be.

Re-invent yourself and start again.

5. Learn to see the complete picture

I like to play this little game in my head and I am not really sure if it’s a good thing. I always try to complete the picture.

What that means is that when I see something that seems really really good, I try to see what negatives I might be missing out on and when I see something absolutely negative, I force myself to see the positives that I might be missing out on.

And that I do with people, situations, choices and opportunities. Because, I know it for a fact that there is no perfect package of all things perfect and good. And similarly, there is no deep abyss of all things horrible. Mostly, when we are looking at something in either of the two ways, we are not looking at the complete picture.

Decisions made in haste without making an effort to look at the complete picture tend to backfire on us.

And, that brings me to my final point.

6. Choose your negatives as well as positives

You know why most people suffer? They jump into something, be it a business opportunity or a relationship/marriage while looking at only the perfect picture. And it becomes really heart-breaking when they see the ugly and difficult parts of it.

And from that emerges a deep sense of frustration and willingness to exit the setup and enter another perfect scenario.

But here’s the thing. There will always be negatives and the best way to design your life is to choose your negatives as well as positives.

For instance, yes, being a freelancer will mean freedom of time that you can invest on bigger pursuits but it might also mean facing uncertainty of getting the next pay cheque every month. Yes, being in 9 to 5 will give you a safety cushion of money to fall back on which you can invest further and build upon but it might also mean compromising on being able to give time to other creative pursuits.

Very often, when looking at other people and their life’s scenario we see them in a positive light but in reality, they are again not as positive as we think of them to be.

So, what suits YOU the best is what works the best for you. And that’s with everything. So use your own thinking to choose the negative as well as the positive.

Never make the mistake of thinking that any scenario is all positive. It’s a trap.

After you have done that bit of thinking, there is really no going back to the illusion of choices. Just take the big leap and go all in.

Go all in and win it, this time.

If you found this helpful, please help in spreading this message by recommending this post. Also, feel free to share your own ideas about this in the responses below. Thanks for reading :)

I am Shreya Dalela, co-Founder at Speaking Walls, an art-inspired lifestyle brand. I write on topics related to mental health and psychology. Through my writings, I aim to spread awareness, inspire and support people who are on a similar journey.