Understanding Negativity

You may have had experiences where you find yourself thinking about the worst case scenario or fearing the worst. Or perhaps you’ve seen others speaking this way.

Perhaps you have observed the world around addicted to reading bad news, drawn to thillers or drama series, or warped in stories of nastiness. Perhaps you were at a coffee shop seeking peace and overheard gossip, or perhaps you find yourself in dynamics that are highly charged with judgement.

Negativity shows up in our lives in many ways both externally and internally. This article hopes to highlight some of the sciences behind negativity to reduce stigma, shame and judgement around this subject.

Origins in Survival


As much as negativity causes us pain and unpleasantness, the truth is without its function, we would have gone extinct.

Back in the era of our cave ancestors, being vigilant and looking for potential threats was a matter of life and death. Being vigilant, predicting problems and keeping memory of predatorial areas were essential to life of individuals and survival of their respective tribes. This information is drawn from memory that accumulated through one’s lifetime as well as genetic memory that was passed through generations.

This trait helped us survive as a species, in that we knew what and where to avoid, and where to find solutions that would help us survive. 

Over time (thousands of years), this sensitivity persisted despite human lifestyles changing. The brain’s function to look for threats and problems in the jungle transitioned into modern life and we began to look for threats in the form of problems in our work, relationships, daily habits and more.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

The Negative Bias

The Negative Bias is the function within the brain that is responsible for this trait which we commonly mistake as personality. As its name suggests, it evokes greater sensitivity towards unpleasantness. As our minds wander and information travel through this part of our brain, it steers us towards problems and unpleasantness and we find ourselves automatically biased towards the negative.

This means we detect threats, potential problems and things that are ‘off’ far quicker than we register the pleasant or neutral events. Our amygdala (the region of our brain responsible for survival instincts) uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect problematic events and store them into long-term memory*.

i.e., Two thirds of functional brain processes are designed to focus on problems.

*Source: https://www.miuc.org/brain-love-negativity-negativity-bias/



Just as a battery needs both negative and positive to flow, so too do we. Sometimes, we try too hard to be positive which can lead to loss of sensitivity, empathy, sympathy and vulnerability. Equally, sometimes we fall into the trap of feeling too low and negative which leads to loss of hope, joy, perspective.

A fine balance takes:
1: Self-Awareness
2: Practice

Balance offers the possibility to be joyful, modulate our perspective so it’s not dismissive nor heavy, sympathise, and be sensitive to one another. An awareness of our negative patterns and its origins in survival allows us to track and understand the natural way of things. Most importantly, it helps us un-judge ourselves. Instead of working hard to be one or the other, it’s more helpful to be real, observe our patterns, and find our balance.

Break the Cycle: Gratitude & Growth

1. Gratitude

This is potentially the most powerful practice move out of unhelpful patterns. Make a list of 3-5 things you find nice, helpful, or worthy each day. You may find this list growing over time as you include little silly things too. Perhaps appreciation of something delicious you had, something pleasant someone said even if you don’t know whether they meant it, the sight of a bird, a beautiful flower, sunshine, something you did after procrastinating…the list could go on.

Gratitude lists are an especially useful practice before bedtime – so we acknowledge our gains and efforts, and do not carry unfinished matters into sleep.

It is also an uplifting practice for the darker rainy days. Revisiting lists written previously brings perspective and relief when we feel lost or trapped.

On a scientific level, this practice creates new neural pathways in the brain and body that lead to lighter and expansive feelings. With practice, this ‘overrides’ old pathways that once led to painful thoughts and feelings. Old unhelpful patterns loosen up, useful patterns strengthen, and we find the mind expanding. When the mind expands, we find ourselves more creative, playful, adventurous, brave, bold, courageous, compassionate.

A subtle caution: gratitude practice isn’t about what we ‘should‘ be grateful for (a subtle form of self-aggression), but about what we do notice as valuable.

2. Growth Mindset

Sometimes, we may not be able to feel grateful. In such situations, it is best not to force this but instead, reflect on possibilities for growth. Observe if you have learned something from the situation, or if it has taught you something about yourself or about life in general.

For example, repeated patterns in relationships may tell you something about your need to speak up or work on reactive outbursts. Or, a difficult situation may show you strength you may not have known you had. Or, the pain of a broken relationship may open up the possibility to cultivate self-love and self-care.

Looking for growth sometimes means taking a birds eye view of the situation, viewing it from a distance, perhaps as an older version of yourself or as another person.

Negativity and positivity both have its place.
They are often helpful.
They are often unhelpful too.
It’s up to us to balance them with Self Awareness and Practice

The Negative Bias helped us survive as a species.
Gratitude & Growth helps us thrive within humanity.