Take a day, any day.
Ten good things might happen. Perhaps these aren’t big deal good things, but they are ten things that create a sense of contentment. Perhaps you bump into someone you haven’t seen for a while, and realise how much you enjoy talking to them; the cup of coffee at the usual place is better than usual; the train arrives on time, you get a seat; someone tells you that something that you did at work, or at school, was good. These are the small things that can build a quiet background buzz of well-being.
And then one thing happens, one negative thing. Your entire focus gets pulled to that single thing. All the good things seem to have been erased, rendered unimportant in comparison to this one bad thing.
This one thing is not some terrible catastrophe. It is just one negative thing, only equal in proportion to any one of the other ten good things that have happened.
Let’s use one of the above things from the ‘good things’ list, and turn it the other way, from a positive to that one small negative.
So far it has been the day of good things for you—bumping into an old friend, good coffee, the seat on the train and so on, but then you overhear someone at work talking to a colleague about you. Perhaps it is something along the lines of ‘I’m not sure if X (your name) has really done enough work on this. What do you think?’
You don’t have a chance to hear the answer because you have to duck into another office to avoid being seen. For a moment you stand there, horrified by the idea that your work quality is being questioned by people who you had thought of as colleagues.
Maybe the next thought is whether you really did do enough on the bit of work that you think they were talking about.
And then the spiral starts to spin.
- Did I get something wrong?
- Do they know something that I don’t?
- Have they been talking to someone above us?
- Do they think I’m going to mess up?
- Could I lose my job because of this?
- If I’m fired what will happen?
- No job, no salary, no mortgage payment.
- No house.
- Nowhere to live.
- No home.
- What if my friends find out that I’ve been fired?
- They will shun me because I’m a failure.
- I’ll have no home and no friends.
- My life will be shit.
- Every bad thing that I have ever thought about myself will now have come true.
How does that happen?
Why do we spiral so fast?
We overhear one comment and spin into a wild vortex of negative thought. We can plunge from overhearing a small work slight to being completely convinced that we are about to homeless and friendless, and all that in about four seconds flat.
We were designed to survive, a self-protection system that has enabled us to continue as a species, to avoid extinction, and not only to survive but to thrive and become the dominant species. It is a highly evolved protection system and when it perceives a threat it goes into overdrive, scanning for other threats.
This is part of the flight, fight or freeze response that we are always hearing about. It triggers a flood of hormones into our system that allows us to fight off the enemy, to run like hell to get away from them, or to freeze because becoming completely still can put off the kind of predator that locks onto movement as it hunts.
This is going to serve us well if we’re walking down the street and someone runs at us with a knife. Primal survival systems will kick in and serve us well, pumping adrenalin into the system to fight or flee. They do not serve us so well when the brain reads something as a threat that is not actually a threat. It is a misread, but it will go on checking obsessively, just to make sure that what it misread as a threat really isn’t one, and it will go on and on checking.
This obsessive checking is the negative spiral.
The overheard criticism does not actually threaten our life, but it does have the power to jeopardise our fragile self-image. So our evolutionary reaction reads it as an actual threat and it keeps checking and checking again, sending out another negative thought, and then another, assessing, checking, checking again to try and work out the threat level. The overheard comments twists from what was actually heard into being something that has the apparent potential to rob us of our livelihood and well-being. It has been assessed as having the potential to end in a worse case scenario that we need to be prepared for.
Except for one thing.
It is based on no actual evidence.
It is simply evolution in overdrive.
This pattern of negative thought has the potential to stop us in our tracks and to trigger mounting anxiety. Both of these are irrational responses but they feel very real as we experience them—very, very real.
How can we stop it?
We can’t stop negative thinking, but we can be aware of it happening.
If we can see what is going on we have the opportunity to choose not to engage with it as it spirals down.
The first reaction to an overheard criticism might be shock, followed by a thought such as, ‘What is this based on, where does this come from?’
That is a good stopping point.
The rest of the negative downward spiral may keep on going but we can acknowledge what is happening.
Meanwhile there is the chance to stop at the first reaction, as in ‘What was this criticism based on?’
At this point we can start checking. In a way it is like the old journalism rule: check your sources.
Check your sources
Just those three words—simple, yes, easy no.
It means acknowledging the nature of negative thought, and the speed with which it can plunge us into despair, fear, anxiety, depression, but those three words allow us to step back, to ask ‘what is this based on?’
Let’s apply it to the downward spiral of the example:
- In the face of this overheard criticism, do I trust the people I overheard? Check this on what you already know and understand about these people.
- If they are not known as stirrers or office gossips, why am I reacting this way? It is because you didn’t do enough diligence on the work they were talking about? Are they are in some way right and do I need to own up to myself about this? Check what can be done to remedy the situation and that is within your power to do. .
- Did I get something wrong? Check this based on the work that you did, and what you were asked to do.
- Have they been talking to someone above me? Check whether this is really something that is possible, or is this now tipping into irrational thinking based on mounting anxiety.
- Do they think I am going to mess up? Check whether this is based on a fear of whether you are actually going to mess up, or is it your habit to always be anxious about work that you have responsibility for?
- Could I lose my job as a result of this? Check whether this is actually possible in relation to the expectation of this particular piece of work. Is this really a fireable offence? If you think it is, what is this based this on?
- If I am fired I will have no salary? Again check, but now in a physical way. Stop, take a breath—not just in the conceptual way, but an actual slow breath, in and out. In the space created by one breath, notice the downward spiral, the speed at which it is spinning.
- No salary, no mortgage payment? Keep checking, in the knowledge that this spiral is spinning, and that you need to keep stepping back from it because it serves no purpose.
- Keep taking a breath, another breath, stepping back in the moment that just one breath gives you.
- Try not to underestimate or undermine the moment of perspective that one breath can give you.
- Know that the momentary perspective will very quickly be undermined by the weight of negative thinking.
- Try to find a way to trust the tiny moments of perspective.
- Keep checking.
- Keep breathing.
Simple. Not Easy.
There it is—a response to negative thinking. It is very easy to write. It is even quite easy to think about, but it is very hard to do. It takes a lot of practice, and the courage to just show up and challenge the negative spiral as it starts, rather than taking the painfully more familiar path of following the spiral down.
The irony is that this flips right back to the previous post and means rising to the challenge of saying ‘no’ to the negative, cruelly persuasive thinking pattern.
It starts with the first check, the first challenge.