The Gravitational Pull Of Negativity

This week I wrote about my second sober birthday, and the response I got was phenomenal. So many people contacted me to express not only their well-wishes and congratulations, but also to tell me how what I wrote impacted them. As a writer this is the dream – to talk about your own experiences and life and have other people say “This resonates with me. You’re saying something that means something to me.” Some of the kind words came from friends, some from longtime readers, some from people with whom I had never interacted with before. It was wonderful.

But two guys left less than complimentary comments on the piece. One guy says he knew me sixteen years ago, and wanted to make sure I knew I was an asshole. The other guy I don’t think knew me, but wanted to make sure I knew I was a bad person.

There were a dozen kind, affirming, positive replies (and hundreds of positive interactions on my Instagram post about my sober birthday) and two less kind ones. Guess which reactions I internalized?

I’m writing this not to point out that two dudes didn’t give me the praise I wanted, but rather because I was listening to the 10% Happier podcast (which you would know about if you were a Patreon subscriber!) and this week’s guest, Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantagetalked about how he had given a talk, gotten a standing O, and then was told by one attendee that the talk was maybe a five out of ten, and that there were things he could improve. Rather than focus on the standing O, Achor obsessed over the one guy.

I needed to hear that, and maybe you need to hear it too. Maybe you feel bad that when something good happens you find yourself focusing on that one negative thing, or that one person who isn’t being supportive in the way you want. You’re not alone. And more than that – it’s not your fault!

See, our brains evolved to pick out potential threats. We live in a world very unlike the one for which our brains are suited, and so we end up with a lot of weird anxiety and trauma reactions to things because 10,000 years of evolution has us wired to take an anonymous comment on a post as a sign of danger, like a rival preparing to challenge our position in the tribe. Your brain is really just trying to protect you, and some parts of it are still running on the operating system Living In A Small Agrarian Community With Plentiful Natural Predators XP.

That means we are wired to find threats everywhere – it’s our main natural defense system, our wily and cautious nature. This is why it’s so easy to be negative; you’re literally evolved to be that way. You’re evolved to notice that the food is running out or that the gazelles on the plain have scattered because that’ll tell you there’s a lion nearby.

So I recognize that I’m pulled towards the negative, like the Cygnus in The Black Holebecause there’s an inexorable gravitational effect within my brain that has been put there by evolution. That’s good, because it lets me understand that I’m not bad for focusing on the less kind comments, I’m just human.

But this also lets me take a look at it and be aware of it. I can bring a little reason to it. I can remind myself of the people who were kind and supportive, and I can give myself the space to experience that positivity. And the more I notice these kinds of things, the sooner I notice them the next time they happen. Each time I notice it sooner the more chance I have of interrupting the process before it gets out of hand. So maybe today I’ll get cranky because someone was unkind, but the next time I’ll catch the cycle sooner and I won’t get to cranky. I may feel hurt (and I’m hurting myself, they’re not hurting me), but I can interrupt the process and keep it from going farther.

Here’s the other big The Black Hole secret – the key isn’t to pull away from the black hole, but it’s also to not get wrecked like the Cygnus. The key is to ride through it like the Palomino (this is one of my most tortured nerd movie analogies yet). Try to pull away and you’re just going to rip the ship apart. Go with it, go through it, and you’re in a new part of the universe. That’s how you have to deal with pretty much all negative emotions – experience them, sit with them, go through them.

Anyway, I thought that maybe someone else could get the same benefit I got from hearing Achor talk about his own moment of negative focus. Sometimes I feel really bad about myself because I fool myself into thinking that how I am feeling is not only negative, it’s uniquely negative. But the truth is that it isn’t, and pretty much most people are having the same interior struggles I’m having. The more we share those struggles the less alone in them we will be.