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All You Notice is Where You Focus

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

"Wasn't she being a bitch?" my friend asked me. We were standing outside of David's Bridal, in a sprawling mall that is egregiously large and difficult to navigate. There are escalators and smoothie shops and a Wetzel's Pretzel sandwiched in between the Container Store and Best Buy and Baskin Robins. Spend money, says the mall, on all of these things you'll never need, not even once. My friend was referring to the associate who was helping her try on wedding dresses. "Not really," I answered, "she seemed perfectly nice to me."

My friend proceeded to list the many imagined slights that the store associate made, from facial expressions to words to the way she modified the wedding dresses. It was almost as if my friend wanted to be bitched at, or like she picked out the worst in a woman whose side job it was to rush around helping soon-to-be-brides try on dresses that may or may not be wildly overpriced and exceedingly hard to look at. Maybe it was the nerves that come alongside getting married. Maybe it was the nerves that come alongside spending too much money on a one-day dress. Maybe my friend, like all of us, has a tendency to look for worst-in people, in scenarios, in items, in food, in life.

For all the nice comments I receive about my writing, the few scattered negative comments stick the most. Not because I believe the mean comments, but because our brains are hardwired to focus on negative events more so than positive ones. Neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson said, “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Our brains are more active when we focus on negative stimuli, and we're more likely to remember negative experiences. The tendency to focus on the negative is called the Negativity Effect, and it can look like the following:

- Noticing negative events and recalling them more vividly than positive ones

- Dwelling on negative events, even when daydreaming

- Assigning greater importance/weight to negative events

- Focusing on even the smallest, most meaningless negative event

- Remembering insults and criticism more than praise

- Being highly skeptical of new people, places, or things

- Making decisions (life, career, relational) based on avoiding negative results

My friend may not have recalled the many smiles given to her by the sales associate, but she did remember a sigh. But it's not her fault, really. Back when humans were even more ape-adjacent than we are now, those who were more attuned to danger and negative stimuli lived longer and were able to reproduce. Focusing on danger and negativity helped keep us safe. Today, that's not really the case but old habits die hard.

The negativity effect can still keep us safe to some degree, by making us wary of potentially dangerous strangers or by inspiring us to install security systems on our homes. But the negativity effect can also negatively affect personal and work relationships because it predisposes us to search out and expect the worst in people. If we lean into our predisposition to expect the worst, all we start seeing are negative things, and that's a hell of a way to live.

Even though our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative, we can still upset the paradigm by intentionally focusing on the positive. My friend could have focused instead on the sales associate making pains to add belts and veils to each dress, or consulting a seamstress about an alteration. In this case, the sales associate is also trying to sell her something, so it really makes no sense that the sales associate would be bitchy. Sometimes, negative stimuli (real or imagined) doesn't even make much sense.

In the case of nasty comments about my writing, I started to simply delete them. I can't focus on what I can't notice, after all. And, nasty comments are a lot different from thoughtful criticism. Instead of responding or stewing over hateful words, I started saving positive comments, setting them aside for those times when I feel a bout of writer's block or when I feel certain that nothing I write will ever really matter. By focusing on the positivity sent my way, I'm slowly shifting how I perceive the world, how minor most of my frustrations are, and how easy it is to weed out negativity, one day at a time.

P.S. Read more about negativity bias here, read about how to focus more on positive things here, or listen to the Bitch Bible podcast here.


Sarah Rose

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