The Psychology of Negativity: Why Thinking Too Much Can Harm You

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If you missed it on my Facebook page at the end of last year, I decided to spend the entirety of 2017 off the grid of social media. There are a variety of reasons I have for deciding to do that, but I think the most important one I could sum up is that I want to spend more time creating good content that helps you instead of being so distracted by the ever-increasing pressure to get “likes” and “shares.” If you’d like to keep in close contact with me, go ahead and subscribe to my email list. I send emails out once a week to connect, see how you’re doing, and share some of the practical things I’ve been learning, and practical ways I’ve been overcoming obstacles in my life. I also get a better opportunity to connect and talk one-on-one with you.

In my last post I shared about how my new year started off in a pretty negative way. Everything was up, up, up right until the day after Christmas, and then everything came crashing down. For about a week and a half after that I was stuck in a bad mood, feeling sad, getting mad over small things, unmotivated, inactive, and thinking, “It would be much easier if I just died, so I didn’t have to deal with all of this!”

That’s not the first time I’ve gone through that, and although I obviously won’t go chasing after it, it might not be the last time I go through it. But today I wanted to walk you through the process of falling into a bad mood, and I hope it will help you notice some things in your own thinking that you can catch and correct before you have “one of those days.”

The Danger Zone

Here is probably the most important thing I learned in the 1 1/2 weeks I was stuck in an anger-fueled pity-party: It’s hard to move forward if you spend the majority of your time trying to figure out what went wrong.

As an example, I love to analyze things and figure out how they work, and how one things leads to another, especially in patterns of thinking. I’m currently reading through Influence: The Psychology of Influence by Robert Cialdini, and it’s amazing to learn about how and why we react to things the way we do, There are certain triggers that are pre-programmed into our brain which control our impulsive reactions. But while understanding how things work is incredibly useful in problem solving, it can also lead to a cycle of bigger problems if the problem takes all of your attention (and it can very easily).

Obviously, part of problem solving is acknowledging that there is a problem to begin with, so I’m not going to tell you to ignore problems or pretend they don’t exist and hope they’ll go away. I can’t stop a boat from sinking if I refuse to acknowledge there’s a hole in the hull… but it is a thin line. I must learn how to look at the problem long enough to see a solution, but not so long that I get overwhelmed by that problem and a solution starts to seem impossible.

I remember a quote I heard in church years ago, the preacher said, “I only look at the devil long enough to make sure the cross-hair is still on his forehead.”

I think that’s the perfect way to time these things. Look long enough to make sure you’re aiming in the right direction, but put the rest of your focus on ways you can adapt to the situation and solve the problem. If you stare at the problem for too long then all you will see is the problem.

It’s hard to move forward if you spend the majority of your time trying to figure out what went wrong.

Scary Monsters

The longer you look at something the more time you have to not only process the details of its appearance, but let your mind add details that might not actually exist. The longer you look the heavier those details get imprinted in your heart and mind until they remain at the forefront, constantly dictating your feelings and your behavior.

Think of it like seeing shadows in the dark as a child. At first you might see a glimpse of a form out of the corner of your eye that resembles some sort of figure. You might quickly become startled as it grabs your attention, but from there you have two choices:

  1. Look away and chalk it up to a silly illusion, or
  2. stare and analyze it.

If you decide to stare at it and analyze, you’ll automatically begin to see more and more details in the shape, the longer you look. It’s not actually becoming more detailed—it’s still the same shadow—but your mind will subconsciously be trying to make sense of it. To do so it will start adding familiar concepts, and interpreting things into it that aren’t really there. Soon, what only first looked like a dark blob begins to take on the detailed features of what you imagine a devil or a ghost to look like. The blob starts to grow limbs, and the figure becomes more humanoid over time, then it starts to look like it’s moving.

Now, what started as a quick startle has turned into a paralyzing fear because your mind has actually started to convince you that what you’re seeing and thinking is there actually is. So what do you do? You roll over, quickly turn on the light before it can lunge towards you through the darkness… and you find out it was only the shadow of the cup of water you had on your nightstand being projected onto the wall by ambient light.

The longer you look at something the more time you have to not only process the details of its appearance, but let your mind add details that might not actually exist.

Scary Problems

I’ve found a similar thing happens in our head when we stare at problems for too long. That’s not to suggest that some of them aren’t really there, or aren’t really scary, but many of them have become a lot more terrifying in our mind than they actually are in reality. We spend too much time intentionally analyzing our problems, and give our mind too much time to add meaningful features to irrelevant details in a subconscious attempt to make sense of the situation. It turns a cup of water into a death-dealing devil.

In the case of general problem solving, especially in regards to having a bad day or waking up on the wrong side of the bed, I can look at something long enough to see that it’s negative, and then move into a defensive position to counter it before it does any damage.

On the other hand, if I look at a problem for too long then I’m not only seeing that it’s negative, I start taking in more and more details of why it’s negative. Suddenly I’ve lost sight of everything else and all I can see is that there is negative. I’m subconsciously giving deeper meaning to the details than actually exists, the same way I give detailed features to shadows the longer I stare at them.

Into Darkness

If it’s a repeat occurrence of a familiar situation, I’m even more vulnerable to this downward spiral because I begin to stack those past experiences onto this current one. The negative emotions from all of those past experiences compound, and my mind starts telling me ridiculous stories about how the universe must be conspiring against me because this same (or similar) thing has happened to me before!

“Of course this would happen to me!”

Oops! I just became self-focused, which when fueled by negative emotions causes me to become self-centered and behave with an attitude of self-preservation. That immediately kills my ability to love and value others properly, and treat them appropriately because FUCK YOUR ISSUES! DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT I’VE GONE THROUGH!?

Now I’m falling even deeper into misery because I’m primed to notice every little thing you do that annoys me, and I guarantee you’re doing it on purpose! The tiniest little details in your characteristics, or even your tone of voice, become glaring flaws that make me just want to strangle you! That way your laugh fades out and lasts for just a split second too long. REDRUM!

Oh look at what a long way we’ve fallen! All because of focusing on one negative thing for too long. Instead of just getting out of the way of those bad thoughts and that bad mood when I first felt them creeping in, I gave the problem a little bit of anger-fueled attention and fell into a bottomless pit of misery.

“The reason you’re suffering is you’re focused on yourself.” – Tony Robbins, Tools of Titans (Pg. 212)

We spend too much time intentionally analyzing our problems, and give our mind too much time to add meaningful features to irrelevant details in a subconscious attempt to make sense of the situation.

The Aftermath

After all of this chaos has built up and has been swirling around in my head, the whole thing starts to feel too big to get around. Now I don’t even feel like I could get out of its way if I tried, and I probably feel bad that I didn’t get out of the way at all, and that contributes to the problem as a whole. “I thought the last time this happened would be the last time! Will this cycle ever end? What’s the point of even trying!?”

I might as well just resign myself to the inevitable and get trampled by the problem. I can easily get that part out of the way. I’ll sleep it off for a few weeks and try again when I feel better… at least until the next time I don’t!

All the while the problem wasn’t ever as big as it seemed. It became bloated in my mind by all of the information I took in, and I only took in that information because I kept staring at the problem. Worse, most of the information I took in isn’t even true! It was a misconstrued perception of the situation based on negative emotions I inherited from all of the negative thoughts I kept entertaining. Were I thinking of it with a sober-mind (a mind not influenced by an overload of negative emotions) most of what is in my head wouldn’t even make sense.

A ghost in the corner would sound silly if you told me it was there during the day. But catch me off guard during the night with a shadow on my wall, and that one jolt of fear can send me off into believing all kinds of things are out to get me.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” – Matt. 6:22-23

What is he saying? “You are what you see.” If you stare into darkness, your mind, your emotions and your behavior will become darkened. How great is the darkness? It’s as great as you let it become, determined by what you fill your mind with, which is determined by what you set your eyes on.

“As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” – Proverbs 23:7

First you consider, then you believe, then you behave. How you behave is determined by what you believe. What you believe is determined by what you spend most of your time thinking about. What you spend most your time thinking about is determined by what you spend most of your time looking at.

Here is the answer to the problem:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. – Philippians 4:8

The Only Information That Matters

I know the sound of a gunshot in a public place indicates danger.

If I’m in a supermarket and suddenly I hear shooting, the little information I have about gunfire is going to convince me to run AWAY from the sound. I wouldn’t even really have to think about it because my brain is so convinced that gunshot equals probably going to die if I just stand here. That’s going to get my feet moving.

Now imagine somebody walks into a supermarket and starts shooting, and instead of running I stand there with my hand on my chin and ponder to myself. “How do guns even work? What model gun is this guy using? Why did he choose that model? Why does this keep happening in America? What happened to him when he was a kid that he would make him want to do this?”

Those questions, while perfectly valid in certain contexts, will get me killed if I stop to ask them in a moment like that.

The only information I need in that moment is the information that’s going to get me moving away from whatever is intent on killing me.

The same is true in the context of bad moods. There are times where you can analyze the details of what caused the bad mood and why, but that moment isn’t in the midst of the bad mood.

In the midst of a bad mood, the only information needed is that it’s intent on killing you, so get out of the way as fast as possible.

In the presence of danger every question is irrelevant except the one that’s going to get me out of the way the fastest.

That one question is this: “Where’s the nearest exit?”

Once my mind is set again on something positive and hopeful (I’ve made it safely out of the supermarket and am no longer in the vicinity of the shooter), then I can try to figure out what went wrong and why it went wrong so I can be more prepared for it in the future.

In the midst of a bad mood, the only information needed is that it’s intent on killing you, so get out of the way as fast as possible.

Again, after I’ve resisted the urge to get angry and take things personal and make myself a victim to the situation, after I’ve gone on the defense and started filling my head with positive things (as much as I might not want to do that in the moment), then I can begin to analyze and try to figure out where the thought came from so I can see if I can fix that unintentional entry point. If I can’t, because it’s a situation I don’t have control of, then I can focus on training myself to respond better. I can expect that it’s going to happen, and train myself to behave a certain way when it does.

Once again, what is the solution to all the madness? Here it is:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. – Philippians 4:8

The solution is to stay positive. “Set your mind on the things above.” However you want to phrase it, the point is: fill your inside with good so that good will overflow from you into the outside.

Talk to you soon!

D. R.

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