Our Tendency to Think the Worst: Why Does Our Self-Talk So Often Default to the Negative

“Dare to conquer toxic thoughts!”―Ernest Agyemang Yeboah

Philosophers and psychologists have long studied how the mind works, how our thinking relates to our behavior and how our beliefs impact our moods. In more recent years scientists have entered the game, examining the manner in which our very synapses fire or fail to fire, getting an inside look at the electrical impulses that zing through that grey matter we carry inside our skulls.

The nature of neurosis and how memory works are two themes that I’ve written about and often pondered. This theme of negative thinking is similarly a lifelong companion. Why do our minds so frequently veer toward the negative? How is it that when something happens, or doesn’t, we automatically think the worst.

The Beatles’ White Album has a song that exemplifies this tendency, albeit in an almost hilarious way. Do you know which one I am talking about? It’s written and sung by Ringo Starr, his first solo composition. He actually played it for the group in 1962 when he initially joined The Beatles.

The song begins with the singer waiting for his girl friend to show up. When she remains absent, he thinks the worst.

I listen for your footsteps
Coming up the drive.
Listen for your footsteps
But they don’t arrive.
Waiting for your knock, dear
On my old front door.
I don’t hear it,
Does it mean you don’t love me anymore?

Who hasn’t been there? Waiting for a call. Waiting for a letter. Thinking the worst.

In the film Immortal Beloved, Gary Oldman as Beethoven finds his wagon wheels stuck in the mud due to a heavy rain while attempting to reach a woman in waiting for a tryst. The anguish of this moment is expressed in the film score which plays the agonizing Second Movement of his Seventh Symphony.

“Don’t Pass Me By” continues with Ringo lamenting, home alone, listening to the clock tick, and wondering where she is.

If you know the song, then you know the rest of the story. I can still remember watching my dad laugh out loud when the third verse was sung.

I’m sorry that I doubted you,
I was so unfair.
You were in a car crash,
And you lost your hair.
You said that you would be late
About an hour or two.
I said, “That’s alright, I’m waiting here,
Just waiting to hear from you.”

I know, it sounds awful — the car crash part — but it’s sung in a country honk style that you can’t take seriously. My point is that this tendency to think the worst, which my psychologist brother calls “awfulizing,” is nearly universal.

THE TRIGGER for this blog post was a statement that Transition Life Coach Yana Stockman made in a talk she gave in December. She noted that we have two voices in our heads, the negative “Survival” brain and our true self.

INC. magazine recently published an article on the negativity bias. According to neuroscience our brains are actually wired to veer toward the negative as a protective device. Fortunately, we can break the spell negative thinking has on our minds. The first step is to Notice when we’re doing this.

Introspection helps us recognize when we’re feeding our minds with negative inputs. Next we Shift gears. That is, we choose a positive input. This can be something as simple as a choice to adopt an attitude of gratitude. After shifting we then Rewire. You can find the full article below in the Related Links.

Sometimes we can laugh at ourselves afterwards. In truth, all too often, once we get on that negative track it can take us right down a rabbit hole. Examples abound, and you no doubt have a few yourself.

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Years ago I remember reading a book titled Telling Yourself the Truth, in which the author stated that much of what happens to us is directly related to our thinking. I just looked it up and the back cover blurb makes this statement: “Wrong thinking produces wrong emotions, wrong reactions, wrong behavior — and unhappiness! Learning to deal with your thoughts is the first step on the road to healthy thinking.”

Much more can be said, but this enough to give you a nudge in the event your thinking is stuck in a rut.

Related Links

The Neuroscience of Breaking Out of Negative Thinking
A Visit with Transition Life Coach Yana Stockman

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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