Years ago, I made up a “rule” for myself, to deal with my (human) tendency to focus on the negatives. If you’re like me in this way (and most people I meet seem to be), you automatically zero in on whatever isn’t “right” — possible sources of future trouble, critical comments, negative people, the “fly in the ointment,” mistakes, and so on.
As I’ve written in this blog before, this makes sense, purely from a survival standpoint. If there’s danger out there, it’s helpful for our bodies and minds to focus on that. If everything else is idyllic and safe, but there’s a potentially dangerous creature strolling by, that’s going to get all of our (and our ancient ancestors’) attention.
But this survival instinct can screw us up. It can cause us to over-emphasize the negative while dismissing the positive — reducing our joy, interfering with connections to others, and promoting worry and regret.
Several Cognitive Distortions (listed here), relate to that, including:
Negative filtering (also known as “Disqualifying the positive”).
This is when we focus on the negative, and filter out all positive aspects of a situation. For example, you get a good review at work with one critical comment, and the criticism becomes the focus, with the positive feedback fading or forgotten. You dismiss positives by explaining them away — for example, responding to a compliment with the thought, “They were just being nice.”
Magnifying or Minimizing.
We exaggerate the importance of some things (our mistakes, a critical reaction, somebody else’s achievements, things we haven’t done). Also, we inappropriately shrink the magnitude of other things (for example, our good qualities, compliments, what we have accomplished, or someone else’s imperfections).
We come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, you expect it to happen over and over again. Example: seeing one incident of rejection as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat and failure.
So where’s the friggin’ rule, Ann?
Yes, I started out this post promising a rule I made up, to help deal with overemphasizing the negative. I put this rule in my list of remedies for cognitive distortions, and here it is:
The Equal Time Rule. To be fair, why not balance out the time spent on negative thoughts with positive thoughts? For example, if you spend a certain amount of time worrying or catastrophizing about something that then turns out okay, consider spending that much time feeling good about the outcome. Or, if you are focusing on a negative, critical person and worrying about how they might affect you, try to give equal time and power to a positive, supportive person.
Okay, time for an example!
Several posts this year have mentioned my dread of working on my income taxes (like here and here).
(I don’t know why I freak out, so much, about doing my taxes each year. I have a lot of self-knowledge and insight, or so I’m told, but I still don’t understand THAT, which I could probably explore in a ridiculously long post and/or another year of therapy). (But not now.)
Here is my yearly To Do List about taxes:
February 15. Start worrying about and dreading working on your taxes.Don’t actually do anything, but definitely beat yourself up about (1) procrastinating and (2) worrying so much about this, which is dopey and really getting old. Make sure you compare yourself to other people who have (1) completed their taxes and/or (2) aren’t as weird as you about worrying about this. Schedule a few weekends when you’re definitely going to work on this, but then don’t. Make sure to feel guilty about scheduling and then not following through. Try not to tell people how weird you are about this, but if you do tell people, make sure to feel dopey about that.
March 15. Continue doing all of the above, but more frequently and intensely. Note the amount of time you’ve wasted feeling bad about this and ask yourself questions like, “Why do you do this every year?” Decide that this year, you’ve gone further than you usually do in procrastinating; feel bad and somewhat panicky about that. Notice that the worrying about taxes is getting in the way of your anticipating the arrival of your favorite season — Spring! Feel REALLY bad about that.
The End of March: Always get done what you need to, somehow.
(Note that I’ve left something out here: my frequent uses of remedies and antidotes to help myself feel better during this process.) (Again, I’m overemphasizing the negative and minimizing the positive, in how I’m telling THIS story.) (Eeeek!)
This year, I did the above routine again — as usual, starting around February 15.
AND, as usual, I finished the routine this past week. That is, I’m done with my preparation (and dread) about taxes for this year.
If I were to use my made-up Equal Time Rule, I would spend as much time and intensity feeling GOOD about completing my taxes as I did feeling bad about NOT doing them. That means I would spend more than a month, from now on, feeling relieved and great.
Will I do it? Nah. Not even close, people.
But I LOVE that idea. And by having that rule, even if I don’t keep it, I invite myself to feel as good as I possibly can for as long as I can possibly can.
Because it’s only fair, right?
Thanks for reading.
© 2013 Ann Koplow (for my Equal Time Rule)