Learning to ask and see what is right within what is (or appears to be) wrong is an intentional choice to shift one’s perspective from negativity to positivity, which yields improved benefits to emotional intelligence, creativity, resourcefulness, problem solving, and resilience (just to name a few). This skill is often called “reframing”.
First off, understand that negativity is very sticky for the brain. Why? Well, it goes back to the limbic brain’s job as a threat detector. Negativity (and it’s child pessimism) keep us safe and secure by keeping us on our toes, on guard, on alert and vigilant so we pay attention. E. Tory Higgins refers to this as prevention focus, which “is about minimizing loss, to keep things working. We are prevention focused whenever we are trying to stay safe and secure, avoid mistakes, fulfill our duties and responsibilities, and be seen as reliable and steadfast.” (Halvorson & Higgins, 2013).
On the other hand, promotion focus is all about positivity (and it’s child optimism). It prioritizes, “maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities. We are promotion focused wherever our actions are driven by the desire to make progress, stand out, to fulfill aspirations or receive accolades” (Halvorson & Higgins, 2013).
Some of us are naturally either more prevention or promotion focused than others (which means we’re natural born pessimists and optimists) but all of us engage in both upon different triggers.
The main point this week is to consider not only on what we pay attention to, but how we pay attention to it.
Here’s why how we focus matters. The more we pay attention to something, the more connected those particular neural networks become, which means our focus can easily turn into a default, habitual, unquestioned, unexamined thought process. Default thinking is essentially your brain on autopilot. Autopilot thinking is certainly helpful but it presents a particular challenge to improving emotional intelligence, problem solving, and stress management because we tend to listen for information that fits our focus, our patterns, and our automated process of thinking.
If pessimism and negativity are how we fly, our habitual thoughts almost immediately dismiss new, different, or unexpected ideas and situations as dangerous, risky, limited, undoable, and impossible…whether or not they actually are.
If optimism and positivity are how we fly, our habitual thoughts almost immediately accept new, different, or unexpected ideas and situations as welcome, hopeful, unlimited, doable, and possible…whether or not they actually are.
Pessimists are inclined to assume the worst and start to plan accordingly, even at the risk of missing an opportunity; optimists are inclined to assume the best and jump, even at the risk of failure.
When it comes to developing and improving emotional intelligence, creativity, resourcefulness, problem solving, and resilience, research shows that optimism and positivity are more effective simply because this perspective is willing to consider other options and causes as possible. Unlike pessimism, optimism doesn’t set limits. When other options and causes are viewed positively, our experience of them changes: we can actively gain strength, peace of mind, and empowered perspective…not to mention lower our blood pressure, improve our emotional health, and welcome opportunity.
Now, no one is talking about Buddy the Elf type positivity where everything is swirly twirly gumdrop happy and we all need a hug. Martin Seligman refers to it as flexible optimism, which is an optimism informed by but not quagmired in pessimism’s “keen sense of reality” (Seligman, 1991).
The only way to test this out is to…well…test it out. The next time something negative happens,
- Suspend your autopilot thinking. which usually leads to a brick wall behind every door.
- Consider the specific (optional) causes of the situation (rather that resorting to universal causation, as in “bad stuff always happens to me”).
- Assume positive intent (absent specific evidence to the contrary) and actively look for positive lessons learned.
For example, once again I was cut off while driving to work this morning. One choice I could easily make is to call the person an idiot (or worse), mutter how this always happens to me (surely, the clown set off that morning thinking, “I’m going to cut Jenny off while she drives!), get frustrated and mad, feel my heart rate go up as I plot my revenge, and continue to fume about it the rest of the drive. And since negativity is sticky for the brain, in reality I’ll most likely fume about it all morning.
Or I can make a different choice. Although my default thinking may jump to the above conclusions, I can actively tell my brain to stop. I can consider that perhaps the person had an emergency, had a bad morning, was late for a meeting, or just plain didn’t see me. Either way, instead of plotting revenge and fuming, I can tell myself it wasn’t personal, wish that person well (or at least good riddance), be more considerate in my own driving, and look forward to my second cup of coffee at work.
The second choice is my choice. And while it certainly doesn’t excuse the other person’s behavior, it does remind me that I can only control my behaviors, responses, and explanations.
Want to learn more about emotional intelligence, resilience, learned optimism, and regulatory-focus theory? Check out some of my favorite books on the topic:
- Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
- Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence by Heidi Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins
- The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living by Amit Sood
- The Brain and Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
Check out my feed on Instagram @plenumcoaching for quotes, affirmations, and journal prompts.
Want to discover how you can cultivate yourself self and your relationships by getting clear on your thinking, values, beliefs, and goals so that you can commit to meaningful actions that move you toward where and who you want to be? Well, you’re in the right place because as a coach, that’s what I do!
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