Performance Under Pressure #3: The Stickiness of Negative Emotions
Have you ever handled a sugary food with your fingers and found that the sticky sensation seems to linger? Or have you ever dealt with marshmallows that seem to impossibly stick to each other? Sometimes I like to make salads by putting the ingredients in a tupperware container and shaking it up. But the cheese that I spent all that time cutting up into tiny pieces just wants to stick together! And I’m sure we’ve all experienced the frustration of the clingy residue from an adhesive sticker like a price tag.
Negative feelings like doubt, shame, disappointment, frustration, and fear tend to behave like sticky marshmallows, annoying adhesive residue, or the worst: ancient chewing gum stuck to the underside of a restaurant table.
First of all, negative feelings tend to stick together. Just like how pulling one marshmallow out of the bag can pull out all the rest in one big clump, one negative emotion tends to bring others with it. Disappointment with an outcome can easily lead to frustration and discouragement. Fear about an upcoming event can end up stuck to feelings of doubt, inadequacy, and even shame. Once we get “stuck” in a negativity spiral, there’s no limit to the bad feelings we can incorporate into our experience.
But also, negative feelings tend to “stick” around in the associations we make in our minds. I remember being terrified as a child when I started school. Even now, if I visit a school or really any other place with a big, industrial cafeteria-like setting, the smell brings back feelings of being a terrified child. Something relatively neutral like a cafeteria can be stuck to feelings of anxiety in my mind. In that way, negative feelings are extremely sticky, clinging to anything they touch.
But also, negative feelings adhere to and stick with us, just like sugary remnants or the smell of onions on our fingers. Even something relatively small like an off-handed remark or a stranger’s coldness can linger with us, sticking to our consciousness in a way that then attracts more negative stickiness. Stickiness lingers, is hard to get rid of, and traps other unwanted debris.
You may be familiar with the phrase “negativity bias.” Our brains evolved to focus extra attention on the things that threaten to harm us. While this inclination to focus more on the negative helps us learn to avoid dangers, it can result in significantly unpleasant feelings for us in our modern world. Unfortunately, we find it easy to ignore good things and very easy to spend our time and attention worrying about bad things.
For example, I once presented at a conference for English teachers. Forty-two (42) teachers attended my session on bringing medieval texts into the classroom. When I read the evaluations after the conference, I had received 41 really positive, almost rave reviews. But there was one (just 1!) that said “I already have a master’s degree in medieval literature so this presentation was way too basic for me.” I focused on that one negative review for days, feeling so disappointed that my presentation didn’t have the effect I wanted. I really struggled to see the positive despite the fact that I had those nice reviews right in front of me! The negativity bias in my brain discounted or even ignored all those positive reviews from the vast majority of attendees who gained something from my session.
I found it easier to believe the negative. That’s the trap of the negativity bias. I’m sure you’ve experienced it yourself. It’s a universal human phenomenon. But the good news, is that it can be overcome with two tactics: noticing and practicing.
The good news is that negative feelings are not an actual, physical substance. They are merely scripts like lines in a play or a stream of images. We can change them up or even choose not to enact them. I realize that this is easier said than done, but it is possible if you begin to notice the stickiness of negativity. For example, you can notice that one small set-back is now beginning to attract and trap other unwanted debris. Before you let a minor event collect into a sticky mess that ruins your day, notice what is happening. Notice what negative feelings are sticking to, what negative feelings are sticking to each other, and what negative feelings have adhered themselves to things that should be positive or neutral. If you had one terrifying experience at the dentist as a child, for instance, don’t let that negativity stick to every visit to the dentist going forward. Negativity bias is sticky, but merely noticing takes away much of its adhesive strength.
Then, practice undoing negative stickiness by mentally visualizing the pulling apart of separate items that have become stuck together by negative residue. For example, one limited negative experience in the morning (let’s say a torn contact), doesn’t need to color or affect your whole day. Unstick it from your work day experience by mentally visualizing pulling that sticky marshmallow off of your work day! Or, one unusually disappointing experience at a restaurant doesn’t need to end up stuck to all future visits. The best part about visualization is that you can choose to let that sticky residue come right off!
I hope these techniques and visualizations have been as helpful for you as they have been for me. Negativity bias is a very common and very powerful sticky trap for all of us. But it can be countered by practicing positivity! It’s not only potentially transformative to imagine a frustrating situation or a cranky person as merely an annoying wad of used chewing gum, but it can be amusing as well! I hope you have a great day!
As always, comments and suggestions are welcome!