Experiments in Beating the Negativity Bias

Negativity Bias Blog thing

 

I am a new mum to a now seven month-old baby and my to-do list is endless. Looking after a baby on my own is proving very challenging! I am fast approaching mental burnout. I’ve been there before and I am determined not to go there again. In some sort of sleep-deprived state, I rifle through my Mindfulness for Health notes to find the Pacing section. I decide to pace myself in a unique way. I have developed a method which adheres to the principles of Pacing and also to The Treasure of Pleasure simultaneously.

Task Block

I have two mini whiteboards; one on which I write my to-do list and one which is divided into six squares and then each square is diagonally divided into triangles. The idea is that I pair up a 'good' and 'bad' task (one in each half of the square) from the list and therefore I always tackle ‘good’ with ‘bad’ simultaneously. In this way, I aim to override my well-honed avoidance tactics of doing any of the nasty tasks!

I realise intellectually that there is in fact no distinction between good and bad and that these ‘boxes’ they are merely constructs of the mind, but at the same time I know that my mind categorises them as such nevertheless, and doing this gives me a practical 'way in' for my mind to deal with the ever growing list. I call it ‘bribing the guards’ [of my mind]. The very act of gluing a bad thing to a good thing also, I find, has the curious inadvertent effect of neutralising and depolarising both. Perhaps, by doing this, my mind may move closer towards regarding all experiences simply as experiences and eventually doing away with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels altogether.


Before bed each night, I pair up the tasks, so that I am at least partially ready to tackle the next day in case I do not get any sleep! On this particular night, I sit pouring over my endless list; some urgent… some not... some of those ridiculous ticky box tasks… and some very non-urgent tasks which I want to do for myself – pleasurable things which naggingly have been sat on that list since I had my baby half a year ago. Interestingly, they have been there longer than all of the others…

I try to distinguish between good and bad and in the face of sheer adversity and immense fatigue, into my awareness suddenly drops a number of pearls of wisdom. I realise that my mind has started to classify every task as bad just because it is another item on the to do list. I noticed that I am now regarding tasks on the list as enemies whom I have to fight every day, rather than just regarding them as the very fabric of my life experience per se. That is to say, my mind has started to label tasks as ‘bad’ even if the task started out life as a ‘good’ one just because it has been on the list longer than I deem acceptable. It finally dawned on me that I actually regarded none of the tasks as positive and so I couldn’t in fact complete my method of filling in the two halves of each square and therefore could not get on with the day tomorrow as I had planned! My own negativity bias has indeed shot me in my own foot!

Inadvertently and somewhat ironically too, my method of linking good with bad in order to be more proactive had in fact led me to a dead end…albeit a revelatory one. However, I believe every journey has a purpose, if only to present an opportunity for learning. The exercise led me to see just how much I was wallowing in negativity every day – I had actually no idea just how much it had taken over my daily life. My positive/negative equilibrium was very much out of balance and in fact, the negativity bias of my mind had paralysed me into doing nothing. It was like wallowing through a never-ending quagmire of negativity.

The realisation in fact took me back to a school residential fieldtrip, where we had to wade through a muddy quagmire of rice pudding colour and consistency. My welly got stuck and I could not free it. The rice pudding started trickling over the top of my welly. I panicked as I sank deeper and deeper and I ended up tugging like mad, losing my balance and landing face down in the rice pudding! I felt this was a great analogy for how each day was panning out just now. This memory lightened the mood a little and it was in fact a relief to come to the realisation that it was actually me who was setting myself an uphill struggle every day by dwelling on the negative.


My thoughts then turned towards my Breathworks training retreat where we discussed two common and unhelpful responses to pain and unpleasant experiences: trying to block out the unpleasant with distraction and stimulation, and becoming completely overwhelmed with the experience and ‘drowning’ in it. It had been a revelation to me how what one person deemed as blocking, another perceived as drowning! That day, I learnt that there are in fact different ways of framing the tasks; mind could frame a task as good when looked at in one way, and bad when looked at in another. In reality, neither exist and both are just an effort of the mind to put things in boxes because boxes are easier and tidier to move around in the great filing system of the mind.


The revelation yesterday reminded me of just how ugly the human negativity bias can be and how it can creep up on you and swamp you without you even noticing, until you are completely bogged down with it. I now feel much happier about my to-do list; downloading music for my new sound system is no longer a ‘bad’ task (even though it has indeed been on my to-do list for almost a year), neither is collecting the apples off the tree before the wind blows them off. And now, after reframing many of the tasks on the list and regaining some form of equilibrium, in actual fact, the call to HMRC (which after reframing, I realised was the only real daunting task on the whole list) is not so daunting after all.


Alison Salter

Making Mindfulness Available to Everyone
On Backs, Beds, Necks, and Wrecks
 

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Friday, 14 December 2018