"One fact of nature is that people have a 'negativity bias': we react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good ... One consequence of the negativity bias is that when people's minds are unoccupied, they tend to drift to anxious or angry thoughts. And rumination - dwelling on slights, unpleasant encounters, and sad events - leads to bad feelings. In fact, one reason that women are more susceptible to depression than men may be their greater tendency to ruminate; men are more likely to distract themselves with an activity. Studies show that distraction is a powerful mood-altering device, and contrary to what a lot of people believe, persistently focusing on a bad mood aggravates rather than palliates it." ~Gretchin Rubin, The Happiness Project
I couldn't agree more! Much of the work I do with clients involves uncovering the thoughts that they are dwelling on or persistently returning to that are causing them to feel angry, anxious, or immobilized. I also teach the skill of right speech to shift the focus from the negative stories and using right mindfulness to practice challenging the meaning making machine. I know, at times, this seems to be an insurmountable task.
One of the ways that we can gain extra footing is to add in the practice of, as Rubin suggests, putting rumination in check. In addition, David Rock & Jeffrey Schwartz point out in their article, The Neuroscience of Leadership that:
• Focus is power. The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain.
• Expectation shapes reality,. People’s preconceptions have a significant impact on what they perceive.
If what we focus on, ruminate upon has a significant impact on how we perceive situations and, moreover, our very chemistry, then we need to pay particular attention to what we are focusing on.
One of my clients, who had been sexually abused by her father, was out to gather the evidence and prove that all men are rude, uncaring pigs. As an adult woman out in the dating world, she was struggling to find a man who she found pleasing. As we talked about her various experiences with dating, she told me a very interesting story. On a first date, the man arrived at her door with a small bouquet of flowers. Smiling broadly, he handed the flowers to her (sure he’d just earned some major brownie points!). She described feeling angry, closed off, and wanting to just close the door and leave off the date altogether. She was sure that this man was out to take advantage of her; how dare he bring her flowers as if she was some silly school girl. As we did the work to understand what was going on here, she came to see that she was so set on proving that men were terrible that she even framed the gesture of flowers on a first date as being manipulative and evidence that he would just patronize, take advantage of, and hurt her. Her expectation that all men are out to harm her changed the way that she perceived the situation.
Here’s the tricky part now. What we have come to expect of ourselves, others, relationships, the world is greatly informed by the experiences that we’ve had. We come to believe things that we’ve essentially been out to prove as being true day to day, year to year. We gather the evidence to reinforce our stories and false beliefs by gathering the evidence to prove them to be true. We ignore all evidence to the contrary.
So now, we have the opportunity here to challenge our stories in yet another way – by exploring what it is we’ve been out to prove and then doing the work to shift our focus.
The critical question is: If anything can be proven true, what is it that you want to prove?
What have you been proving about yourself, others, relationships? What would you like to prove instead? I encourage you to spend this week reminding yourself of what you’re out to prove and see how it makes a difference in how you see others and experience the world.
If you’d like to learn more about how coaching can support you in identifying and challenging what you're out to prove, I encourage you to LISTEN to my interview on FigthBack radio - Recovering from Sexual Abuse.