Stacking Stones — A Balancing Act
This morning my daughter and I had an argument, and she went stomping up the stairs. I would usually have been more irritated by this response, but when I called up to ask her why she felt so inclined to march away from our conversation she called down to me that she was writing in her journal.
While I was still angry, I couldn’t help but smile. We had been talking about doing a better job of communicating our feelings, and one of the suggestions that I had for her was to write it down. Get it out. Then afterwards, have a conversation without exploding.
The fact that she finally listened to my advice felt like a win. Small, but mighty.
This brought me back to my own childhood where I also always kept a journal. I still have most of them and looking back on the entries I’m disappointed to find that the majority of my writing is disgruntled. While there are scattered moments of happiness, the most significant narratives are those that were made when I was lonely, angry, or sad.
I can’t help but think of my daughter’s journal, which is now outlining these similar emotions, and of course how awful her mother is. (I had these entries too, sorry Mom.) While I may not be giving her enough credit, I have a hard time believing that she pulls out the journal to write about all the times she is bursting with love for me.
I think it’s fairly common to be caught in a loop of negative emotions, often feeling the need to recount the circumstances that led us to these thoughts. I notice myself, as I choose which articles to read on Medium, I am pulled to those with the shock factor. We don’t tend to stop and take a look at someone’s fantastic, blissful, uneventful life. Instead, we want (or rather can’t look away from) the horror stories. My favorites are usually those where the individual hit rock bottom and then defied all odds to rise back to the top.
But once these people get to the top, do we really want to read anymore? Do we actually care what happens next once they’ve achieved true happiness? I might just be sour and some people do enjoy only reading the positive stories. I’d prefer that to be the case, but I find it hard to believe.
I wonder, why is it that we are more prone to read or write about love only after we have lost it? Or about happiness, only after it has been taken away from us? Is it because it would be less interesting without a negative connotation? Is there a reason why we are drawn to this?
Even as I dive into my own experiences with my anxiety disorder, I find that now that the worst appears to be behind me (fingers crossed), I’m not sure what to write about next. How many times can I go through my awful journey before everyone tires of it? It’s time for the next step, but what is it? And is it interesting enough to share?
I know personally I find support in reading other accounts of people who have had similar troubling experiences. They make me feel less alone, less abnormal. I want to hear that there are happy endings after tragedy. This is why Disney makes so much money on their films. They start dark and end light. It’s their M.O.
The same draw to negativity may explain my prior interest in certain reality television programs. I would get involved in the shows that had the messiest plots, following the people who had the most tragic life events, and of course the ones who had the most drama. Did this make me feel better about myself? Did I want to see them turn around and prove to the world that they were better than we gave them credit for? I guess on some level I was judging and comparing them to myself. I could find some comfort in telling myself that things may be bad in my life, but at least they were never that bad. (I’m awful aren’t I?)
Rarely do you find a story that sustains happiness the entire way through. Start, middle, end — all happy? I can’t recall one, but please tell me… there has to be one out there. Is there?? It’s possible no one read or watched that one.
Now I’m left to wonder if I created a monster with my daughter’s writing. Like me, will she go back and read her entries and conclude that there were only bad times, because those made up the bulk of writing that she documented?
When I go back to my own journals, I find the negativity in my words. Yes, writing served a purpose. It was therapeutic. I got that toxicity out of me. But after that, I read it over and over, and over again. And every time I read it, it cemented this idea that things were always bad.
But they weren’t.
There were happy times. Why did I never file these tales?! Was I so caught up in the joy of the moment that I didn’t have time to think of breaking out the pen, because I was too occupied with feeling good?
While an explanation of being distracted by joy would have sufficed, I had to dig into the psychology behind this, for peace of mind and the sake of science.
(I already touched on this concept before in a previous article you can find here.)
If you look at the major emotions, there are six that can be identified. Some models have less and some more, but generally you’ll find the following included: Happiness, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Surprise. I’m not sure if you picked up on this, but we’re looking at a 4:1:1 (negative: positive: depends on the scenario). The balance seems a bit weighted for the bad guys, don’t you think?
This comes back to human evolution. (SCIENCE!) We needed to focus on the dangerous or threatening things to stay alive. Negativity bias was hard wired into our brain to help us survive. Now, we have to consciously fight against it to rise above our genetics, which were meant to save our lives but may be backfiring in our current state.
In my research, I found that this negativity bias starts between three months and a year old! How are we ever supposed to overcome something that is second nature and develops so young!? It’s a fact, our brain is more attentive to negativity. The brain is more likely to recall certain events or feelings that are tied to negative emotions, and it will respond more strongly to negative stimuli over positive stimuli… this is the case every time.
But guess what?? Now you know the secret. You know that this is what the brain was designed to do. It assumes it is “helping” us! So, do your brain a favor. Intervene, jump in, and help it help you!
You need to be more than just intelligent; you need to be emotionally intelligent.
This is the key to identifying these emotions and finding a way to spin them into something positive. If you can’t understand human psychology, the emotions that are going on in your own mind, then you will find it very difficult to overcome the negativity bias. And even with this knowledge, you must maintain a consistent and conscious effort to truly remain motivated to the cause. (Confession: I didn’t pass this test yet)
If you’re writing, be mindful of your words and tone. For every terrible account that you put down, you may choose to describe another experience in a separate piece. This time make it one that brings up feelings of love, happiness, or simply being grateful.
I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve got a lot of conversations going on in my head. Do yourself a favor and be real with your thoughts. Challenge them. Don’t let your mind take you on the runaway train. Play devil’s advocate with yourself. Keep learning about your own mind. Find out what you love and what makes you happy.
Trust me, I’m still doing all of this. It’s a work in progress. (Today I found myself content looking for happy faces on rocks while my kids ran around the yard with the puppy. Seriously, sometimes it’s that simple.)
Keep learning. Dig into your mind.
We now know that it takes a little extra effort for our brain to remember the positive experiences. If something great happens, think about it. Think about it often. Replay these scenarios until they are as deeply entrenched as some of the tough stuff you had been playing on repeat.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll encourage my daughter to write something nice about me to balance out that journal of hers.
Now that I think of it, maybe tomorrow I’ll have to add a few entries into my own journal.