Ask yourself “what went right?”

As humans we are hardwired to focus more on the negative than the positive. This can present as overthinking past conversations, being critical of your previous actions, and focusing on all the awkward moments and ways you felt things went wrong.

Because focusing on the negative may come more naturally you may need to help your brain notice the positive.

What is positive and negative?

In order to be able to have a greater awareness of the positive that surrounds you it can be helpful to first revisit how each term defined.

When you think of positive you may think “good” and for negative you may think “bad”. We learn these oversimplified definitions from a young age and are often the first things we teach a new pet. By breaking things down into these broad categories it can make it easier to dictate how we and others interact with the world around us.

But while broad definitions can help by creating a foundation, building off of that foundation by providing more nuance can help you think critically about your thoughts and where they fit on the spectrum of positive to negative.

For positive or good, think of these as things that are desirable, beneficial, or pleasant outcomes. For negative or bad, think of these as undesirable, harmful, or unpleasant.

Your brain is hardwire to focus on the negative

As humans we focus more on the negative than the positive as our brains see negative information as more useful to us than positive. Research has shown that “adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.” Our brains take more time to ruminate and think through negative news, events, and interactions.

Thought Experiment

Think about a time when you received positive feedback or news.

Maybe you received positive feedback on work you did or art you created. Maybe someone told you they appreciated your contribution or help.

How did it make you feel? What thoughts went through your head? How long did you think about it?

Think about a time when you received negative feedback or news.

Maybe you received negative feedback on work you did or art you created. Maybe someone told you that that felt you could have contributed or helped out more.

How did it make you feel? What thoughts went through your head? How long did you think about it?

Think about how much time you took to think about the negative compared to the positive.

Positive and negative are subjective

It’s important to be aware that what fits into the category of positive and what fits into the category of negative may be seen differently by each individual person. A situation you remember negatively, such as feeling that a conversation didn’t flow well, may be seen as positive or neutral to someone else.

You may spend hours thinking through everything you said in a conversation but the other person may not have thought about it beyond the end of the conversation. Our view of situations will not be the same as everyone else.

Equally as important is that some things will either not fit neatly into one category or the other, or may simply be neutral. Our brain wants to make sense of the information it stores and wants to easily fit things into discrete categories but in reality that’s not always how things work.

The goal is not to see everything as negative or positive, but instead to find ways to see the positive and not always focus on the negative.

You can learn from the positive as well as the neagtive

While our brains may want to focus on the negative because it feels that it most beneficial to us, there is a lot that positive experiences can teach us as well. Experiences we perceive as negative can help us figure out how to handle situations that don’t go right, but experiences we perceive as positive can help remind us of how things can go right.

If you are an overthinker your brain may always want to be planning how to handle situations and what to do if things don’t go as planned. What we do is spend our time thinking all the ways that things could go wrong causing stress, anxiety, and fear.

When we spend time focusing on the positive and asking ourselves “what went right?” we can be reminded of all the ways we are equipped to not just get through situations but handle them.

As you start to think about the things that went right you can begin learning how to trust yourself. You will see that more things go right than you probably even realized because you are so focused on what you perceived did not go right. You will also see that when things didn’t go as expected you were able to adapt and move forward.

The goal is not to ignore the negative

The goal of asking “what went right?” is not to focus solely on the positive but to create a more equal balance between the focus on the negative and the focus on the positive. If you were to shift your thinking to only focus on the positive and what went right it would be just as bad as only focusing on the negative. Things will still go wrong and we will still hear bad news and it is important to take the time to work through those situations.

Because our brains will want to latch onto the negative, asking yourself “what went right?” can be a helpful prompt to get yourself thinking about all the positives so they are not overshadowed by the negatives.

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