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It never fails: I’ll be going along having a nice day, feeling pretty decent about myself when out of the blue—boom!
Someone sends me a terse text and I debate my entire worth as a human being. Or a colleague questions a clinical note I’ve made and I’m certain that I’m the worst therapist in the world. Or my son barely grunts out “hello” on Mother’s Day and I wonder why he hates me. I mean, I’m an okay mom, right?
That may be, but I’m also the master of internalizing negativity, or rather, perceived negativity, because that terse text was probably just the other person being in a hurry, and my colleague was likely just trying to be helpful, and my son is 15, so what did I really expect?
Why do I do this to myself? Why does anybody? It’s like the compliments we get are barely audible, but criticisms sound like that obnoxious guy’s radio at the beach when he blasts “The Macarena” on repeat and it echoes off the sand dunes directly into your brain.
Dr. Phil says, “It takes 1,000 atta boys to erase one ‘you’re an idiot.'” While I am loathe to quote a doctor who is known simply by his first name and wears pancake makeup atop his rather enormous dome, the man does have a point.
Most of us can get compliments until we’re blue in the face, but if we’re slapped with a criticism, it takes us out—at least for a minute while we fight to get back into our big girl pants (which always seem a size too small) and maybe pour ourselves a glass of wine. The truth is that getting hyper focused on negativity is typical to most healthy, normal human beings, and believe it or not, we do it for a reason.
Our ancestors, those clever cave-dwelling kids, had one basic goal: to stay alive. Everything they did served that end in one way or another, and as such, they developed a keen sense of things that might potentially be life threatening. These things were more noteworthy than things that were not. The story of surviving a lunatic bear attack, for example, would have a lot more traction around the campfire than the story of a day on which folks ate a bunch of berries and children tossed rocks around down by the river.
When we perceive we are being criticized, judged, or otherwise threatened or challenged, our lizard brains react in a similar way as they would to actual danger, thanks to the ancient programming we inherited. We focus immediately on the threat, our nervous system leaps into action, and we begin trying to figure out ways to “defend” ourselves. Of course, we defend ourselves differently against a sulky teenage boy than we would against a pissed off bear, but the chain of events is motivated by the same thing—something feels bad and scary, we think we are in danger, and we have to pay attention to this or we will get hurt.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I always find it satisfying to connect what seems like a dysfunctional human behavior to an evolutionary adaptation. Why? Because that means stupidity isn’t the problem—we just need to continue to evolve.
Fortunately, there are ways to short circuit what is essentially a fight-or-flight response. The following ideas can be used individually or together, and in any order you like. Personally, the more triggered I am, the more tools I tend to apply, but you might find one that works across the board. I think it’s smart to try them all out, see what sticks, and then practice what feels best so it becomes automatic.
Here are eight ways to reset our lizard brain:
1. Tune into your body and feel where the negativity is manifesting. Common places are the belly, the head, and the heart. Take a few breaths and pay attention to whether the afflicted spot feels tight, achy, heavy, or something else. Place your hands gently where you hurt. Imagine your palms heating up and radiating warmth into your body. Continue to breathe in and out and gently relax your muscles under your hands as you focus on their warmth and healing power.
2. Challenge the idea. Instead of assuming you have all the facts about whatever has upset you, assume you don’t. Wonder to yourself, did I misinterpret something? Was I just on the receiving end of someone else’s bad day? Has someone made a valid observation that I need to consider? Explore how each of these alternate interpretations changes how you feel about what happened. Even if you end up believing your first reaction was the right one, the act of rationally walking through different scenarios will settle you down.
3. Assess the actual danger of whatever has transpired. We get worked up about criticism because we feel threatened, but if we take a moment to assess the true level of the threat, we usually realize it’s not as dangerous as it feels. My son being rude to me on Mother’s Day? It feels yucky, sure, but my fears about him not loving me or me being a bad mom are an overreaction. What happened wasn’t dangerous—just annoying.
4. Pay attention to your method of self-talk. We can choose to value our own opinion as much or more than anyone else’s. If you’re feeling beaten down or insecure because of something someone said or did, remind yourself of your strengths, your goodness, and other stuff that you feel great about. Go crazy. No one is going to hear you because it will all be happening in the sacred space between your ears. Give your own voice the same weight and power you give others.
5. Allow yourself X amount of time to obsess about what happened—then move on. I had a client once who had lost her daughter to suicide. The only way she could survive was to allow herself to cry for 15 minutes each morning, and then force herself to stop and get about her day. I love this strategy because it acknowledges our pain without overindulging it. It allows us to both feel our feelingsand try to move beyond them and create new experiences that will ultimately help heal our wound.
6. Write it down and burn it up. The symbolic act of taking something that is inside us, pulling it out by writing it down, and then destroying it by burning it, is a tried and true way to shift our focus from being a victim to taking action.
7. Be social and engage with others. One of the fastest ways to shut down fight-or-flight responses is to interact with another human. It is impossible for our nervous systems to remain deregulated when we are engaged in a conversation with someone else. The irony is that when we do feel triggered, we tend to isolate ourselves—but if we challenge ourselves to reach out, our lizard brain automatically knows that a) it’s got some backup now, so the situation is more manageable, and b) things can’t be all that dire if we’re having a chat.
8. Move. There is nothing like a brisk walk or run around the block to loosen things up and get us out of our own heads. Again, we often resist doing it because, like interacting with another person, it tends to take us away from our obsessive thinking. That feels scary because we imagine we still need to solve a problem and protect ourselves from danger. But often there is no real problem to solve, beyond the problem of our own fear, and if there is, talking it out or getting moving both help us think more creatively.
There are pros and cons to our oversensitivity being an evolutionary trait. The con? Evolution is a notoriously slow-moving process. This means that plenty of outdated features of our bodies and our minds can persist far beyond their usefulness. If you look at any modern human skeleton, you’ll see that we still have a tail. (We call it a coccyx, but it’s a tail!)
So it may take a long time to make psychological changes in ourselves, and that can be frustrating. But evolution is also endlessly suggestible, meaning we can influence its course—and that’s most certainly a pro. It’s not easy to do this, and we can’t do it with any trait we choose, but when it comes to reactive emotional behavior, it’s possible. And with the proper knowledge and discipline, we can try.
Using the tools outlined here is a great place to start, so why not give it a shot? After all, if we always think we’re fighting bears when we’re only arguing with little boys, we’ll never have the outcome that serves us best.