Reflex Negativity: A Slippery Slope
What happens immediately after you drop something? What are the first words that come out of your mouth? Do they help you or hurt you?
Reflexes are immediate responses that are so quick they bypass the processing centers in your brain. As a physician, I would test my patients’ peripheral nerve reflexes often—you’ve probably experienced that knee-jerk test yourself, when your physician taps your kneecap with a little rubber hammer.
These tests are useful in showing the function of the brain and other elements of your nervous system, precisely because you can’t control them. Your cognitive override (overthinking brain) is sidelined for a moment, and we get to see the raw state of your underlying neurological health.
Perhaps examining our emotional reflexes would be helpful, too.
If you’re anything like me, the first word that comes out of your mouth after you drop something is too profane to print here. But that’s not the word I’m really interested in…it’s the words that follow the expletive that shed light on your fundamental wiring.
Again, if you’re anything like me, the next words tend to be highly personal and highly critical—something like, “I’m so stupid” or “I’m such a clumsy idiot!”
Here is what I learn from this response:
First, it signals a default state of mind that is negative, even self-critical.
Second, and more worrying by far, is that this deep reflex is self-perpetuating. You see, we actually believe what we’re telling ourselves. The intensely negative reflex statement, which may seem more like a release of pressure than an impactful message, goes back into our brains at both the cognitive and the emotional levels and breeds more negativity and self-criticism. We get trapped in an ever-intensifying and destructive feedback loop.
This danger is exacerbated by three characteristics of the reflex statement. First, it’s very personal. There is no doubt that we single ourselves out as the single miserable, defective culprit. Second, the statement is pervasive. It implies that we are stupid or clumsy across every domain of our lives. Third, the accusation is permanent. We don’t limit the insult to the current moment in time. We simply say “I’m stupid,” which means that that we’re always stupid.
Of course, you know that I don’t really mean all those bad things about myself. I wouldn’t have had successful careers as a doctor and now as a neuroscience-based coach to top CEOs if I was stupid. But the words are absorbed that way by our very receptive brains whether we like it or not. That reflex statement is a damning message of personal, pervasive, and permanent fault.
So how do we escape this reflex negativity and its resultant longer-term pessimism? The good news is that this is possible. Pioneers of optimism and positive psychology, like Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, have demonstrated the power of positive interventions.
Seligman proposes three ways of managing negative responses to bad events:
- Disputation. Argue with yourself. In my example, I clearly don’t believe that I’m stupid, so strike that word and replace it with something more accurate and less damning. Find examples that refute what you’ve said in your self-abusive statement. You have to point out that the statement is simply not true.
- Distraction. This is particularly helpful over the longer term. If you are brooding over a bad work situation or personal life crisis, you may find yourself repeatedly saying things like “I’m useless” or “Nobody likes me.” These are deeply rooted, emotionally loaded explanations, which are also personal, pervasive, and permanent. If your disputation is not working, then call a time-out. Distract yourself with something else (action is a great distraction). It may be helpful to agree to address the underlying issue later in the week, giving yourself time to arrive at a more balanced perspective and perhaps come up with a couple of good arguments against your current undermining explanation.
- Distance. I love this one, and it’s subtly different from distraction. The best description of this technique is a beautiful question that Seligman uses with his pessimistic clients. He asks them, “What would you say if a disheveled drunk in the street said the same thing to you?” I can picture this dirty, drunk person looking at me through bloodshot eyes, yelling “You’re stupid!” It would take me no more than half a second before I had a long list of arguments disputing their preposterous statement. Or, even better, I would simply ignore them.
I hope that this little snapshot helps you to think about the way you react to adversity and, in particular, the words that you use to explain the seemingly bad events that we all experience every day. It has a real impact on your health and happiness, and you can improve it with practice. Invest some time in scrutinizing your explanations and expletives. Identify when you are being inappropriately and reflexively personal, pervasive, and permanent in your negativity and self-criticism. Challenge yourself, distract yourself, and, if necessary, get dirty and distance yourself.
Which brings me back to your reflex negativity. Next time you drop the glass jar as you take it out of the refrigerator, listen to your words. They will tell you how you’re doing on your road to happiness and success.
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced a personal health and happiness awakening. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of stress, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create profound (and often hidden) distress, and prevent us from reaching our innate potential.
Today, Roddy is an executive coach and author dedicated to helping others unlock their full potential throughout their lives by applying compassionate neuroscience and sharing his unique approach to Personal Mastery™.