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 that they bypass the processing centers in your brain. As a physician, I would test my patient’s reflexes often. They’re very useful in showing the function of the brain and peripheral nervous system. They’re useful precisely because you can’t control them. Your cognitive over-ride is removed, and we get to see the raw state of your underlying neurological health.

Perhaps emotional reflexes are helpful too?

If you’re anything like me, the first word that comes out of your mouth is “&#@$$%#” (unprintable)! That’s not the word I’m really interested in, although perhaps I should clean up a bit here too. It’s the words that follow immediately after that are telling.

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 (speaking to myself), “You clumsy fool”.

Perhaps you’re very different to me and say, “oh dear, you’re usually such a careful person, and there must have been something slippery on the outside of this glass, and I can clean up the broken pieces very quickly, so no problem, it will only take a few minutes and then I can get on with my day”. If this is you, I want to meet you and learn from you.

Here’s the problem with the first response.

First, it signals the default state of mind of the owner (mea culpa). It is negative. I’ll expand on this some more. The second problem, and the one I worry about most, is that it is self-perpetuating. You see, we actually believe what we’re hearing. 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 emotional levels, and breeds more negativity!

Here’s why the response is so dangerous. First, it’s very personal. There is no doubt that we single ourselves out as the miserable, defective culprit in the sordid event! There is no escaping this. Second, the statement is pervasive. These succinct statements imply that we are stupid, or clumsy, across every domain of our lives. Thirdly, the accusation is permanent. We don’t limit the insult to the current moment in time. “I’m stupid” means that I am always stupid.

Of course, as you read this article, you know that I don’t really mean all these bad things about myself, but the words are absorbed by our very receptive brain, whether we like it or not. It is a damning message of personal, pervasive and permanent fault.

So how do we escape this reflex negativity, and even the longer-term pessimism? The good news is that this is possible, even probable, if you follow the advice below. 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. Actually, he calls this a pessimistic explanatory style, because your utterance is really explaining to yourself and the world what just happened. When your explanation is personal, pervasive and permanent, you actually believe your explanation, which has negative consequences.

Here are the three tips:

  1. 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.
  1. 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 supported, 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 contract with yourself to address the underlying issue later in the week, giving you time to arrive at a more balanced perspective, and perhaps come up with a couple of good arguments against your current explanation.
  1. 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 the question, “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, saying “You’re stupid!” It would take me no more than half a second before I had along list of arguments disputing their preposterous statement.

I hope that this little snapshot helps you to think about the way you react to adversity; in particular, the words that you use to explain the bad event. It has real impact on your health and happiness, and you can improve it with practice. I hope that you will invest some time into scrutinizing your explanations and expletives. Identify when you are being inappropriately personal, pervasive and permanent. 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.

Have fun,

Roddy

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