Human beings are hardwired to be aware of and avoid danger, which means we are often scanning the world for negativity. To make life even more challenging, research shows that negativity is more contagious than positive perspectives. In our brains, there are two different systems for negative and positive stimuli. The amygdala uses approximately two thirds of its neurons to detect negative experiences and once the brain starts looking for bad news, it is stored into long-term memory quickly. We have to hold positive experiences in our awareness longer in order to transfer them from short-term to long-term memory. Rick Hanson describes it in this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
Unfortunately, too much negativity will erode our resilience and since negativity is contagious, it can have a corrosive impact on relationships and group cohesion. We need to make a conscious effort to counter negative thoughts and focus instead on the positive.
Reframing helps us shift from the negative into a more positive approach. Every thought we have has a hidden “frame” behind it, which can include our underlying beliefs and assumptions. Challenging our beliefs and assumptions by trying out different “frames” will help us think differently.
For example, if I find out that I did not receive a job I really wanted, my initial frame may be that I am not good enough and my work is undervalued. By stepping away from that perspective and looking at the issue through a different frame, I can view this news differently: my work is excellent, the selected candidate was just a better fit. A long-term view may remind me that I’ve not always gotten the jobs I wanted and have been very happy with the jobs I eventually received.
A reframe needs to be felt and be genuine, otherwise our brain will stay stuck in the old frame. Also, resist the temptation to reframe for others. When someone else reframes for us, it can feel dismissive or communicate a lack of empathy. Instead, ask questions that prompt the other person to do his own reframing. For example, if a colleague is complaining about his job, ask a question such as “what do you like about your job?”
What has helped you reframe negative thoughts?
This blog does not represent official policies of the Department of State or those of the U.S. Government.