We all do it – focus on the negative.
Because of the brain’s negativity bias, we tend to fixate on what’s wrong with ourselves, with others and situations, and not what’s right or what has gone well. There is an inner critic inside each of us chattering away, looking for faults and highlighting them, crowding out the good stuff.
That chatter can sometimes get so loud we can’t hear or see the things we do well anymore. And it is a habit that saps our energy and kills our confidence.
It is called rumination, overthinking even – and research has proven women do it more than men. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema in her book Women Who Think Too Much describes this as “morbid meditations… getting caught in a torrent of negative thoughts and emotions”.
Research also tells us that women are more inclined to turn things inward, blaming ourselves and thinking everything is our fault; whatever went wrong was all down to us. As we stew over stuff we can feed our fears, working away at our worries into a spiral of negativity, letting the negative stuff about our work stick and not slide off.
Men are better at moving on and not taking it all so personally.
In short: Women tend to be more Velcro, men are better at being Teflon!
What’s the Problem with Velcro?
Well we need to make sure we are worrying about the right things because going over and over and taking responsibility for things that you can’t control is carrying an unhelpful burden that just slows you down.
Constant rumination is a handbrake on our careers because it knocks our confidence and wastes the time and focus we need to be putting into moving forward.
Ruminating also makes us feel negative about our future possibilities and how we can impact as a leader. It means we look at things through a distorted lens, often blinded to new ways of moving forward whilst we just use up the energy we need to get there.
And frankly beating yourself up is not good for your health. It is a form of self-torture AND it is a habit we need to, and can, learn to break.
It’s not about avoiding negative emotions
This is not about avoiding our negative emotions, nor does it mean that all our worries are about the daft, niggly stuff like, “Do I look fat in this?”, “Will they like me?” We also sweat the big stuff. A lot. “Am I a good enough wife/mother?”, “Am I letting my boss or my team down?” “I guess I was lucky to get that raise, will I ever be good enough for another one?” “I handled that meeting badly; I wonder if that client is going to drop us” …. And so on and so on….
This combination of big and small worries can snowball and quickly become completely draining.
Because of our negativity bias, the brain focuses on what’s wrong, so we have to adjust how we see things consciously. We need to actively stop adding fuel to the fire, rummaging around in our handbags, seeking out examples of things we’ve done wrong and instead remind ourselves regularly of what we do well and our achievements.
We need to learn to turn off our negative chatter, remember it is not all down to you. So next time you’re in a meeting, and hear your self-talk nattering away, wondering if you sounded stupid when you said that, or if someone was offended, or if your presentation was the worst they’ve ever seen, say “Stop!” to yourself.
You are not responsible for other people’s reactions and concerns so liberate yourself from all that self-flagellation. How you ask? Try asking yourself next time you hear “should”, think, “SAY’S WHO?!”
When you start revving up your rumination get out your calendar and diarise your worry for another time. Save all your upcoming worries into that time block e.g. Wednesday 3.30pm. By the time you get to Wednesday at 3.30 you’ll probably find you can free up that time as many of the sources of worry will have moved on or no longer be relevant anyway.
Change the channel
Our brains build new pathways based on what we pay attention to – “neurons that fire together, wire together”. So as in all of our thinking habits that do not serve us well, we need to learn to consciously change the channel. As Rick Hanson in his book, Just One Thing says, get your inner protector to come to the party instead, that’s the voice that reminds you of what you’ve done well, what was simply an unskilled mistake that you will be better at next time.
Move on and let it go. Be on your side, not on your case. Go Teflon, not Velcro.
Sally Helgeson has a great chapter on Ruminating in her book How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back, where she states rumination keeps even brilliant and talented women stuck. Listen to my interview with Sally on my podcast.
About the author
Penny deValk is an expert on women’s leadership development and runs her own coaching and mentoring consultancy to help women achieve their leadership potential. She is an experienced Chief Executive and Non-Executive Director and has led the transformation of numerous leadership development and talent businesses over the last 20 years.
Check out https://pennydevalk.com/ for Penny’s latest blogs, podcasts, events, and resources, and to find out more about her coaching programmes.