Want to Be More Optimistic? Learn to Over-Ride the Glowworm

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By Debby Spitzer

When I give a presentation, I try to hand out feedback forms at the end in order to learn, improve and be able to tailor my presentation to what my clients want. Here is the thing: even though I have presented to many 100’s of people in my career and get 99% glowing feedback, when I get 1 mediocre form, where does my brain go? Yup, the one negative one.

Why do we latch onto the negative? The short answer, it’s because we’re human.

We don’t decide to feel angry and hurt when someone criticizes us, just like we don’t decide to jump when someone sneaks up behind us and yells “Boo!” It just happens. Our brains generate these responses to help protect us from harm. In the Resilient Mindset Model, we learn that it is the glowworm switching the brain to “grasshopper mode” so that we can fight, flight, or freeze. The grasshopper lives in the limbic system, which is our emotional center, and we are hard wired to favor negative emotions because they are the ones that tend to be associated with protecting us from threats.

Even our language leans towards the negative. Robert W. Schrauf, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Penn State, asked people in Chicago and Mexico City to spontaneously list the names of as many emotions as they could. These words were then classified as negative, positive or neutral. They discovered that people, regardless of culture or age, know significantly more words to describe negative emotions than words to describe positive or neutral ones. In fact, 50 percent of the words given were negative, 30 percent positive and 20 percent were neutral. This suggests that no matter our culture or age, we are predisposed to think negatively. The study also suggested that we are more likely to dwell on negative emotions, so we spend more time thinking negative thoughts. The reason is that positive emotions tell us that everything is ok, so there is less reason to think about them.

Because negative emotions told us that something was wrong and we spent more time and energy on them, cultures invented more negative words. It helped us survive. Just knowing this can help us be more positive. The world we live in today is a lot safer than the one our ancestors lived in; we don’t have sabretooth tigers coming after us.

The good news is, we can change our brains. We can focus on feelings like happiness and joy which are essential for our existence. We may not be able to stop the negative emotions, but we can control how we react to them. In the model, the grasshopper represents mindfulness—or the ability to override that glowworm. The more we practice mindfulness the more control we have over that override. We may not always be able to stop ourselves from going into or grasshopper mode, but we can begin to do it sometimes and then, once we get out of that mode, we can use the four S’s to learn from that challenge.

The key is knowledge. Understanding the brain science is the first step toward being able respond to challenges mindfully and to build resilience. Going back to my example, I may not be able to control my reaction to a negative review, but I know words won’t kill me, and I can control what I think and what I say. Now, I choose to focus on the positive reviews, consider any suggestions a negative reviewer gives me, and move on.

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