I was looking through a box of old photographs and found a picture of myself taken when I was in college. A friend interested in photography wanted to practice and had taken and developed this picture and several others. I remember distinctly how disappointed I was when I saw the result of his work. Disappointed is too mild a word. I hated it. I thought my hair was stringy and flat, my lips were too big—I just didn’t fit the image of beauty I had in my head. I dumped all the photos in a box and basically forgot about them.
Seeing that photo recently almost took my breath away. The young woman staring back at me was beautiful. She had full lips and fresh skin with a sprinkling of freckles and clear, open eyes. She looked knowledgeable and innocent—so alive, with her life stretched out before her.
Looking at this picture, I felt sad for that vibrant young woman who couldn’t see how beautiful and gifted she was. Yet isn’t that so often the way? We pay so much attention to what’s wrong, we fail to see what’s right. You get one bad grade and it erases all the good marks. You get one bad evaluation and suddenly that’s all you can focus on. One bad thing happens during the day and suddenly it seems like everything is going wrong.
There’s actually a physiological reason for this. Our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative. Rick Hanson (http://www.rickhanson.net/ ) says negative thoughts are like Velcro and positive thoughts are like Teflon—the negative gets our attention and stays in our minds much longer.
Why does this happen? According to Hanson, our brains are constantly scanning our environment for threats and for things that attract us. For early man, attractors were food, shelter or potential mates and threats were animals and others things that could kill. But threats were stronger than attractors. Look at it this way. If a bush was shaking and early man couldn’t see what was behind it, there was the potential for a threat (a large, man-eating animal looking for lunch) or an attractor (a game animal or friendly human). If you made a mistake and passed up food or a mate, you lived to try again. If you made a mistake and it was the hungry beast, you didn’t contribute to the gene pool. So we learned to focus on threats first.
That worked great when our very survival was challenged every day. But the challenges are different now. We know from many researchers that positive emotions make us more creative and more open to new ideas—characteristics we need to respond to today’s constantly changing environment. Hanson says it takes six positive thoughts to equal the strength of one negative thought. That’s why it behooves us to focus on the positive, to see what’s right with our performance, with our bodies, with ourselves. If we aren’t intentional about this, we will miss our beauty, our gifts, and our potential contributions to the world. And that truly is a shame.
Plum Cluverius, PCC is an executive coach with over 30 years experience in leadership development. She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.