How Negativity Bias Hurts Women

I see how negativity bias hurts women nearly every day. Even so, I found myself ingoring the good and focused on the bad yet again.

For the past 5 years, my daughters and I tried out different plants on our balcony. Most of our 15 containers are filled with annuals, either grown from seeds or bulbs we purchase in late winter. Each year, we test out one or two new perennials, hoping they will survive cold and windy winters on our terrace. Most of them don’t.

Recent example of my own negativity bias:
Focusing on 1 dead plant while neglecting to admire 14 thriving ones.

Only one plant survived more than 2 seasons: phlox. When first purchased in 2015, it was a short and grassy plant that did not bloom. Over the winter, its leaves became thorny and turned brown then grey.

Then, in the spring of 2016, green leaves appeared. One day it surprised us with pretty pink flowers. The next year it bore more pink flowers, and even more the following season.

This year, however, green leaves didn’t appear. It remained grey. Everytime I watered our garden, I grew sad missing those small blooms.

It was only yesterday, months into our gardening season, that I finally realized there was only one empty container in our garden: the dead phlox. The other 14 other pots were full of vegetables, herbs, flowers and plants. They were all thriving. My mourning over the phlox overshadowed any joy from the basil, bok choy, cherry tomatoes, zinnias, dahlias, marigolds, and elephant ears. Moreover, it made me overlook the fact two perennials from last year survived the winter: the Pink Moon Allium has buds about to bloom and the Clematis Multi-Blue was climbing the rails showing off gorgeous flowers in my favorite shade of purple.

A classic example of negativity bias…

  • I couldn’t see what was going well.
  • The negative disproportionately overshadowed the positive.

Why we fall prey to negative bias

This sort of thinking is natural. Our brains are hardwired to be on the lookout for bad things. Negativity bias helped our ancestors survive in the wild. But, in modern life, we don’t need to be on constant lookout for life-threatening dangers. We, therefore, need to retrain our brains and actively seek the good in our lives. (For great ideas on how to do this, check out Dr. Rick Hanson’s blog post, “Take in the Good.”)

The talented women I coach get it right 98 percent of the time. Yet it’s the remaining 2 percent (or sometimes even just the .02 percent) that drives them crazy. Not only does it become the source of stress, guilt and unhappiness. But, it stagnates them. Some specific examples:

  • A client told me she has “no work experience.” But when I saw her resume, her experience was actually quite varied and impressive. When I asked her why she downplays her unique career path, she said, “I never worked for a top firm.”
  • Many clients deem they are “overwhelmed and disorganized.” Yet when I ask them to describe their personal methods of organizing, they already have really great systems that need only minor updates or tweaks.
  • Clients will often say with frustration, “I got nothing done today.” But when we reflect together on the specifics, we see they actually accomplished a lot. It’s just that the task was not something we had planned (e.g., take the car to the garage).

Most smart and caring women, motivated to do better, assume that they need an overhaul to make a fix. Perfectionists like complete make-overs. But, such big projects are daunting — so it’s easier to do give up and stay stuck.

Why focus on what’s going right?

Meanwhile, when we focus on growing what’s going right, the solutions are far more expansive, energizing and creative than merely fixing what’s wrong. To continue with the examples above:

  • Once the self-labeled inexperienced client recognized the value of her diverse, less conventional career path, we developed stories and examples she could share in interviews to demonstrate her skills and accomplishments in a way that made her stand out from other, more conventional candidates. As a result, her confidence, enthusiasm, and hard work helped her land her dream job.
  • When I help clients more carefully review what they specifically already like about their personal organizational systems, we are able to duplicate those features to make the system work better. For example, a client who loves writing in journals realized an electronic organizer was not working for her. Another client, who enjoys doodling on large blank pages, realized her small notebook was too confining. A third client, who loves to make lists, simply needed to find ways to put all of them in one place and make them more easily accessible. (Get more ideas in my Time Management for Real Women section.)
  • I tell clients whose days are frequently interrupted by children, clients, phone calls, emergencies, and so on to keep a “got-done” list next to their “to-do” one. Giving themselves credit for the unplanned tasks they accomplish not only lifts their mood but helps them to better cope with interruptions when they occur.

So the next time you find you’re irritated by or struggling with something, try to focus on what’s going right. It isn’t always easy to see. So, try talking it out with someone more objective but watching out for you. If you need help, let’s talk.

Meanwhile, my daughters and I are now happily trying to decide what to plant in that empty pot.