The other day a friend reminded me of that scene in the movie Pretty Woman when Vivian and Edward are lying in bed and Edward says to Vivian “I think you are a very bright special woman,” and she responds “the bad stuff is easier to believe, you ever notice that?”
You may already know, I spent an alarming number of years trying to prove to the world my intelligence. I read things like Foreign Policy Journal, learned how to speak Japanese, figured out computer programming, got a Masters degree and even considered a career in policy analysis.
Despite the awards, the compliments, the looks of bewildered surprise (my favorite), all of which would satisfy me momentarily, I still doubted myself.
For years, I couldn’t pinpoint how I came to the conclusion I was such a dummie… I understand now thanks to dream work but that’s a different blog post.
But as the saying goes, it doesn’t matter where the belief comes from, it just matters where it takes you.
It’s not only me and Vivian who believe the bad stuff. Psychologists call it negativity bias. It’s our tendency give more weight to the negative and less weight to the positive. Wikipedia says, for example, that “when given a piece of positive information and a piece of negative information about a stranger, people’s judgment of the stranger will be negative, rather than neutral.”
I think we do this to ourselves as well. If you hear three compliments and a criticism today, which do you think you’ll remember?
The problem is that many of us tend to walk around unknowingly guided by the illogical beliefs that we picked up as little kids when we didn’t have the tools and support to process the hard things that happened to us.
It’s not logical to believe the bad stuff over the good, but that wounded part of us thinks that believing the bad stuff will somehow keep us safe from experiencing these hard things again.
And then these beliefs shape our lives. Sometimes we give up like Vivian did and resign ourselves to a life of prostitution.
Other times, we decide to go with the opposite strategy like I did and fight like hell to prove the thing we want everyone to believe about us so that we might eventually be able to believe these things about ourselves and then we go around feeling like one big IMPOSTER.
A couple of examples of how negativity bias can show up…
I know an incredibly charming, funny, and charismatic person who has adopted the belief that she is fundamentally unlovable, that basically something is really, really wrong with her. Because she believes this crappy story, she finds herself in one toxic relationship after another (because she doesn’t think she can get any better).
I know another person who just cannot bring herself to believe she’s attractive, despite all evidence to the contrary (trust me she’s a fox). She spends much of her time obsessed with the next best diet, a great deal of money on the latest and greatest beauty product and is spending buckets on plastic surgery, all because, we came to discover, some kid on the playground years ago told her she was ugly.
One way to figure out if negativity bias is mucking up your life is to ask yourself “what am I trying to prove?”
I know, for example, when I’m feeling the need to prove myself, it’s usually because there’s a wounded little girl inside my head whispering, “Amy, you’re not worthy, you’re not smart enough, you’ll never be able to do it” or something along these lines, all because she thinks she’s keeping me “safe.”
So what’s the fix? It wasn’t until I was able to uncover the negative belief and show compassion to the part of me that has continued to attach to the negative belief that I was finally able to shift.
These days I’m a much happier person, free from the compulsion to prove my intelligence. Ironically, although I managed to churn out some pretty good grades in grad school, I was pretty mediocre at the things I did to prove my intelligence, which just served to back up the crappy belief that I wasn’t smart enough. Now that I have changed my self perception, I get to do what I want and I’ve discovered that when I believe the good stuff about myself, I am the amazing person I always wanted to be. Funny how that works.
Negativity bias turning up in your life? Tell us!