As you’re reading this, humanity is in the midst of a major health pandemic; we’re faced with a disease that is not only affecting each one of us individually, but also society as a whole! While it may not be fatal in a literal sense, it is severely crippling, even more so as most of us are not even aware of it’s existence. A few brave ones, who managed to diagnose this disease, are trying their best to fight it, but the rest of us are agnostic to this threat.

Humanity in the captivity of negativity

You may already know what I’m talking about. This most crippling form of illness is referred to as Repetitive Negative Thinking (RNT) or also commonly known as the “Captivity of Negativity”. Have you ever watched the series Prison Break? If you have, you will remember Theodore Bagwell (T-Bag), the villain, who coined this phrase. It describes repetitive, uncontrollable, and negative thinking with features of repetitive, intrusive, difficult to disengage, perceived as unproductive, and capturing mental capacity in which you feel worthless and are falling down a never-ending gravitational spiral of negativity and in the worst case you fall into depression. By nature the term negativity also covers feelings such as anger, fear, worry, anxiety and much more.

But why should you believe ME? Why should you take this bitter pill of awareness, when you could just live a “normal” life?

…thoughts that spontaneously occur to humans are mostly (up to 70%) negative…(Raj Raghunathan)

Let’s look at the first question, what proof do I have that what I’m saying is true? A recent article in “Psychology Today” points out that you have as many as 25,000 to 50,000 thoughts each day, and the nature of those thoughts will eventually make up your outlook on life. If your thoughts are mostly negative, you could feel depressed or cynical. Another article in “Psychology Today” claims that the thoughts that spontaneously occur to humans are mostly (up to 70%) negative, a phenomenon that they refer to as negativity dominance. Sugiura et al. even go a step further and have shown a direct correlation between repetitive negative thinking with depression, generalized anxiety, obsessions and compulsions, and social anxiety.

…a negative correlation exists between refraining from catastrophic thinking and psychological illnesses…(Sugiura et al.)

Now let’s have a look at the second question of why you should care, rather than being ignorant of it. This may be obvious to some, but others may need to be convinced first. The same authors mentioned above (Sugiura et al.) have found a negative correlation between refraining from catastrophic thinking and psychological illnesses, including depression. In other words, the more you refrain from negative thoughts, the less likely you are to end up with many psychological disease. And why would you not want to have a positive outlook on life – a healthy life? After all, as described above, negativity is but leading to disease.

If you’ve come this far and are still reading, I guess you agree that we all have a problem. But just how do we get caught in this spiral of negativity? How do we think and behave once imprisoned by it and more importantly, how do we get out.

How we end up in the captivity of negativity

Negativity is cannibalistic. The more you feed it, the bigger and stronger it grows. (Bobby Darnell)

While the fact that negativity is all around us is old news, it might surprise you how quickly one can end up in this captivity of negativity. A single negative thought or comment from others, even as simple as someone asking you why you’re always late (despite it not being fact-based), is enough to get the process started, which then leads to more negative thoughts (towards yourself or others) – it is a vicious cycle that grows and takes over everything you think or do thereafter. In a sense negativity is cannibalistic – the more you feed it, the bigger and stronger it grows.

If – for the sake of an analogy – we were to consider a negative thought as being a virus, then negativity would be the fastest spreading disease ever seen. Just like a virus, a negative thought is not visible to the naked eye and when you least expect it, it will get into you to spread lightning fast until it “possesses” you. Everything you do, hear, say, see or sense afterwards would be under the influence of this “evil” virus growing within you.

Consider this fictitious example: you’re attending a meeting with senior management where you have to defend your project. You and your team have spent countless hours preparing for this major event and have thought through all the possible and impossible questions that may come up. You feel well prepared, but you’re tensed as you also know that you can never be 100% ready for all eventualities. And then it happens, the one question which nobody anticipated is asked. You know that you have all the material in your mind that is required to answer the question, but the question caught you off guard. You start to frantically search through your wealth of knowledge carefully embedded into your memory over the last weeks – but fail to pull out the necessary information. Nevertheless, due to your excellent communication skills you manage to assert the board that the project should continue to be fully funded. The team is happy as can be and ready to organize the biggest party since human existence. But somewhere deep inside you sense a feeling of failure.

How we feel and behave once negativity is part of us

Negativity will make you blind towards all the positive things around you, without you even noticing it!

Right after the meeting, the answer you couldn’t come up with is as obvious to you as your first name. You’re annoyed by the fact that you couldn’t provide the relevant data during the meeting. You play the scene over and over again in your memory and with every iteration your feeling of failure grows bigger. You start to wonder how others may have perceived you at that moment, and your imagination is not shy to provide you with all the (im)possible downstream effects of your inability to provide the right answer at the right time. Afterwards, everything you do, say, see, feel or hear will only add to your negativity, as you’re looking for signs to justify your negative emotions. Whenever someone says “Well done!”, you hear “Well done, but I thought you were better…”. Whenever someone looks at you smiling to acknowledge your success, you perceive it as a form of ridicule. While on the way home, the traffic, the other drivers, the pedestrians, the traffic lights and even the weather will drive you further up the wall than usual. And this negativity is likely to continue at home with your family.

Be honest, when was the last time you were in a state of negativity but were still able to enjoy the positive things happening around you at the same time? You don’t remember? Think harder – go farther back in your memories. Still nothing? Don’t worry, you’re in good company! When “infected” with negativity, everything will seem negative to you, it’s almost like seeing the world through foggy, dark glasses.

Anything you try to do to get out of this negativity will only add to it, for you’re seeing it through the aforementioned foggy glasses. For example, after thinking about the meeting for days you might manage to convince yourself that it was not your fault after all and instead you might turn to your team blaming them for the lack of preparation. You might even go as far as picking out individuals and putting them on the spot by pointing out their inability to preempt the question, because after all, it was his/her area of expertise. If your team feels passionate enough about you, they may try to sooth you down by pointing out that the meeting went well after all, but you will only see THEM as rightward downplaying a grieve lack of commitment. Your team, in response to all your negativity, will also start growing more and more negative towards you – because to them YOU don’t appear to be reasonable. This give-and-take of negativity will only get worse and while both parties may actually want to break out of it, they won’t be able to because the virus is spreading fast within everyone now.

All hope is not lost, though. Just like other diseases, this one too, can be cured.

How we break out of the captivity of negativity

What you need to do in order to escape the captivity of negativity, is to refrain from feeding it with additional negative thoughts or actions.

Let’s consider our example again. How could the negativity that has crept into the team spirit be removed? Who should be held accountable for doing it? Would it help if the team got together and went to you in unison trying to convince you that the meeting went well and that your performance was not a failure? It probably wouldn’t? Why? Because at that stage you’re expecting them to come to you with an apology and a commitment to do it better next time – right?

And why is that? After all, you’re not an unreasonable manager. You have a proven track record of being a very good manager to work with. The answer is simple – as long as you’re seeing the world through the foggy glasses of negativity, you will always expect others to change. Everything is someone else’s fault and nothing is ever yours. In that state you don’t see the necessity to change. But how do you get out then?

The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance. (Nathaniel Branden)

  • FIRST: YOU NEED TO REALIZE THAT YOU ARE IN THE CAPTIVITY OF NEGATIVITY!

Only if you’re aware of what’s happening within you will you cease to resist others. The moment you understand that the virus of negativity has taken control of you, will you know that only you can make a change. You will understand that it’s your thoughts, particularly your negative ones, which were the spark that led to a bush-fire. This awareness will open the doors that lead out of the negativity, but you still need to walk through the door. This awareness will also allow you to see that you’ve been betraying yourself by expecting others to change.

Going back to our example, you would need to realize that everything started with a simple thought – your belief that you didn’t perform well, that you failed. That was the moment when the virus entered your body – the INCEPTION of negativity. Once you understand that, you have to accept that the current situation might – after all – be your fault.

  • SECOND: YOU NEED TO TAKE THE NECESSARY STEPS TO GET OUT!

This might be tougher than you think, but once you do it a few times it gets easier (and yes, you’ll have to do it many times once you become aware of the captivity of negativity). At this stage, you need to acknowledge to yourself and your team that you have overreacted. But rather than offering a mere Mea Culpa, you would want to explain to them how it all came about. Why? Because awareness means to help others not to fall in the same trap as you did.

Of all the problems in organizations, self-deception is the most common, and the most damaging. (The Arbinger Institute – Leadership and self deception)

Awareness of your own shortcomings is important, but it’s equally important to see your counterpart (managers, peers, friends, spouse, etc) as human beings with hopes, wishes and dreams. Allow them the benefit of doubt, never judge others too quickly – in fact, don’t judge others at all. My parents used to tell me that I should rather clean my own front yard instead of pointing out the dirt on other peoples’ front yards. I have always lived by that principle. The idea is simple, but many people are afraid of it’s potential implications. According to the “negativists”, this kind of attitude is naive. They will tell you that you’ll be exploited by others and will be left behind every time.

But is that really the case? Let’s think about it for a minute – you’re in your car on your way home and someone comes from a side street almost hitting you. You have two choices how to react – you get mad at the other guy for almost hitting you and being careless about others, OR you stay calm and tell yourself that he’s probably in a hurry because his wife might be giving birth or he may have an important meeting to attend. Now, in both cases the situation is the same – the only thing that changes is how YOU PERCEIVE it. Let me ask you then, is one way of thinking more “right” than the other? Would you be naive if you decide to give the other guy the benefit of doubt? I hope you’ll agree that it’s not naive!

One of the best books ever written on this topic is from the Arbinger Institute and is called “Leadership and self-deception“. Google it, read about it – see what others are saying and if you’re convinced read the book and apply the insights you will gain from it. It was an eye-opening book for me, but you don’t have to take my word for it, just have a look at the reviews from top managers, politicians, parents, and others.

  • THIRD: ONCE OUT, YOU NEED TO STAY OUT OF THE CAPTIVITY OF NEGATIVITY

So in a sense, you need to become resistant to this disease. In the previous step you built antibodies against this virus, now you should use those antibodies to ensure it doesn’t enter your mind ever again.

There is no fixed physical reality, no single perception of the world, just numerous ways of interpreting world views as dictated by one’s nervous system. (Deepak Chopra)

In order to stay out, you need to actively work on your perception of situations. As we’ve seen in the example above, it’s up to your perception whether a situation is bad or good, because by nature any situation is neutral. Every individual decides for himself/herself whether they consider it to be a good experience or a bad one.

Will you be able to always remain positive? Maybe not, but can you actively work on not reacting negatively to a given situation? Absolutely! I don’t expect you to wear pink glasses all day long, but what I do ask of you is to take off the foggy glasses of negativity so that you see everything as it is, without a negative bias.

Have you ever been in a situation similar to our examples used above? How did you deal with it? Did you end up in the captivity of negativity, or did you have antibodies against this evil virus of negative thoughts? Maybe you have additional suggestions to share with others on how you deal with negativity once it overtakes you? Let us know by leaving a comment below.