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"I Can't Do Anything Right"

How many times I have heard this in my office from clients whose partners ignore the good they do and instead focus on the deficits of their behaviors. 

For example, Ryan left work early one day and arrived home before his wife, Barb.  Ryan spent a hard hour cleaning, trying to making it a warm and comfortable place for Barb, happy that he was being so thoughtful. He scrubbed the kitchen to prepare to cook them a meal, tossed in a load of laundry, and straightened out the living room and bedroom. He was excited to welcome his wife with a clean house, and anticipated an appreciative smile on her face. But the first words Ryan heard from Barb that when she got home that evening were, "Why haven't you taken out the recycling yet?" She had found the one thing that Ryan didn't have time to do in the past hour. Later, Ryan expressed to me that he felt that he couldn't please her, that there was nothing he could do right, even though he had done a number of things that could be seen as thoughtful and loving. Worst, he felt punished for his efforts.

Unfortunately, this kind of exchange is a very common occurrence in many relationships. One person may have very good, even loving intentions, but the partner overlooks this and instead finds the negatives. This is because of our brain's natural tendency to focus in on negatives over positives in our environments and in our lives.

The Brain: Negativity Bias

My dog really knows his environment. He is so in tune with his surroundings and our behaviors. Having gotten used to how things typically are, he quickly notices changes, and some of them make him nervous. The furniture is not where it's supposed to be. A new person is in the house. A novel treat is offered to him. I'm being playful with him and walk around in slow motion. He approaches very cautiously, and sniffs for information about each of these strange situations. Sometimes he barks. He doesn't like strangers in his space, or when I walk in slow motion. Even though these things are non-threatening, they are suspect and he's ready with a fight or flight response.

We pay way more attention to negative information than positive. It is pretty well agreed that the origins of this negativity bias are rooted in a need for survival. We now live in a relatively safe world. But throughout human evolution, it was necessary for people to be vigilant in search of potential threats in their environment. Anything that seemed out of place could be a threat. Any sound, sight or smell that was unfamiliar is suspect and possibly harmful. That slithering stick on the ground is novel and interesting. But it would be unwise for me to approach and examine it without sufficient information. The instinctive response involves our brain focusing on the things that don't fit in, things that appear broken or out of place, or in Ryan's wife's case, unfinished.

This natural but problematic pull towards negativity is played out in many areas of our lives. For example, during a parent-teacher conference, Neil's mother heard many positive, glowing comments about him, including that he was a joy to have in class. The teacher also mentions that sometimes Neil talks too much and can be disruptive. Even though the teacher states that they have been working on that issue with success, all mom focused on is that Neil is disruptive in class. The "threat" that Neil's mom is responding to is an imagined future where Neil is a troublemaker who can't follow direction (or the threat of the teacher's judgement of her as a parent). 

Similarly, Neil's sister Anne came home with a report card that showed five A's, but instead of celebrating, her mom pointed to the one C grade and asked "What happened there?" And when Neil and Anne finished up washing the dishes after dinner, their mom pointed to the one plate with a stain remaining, rather than appreciating that the kids worked hard...and worked together! Her husband dressed up nicely for a work event, but she picks off the one dog hair stuck to his coat, stating "Now you're presentable." But don't judge Neil's mom. We are all Neil's mom. I'm sure all of those reading this can find many examples of how you have overlooked positive attributes and achievements and instead focused on deficits and flaws.

Overcoming Negativity in Relationships

I have tried to make it clear in this article that the way we focus on negative information over positive is natural. I emphasize this point because it is not easy to change a natural response. It's like trying not to be hungry! Many articles have been written about rewiring the brain to not be so negative. Unfortunately, this is not the way to think about it. Instead, I teach people to work at developing habits around observing and picking out the positives around them. And they are all around you! The process of overcoming the negativity bias begins with just recognizing that bias and making a conscious decision to respond differently.

Let's say George asks his wife to help him cook, but then notices that she not cutting the meat the way he prefers. His initial reaction might to grab the knife and snap out, "No, not that way!" Recognizing that this is the old negativity bias at work, George decides on a kinder approach, focusing on the positive that's right in front of him: "I so appreciate your help tonight. You're working very hard over there. I think I forgot to tell you that I like the meat sliced in this way instead." Negativity surrounds us, but so does positivity!

Overcoming the negative response actually starts before any kind of interaction that may cause irritation. Let's say you spend the day at work with thoughts of adoration towards your partner. When you see them, you are more likely to treat them with kindness and see the positive qualities, and get less affected by the things that annoy you. Relationship researcher and expert John Gottman has written a 7 week exercise to increase adoration in relationships, by taking with you to work one specific thought to focus on throughout the day. You can find the exercise here

See Something, Say Something

Think about your partner for a moment. I'm sure if I asked you to describe your partner's qualities, you might list some amazing character traits he or she possesses. These traits are what we initially fall in love with, and most likely they are still with the person. If I asked you to recall the last time you saw one of these traits you appreciate, I bet you would answer that you saw it recently. Today? Yesterday? In the past hour? You probably have opportunity to witness these characters on a very regular basis. 

Now...When was the last time you voiced your appreciation?!

You were drawn to your partner for 

 But we lose sight of these traits when we are naturally drawn to the things that annoy or irritate us. 

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