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Why your brain’s so bad at letting go of negative comments

Plus: How you can train your brain to let go of this feedback.

Why your brain’s so bad at letting go of negative comments
[Photo: Kat Jayne/Pexels]

For the past six years, I have done a radio show and podcast called Two Guys on Your Head, produced by our local NPR affiliate, KUT. The show airs on Friday mornings. It is great fun to do, and we get lots of positive feedback from listeners around town. But, as with all things, not everybody likes it. We get some emails from listeners taking exception to things we’ve talked about, and we also get some snarky comments on social media.

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As you might expect, no matter how many people say nice things, it’s the negative comments that really stick with me. I will find myself chewing over complaints people have made for days. Those negative thoughts bring down my mood and make me feel worse about what I’m working on.

I’m guessing you’ve had a similar experience, where you noticed that even one negative comment about you or your performance can outweigh a huge volume of positive feedback. There are several reasons why these sorts of comments have such an outsized impact on your psyche.

Negative comments engage avoidance motivation. When you’re motivated to avoid something bad, then an important strategy is to be vigilant for more bad things in the environment to make sure that you’re aware of problems as soon as they happen.

This may have been an adaptive strategy when there were people or animals out there trying to hunt you in some evolutionary environment. However, it’s a less effective strategy in today’s world, when the negative thing is not a bear but a nasty tweet. Despite this, your brain reacts in the same way, making you obsess about what some anonymous troll said.

In addition, your motivation to get things done requires both that you be engaged with a goal and also that you believe that you can accomplish what you set out to do. Negative comments provide evidence that you cannot succeed at your goals, which can be demotivating.

There is evidence that people need to experience positive feelings about three times more often than negative feelings in order to maintain positive moods. A positive mood drives people to be productive and creative. So, focusing on negative comments can actually make you less productive. That means you need to find a way to stop focusing on other people’s negative comments about you. And that is easier said than done.

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Of course not all comments should be ignored. It’s useful to pay enough attention to negative comments to decide whether there are any changes to your own behavior that you want to make. If so, make a note of it so that you can improve your performance in the future. But, even in these cases, you’ll still need to find a way to move forward.

The first thing you can do is to write about how you feel about those comments. It might seem strange to cure a cycle of negative thoughts by putting your feelings in writing. But it works. One of the reasons why you create a cycle of negative thoughts is so that you can maintain your vigilance for potential problems in the world. If you write out your reaction, though, then you know you can find information about negative things in the document you wrote. And that relieves your brain of the task of having to remind you about them.

A second strategy is to do something that allows you to succeed. That is, when you find yourself losing motivation to work because of something another person said, create a small victory for yourself. Finish off a report, talk to a client, or do something else that will result in a positive outcome. That will help to blunt the sense that you cannot be effective in the world.

Third, learn some mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness is not a cure-all, but it is quite effective for helping people to reduce stress and anxiety. The reason mindfulness techniques work is that they help you to recognize when you are spiraling into a cycle of negative thinking and to break that cycle.

Finally, if you do any public-facing work, don’t read people’s comments. The internet is a particularly fertile source of snark. Just because people want to write negative things doesn’t mean you need to read them. Not only will it make you happier, but it will make you more productive as well.

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