The ABC’s of Undoing Negativity

Defensiveness, reactivity, close mindedness - all these words are synonyms for negativity. Everyone has experienced negativity when faced with an unpleasant situation such as imposed change, or conflict. Undoing negativity requires us to recognize we are in an altered state in the back of our brain and need to use the frontal area of our brain to generate tactical strategies to respond instead of being reactive.  

The brain is a collaborative organ and doesn't actually have three discrete silos (front, mid, back). There is constant cross talk between the sections. However, each of the brain’s three sections has a dominant function - front: executive functions like judgment, objectivity, choice; mid: emotions, memories, imagination; back: defensive tactics like freeze, fight and flight which can be directed outward or inward.

Below are some ABC’s for undoing negativity. Following these steps can rapidly move you from back of the brain tactics (freeze, fight, or flight) and get the front of your brain back online. 

Step A - Identify the emotions you are feeling.

The daily practice of keeping track of your everyday emotional experiences and labeling them with a feeling word can build your capacity to handle even difficult emotions. Writing incidents down will help you remember the specifics of the situation (triggers, physical sensations, reactions, both yours and others). Try using a primary feeling word from this list: Interest, Joy, Surprise, Fear, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Shame. Or choose from a simplified feeling menu of glad, mad, sad and scared.

Step B – Identify how you react with negativity in stressful situations

Negative behaviors like complaining, blaming, criticizing, and helping too much are also cues. These behaviors form in childhood when we are powerless and dependent on others. The tactics which worked when we were children are unfortunately less effective and sometimes destructive as adults.

Notice when the intensity of negative thoughts or feelings are occurring - insulted, resentful, heroic, hopeless, lonely, not good enough, betrayed, etc. Are your emotions out of proportion to the situation? If yes, you may be in the grip of the 90/10 reaction. This reaction is when 90% of the emotional intensity is coming from the past. Something has triggered a reminder of prior stressful circumstances. Only 10% of your response is related to the here and now.

To reduce the impulse to automatically go to childhood coping behaviors, give for favorite defensive behavior a nickname to help you pause and inject some humor into a stressful situation. Naming is a front brain function – a short cut out of the back of the brain. Examples for nicknames include:

  • Goldilocks when things have to be just right.
  • Bart Simpson when you are snarky.
  • Cinderella when you are hyper responsible.
  • Chef Gordon Ramsey when you are annoyed.
  • Lucy from Peanuts when you are bossy.
  • Eeyore when you are a sad sack.
  • St. Joan of Arc when you are a hero.

In addition to specific old roles, another common practice of negativity is called "Mindreading," something that very perceptive people are prone to. Mindreading is predicting what others are thinking or feeling without fact checking those assumptions - they seem so obvious. This is our brain's version of "fake news" or "false facts." Ask yourself, “Can you actually read minds or predict the future?” If the answer is “no” label your insight as an unverified assumption.

Step C - Imagine what you would do differently.

You can identify and use adult strategies instead of childhood survival tactics by imagining a different response to the original incident. Ask yourself, “knowing what you know now, what will you do differently?” What you know now are the names of your feelings and that you overreacted to an emotional trigger.

Answering this question are mid and front brain activities. If you say “I don’t know” it may means you are still stuck in the back of your brain. Don’t give up, review steps A and B until you can imagine having a choice and doing things differently next time.


Knowing what you know now how does the following quote resonate for you? What can you do differently?

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them. Albert Einstein, German American physicist

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