| David Gane

A response to negative thought

So, after yesterday's thoughts on choice, I wanted to follow it up with a second podcast I listened to on my road trip.[1]

Oliver Burkeman

The Art of Charm podcast interviewed Oliver Burkeman, who wrote a book called The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, where he argues that it's better to recognize and appreciate negative thinking rather than ignore it.

He says that by trying to avoid negative thoughts, we only make ourselves more aware of them. It's similar to the idea that when you tell someone "Don't think of an elephant"—the first that pops into your head is an elephant.

This is what psychologists call Ironic Process Theory.

Accept the negative

Burkeman argues that we must learn to accept negative thoughts, just like we accept positive ones—because, like emotions, we can't control their appearance.

In fact, trying to avoid negativity is a big part of what is making us unhappy — not only because it raises our expectations and devastates us when we don’t succeed, but because trying not to think about something is a surefire way to ensure that we do think about it.

From The Art of of Charm

Instead, by welcoming all thoughts and emotions, whether positive or negative, we can then decide how we will respond.

We can't control the negative

Like I said yesterday conflict occurs in the gap between the action and response.

We takes actions towards our wants and the world responds. However, this can go the other way as well, and sometimes we must respond to the stimulus of life, even if it is random or unmotivated.

Old memories that bubble up from the subconscious or negative emotions are all forms of this stimuli. We can't control it, nor can we stop it.

Yet, we do have power over how we respond.

Lean into the negative

Since we can't control this stimuli—these feeling and thoughts that appear—Burkeman says that we need to accept a couple of things:

  1. Negative thoughts and negative situation are a part of the flow. Just as positive moments occur in life and within our own heads, so do negative ones. As the stoics say, each of these things will come to pass. Quit resisting and accept all of it.

  2. Everyone experiences these emotions. Fear, self-consciousness, sadness, loneliness are all unpleasant and difficult emotions. But don't think that you are alone. Most people have felt these emotions.

  3. It isn't about avoiding negative thoughts and emotions. It is about how we respond to them. This is the big one. Stepping between the stimulus and response is out choice. You don't need to ignore it or run away. Accept it, feel it, but then choose your response.

One of my fears

I hate public speaking, especially when I have to stand on a stage and recite something I've memorized.

Speeches, poems, plays—these are all acts of terror for me.

I worry I'll be criticized or screw up or embarrass myself. Most of the scenarios I run in my head are specific and visual—like I'm standing on a stage (usually my old high school), in the spotlight, and physically being inside the head of every audience member as they judge me on what I say, what I'm wearing, how I look, whether I'm sweating too much...it goes on and on. More so, I don't think I'm alone on these thoughts.

Yet, I have to stand before people all the time and speak. I teach and do talks and I want to do more public speaking in front of bigger crowds and on television and radio to get the word out about Ang and I.

The only way I can get this job done is to silence all the worries and the second guessing in my brain does and have to throw myself onto the stage or in front of the class and get to work.

It doesn't mean that the fear goes away. It stays with me but the more times I do it, the less I notice it, However, every time I have a new class or try a new talk, I feel all those old negative feelings rising up again. But in order to get the things I want out of life, I have to lean into that fear.

Failure as growth

Burkeman argues that we must understand that failure is an option. In fact, he says that it isn't a bad thing because it means that we had to dig in and push ourselves to attain what we wanted. It also means that we used all of our skills and resources to try.

Whether or not we succeed, we pushed our limits—and we can't fault ourselves for doing the hard work.

Quit avoiding negative thoughts.



  1. To be honest, I listened to this one first, but I felt yesterday's article worked better if I said it first. ↩︎

Leave a comment