Negative Thoughts Not Your Fault, Your Brain is Just an Asshole, says Science

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why-negative-thoughts-come-in-mind-armyWhen I set out to discover why negative thoughts come in mind so easily and wreak havoc on our self-confidence, I didn’t expect the search to lead me to a military veteran.

After all, if there’s one group of men who should have no trouble embracing their masculinity and feeling confident, you’d think it would be soldiers. When two out of three Americans are overweight or obese, just completing basic training should automatically qualify you for hero status.

But basic training, of course, is just the beginning. With that feat accomplished, soldiers go on to serve their country. Often, this means separating themselves from their friends, family and the cushy life of the developed Western world, all in the name of a cause that they deem bigger and more important than themselves.

I can think of few things more masculine, to say nothing of confidence-building.

But, as one military veteran recently made clear on reddit, even that is not always enough to bolster our confidence and ward off negativity. In a post entitled “Need Help with My Masculinity” he wrote:

“I’ve always talked in a high tone, and was constantly made fun of during high school and my military service…

“…All of this has essentially killed what little confidence in myself that I did have. It got so bad that I gave up and had planned to kill myself, but I couldn’t do it. I decided to continue living and doing my best to be the best me that I can be, but I get incredibly discouraged when I see/hear the verbal and non-verbal responses people make when I interact with them.”

why-negative-thoughts-come-in-mind-soldierAfter watching videos of basic training online and seeing what one has to go through just to get into the military, you might naturally assume that anyone – man or woman – who can accomplish all of that is going to come out the other side as one of the most self-confident people on earth.

If drill sergeants, obstacle courses and, oh yeah, enemy fire can’t hold these folks down, you sure as hell wouldn’t expect them to dwell on something as seemingly paltry as a high-pitched voice.

But as our veteran on reddit so painfully and potently makes clear, anyone can get caught up focusing on the negative – with devastating results for our self-confidence.

Why Negative Thoughts Come in Mind

Introducing The Negativity Bias

a.k.a. the gift that keeps on shitting (on your confidence!)

why-negative-thoughts-come-in-mind-happiness-track-bookIn her book The Happiness Track, author Emma Seppala, a psychologist at Stanford University, explains why negative thoughts come in mind.

Apparently, it’s thanks to your brain’s super unhelpful habit (thanks for nothing, brain!) of looking on the stormy side.

“Our perspective is biased toward the negative; as far as our minds are concerned, bad is stronger than good,” she writes. “We have such a strong propensity to favor negativity that we have a skewed vision of reality.”

If your personality were a hospital, your mind would essentially be its Dr. Gregory House – occasionally brilliant, but most of the time just a curmudgeonly pain in the ass.

Case and point: Seppala cites studies indicating that people generally have three times as many positive experiences as negative ones, but still focus on the negative nonetheless.

Negativity is Normal

Don’t let the devilish handsomeness fool you: your brain is a real grump

With our asshole brains working against us, it’s no wonder that we often obsess so much over our perceived imperfections.

The military veteran who contemplates suicide because he’s insecure about his masculinity is obviously an extreme example, but many of us similarly fail to see the forest for the trees on a daily basis.

We go to parties and behave perfectly normally, but fixate on the pretty girl we failed to work up the nerve to talk to. We go to a first job interview and perform well enough to land a second, but kick ourselves for forgetting to mention x, y or z.

Or we obsess over the fact that we’re too scrawny, too fat, too short, too tall, too this or not enough that.

While focusing on the negative may be perfectly normal (again, go to hell brain!), it can sure make building self-confidence more difficult.

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Habituation Frustration
Why the Good Times Stop Rolling

You: “Woo hoo! I feel amazing!” Your brain: “Slow your roll”

As if a tendency to over-value the negative wasn’t enough of a slap in the face, your brain is also not especially inclined to let you enjoy the positive for very long.

Have you ever achieved something that you were really proud of? Maybe you got a high grade in school, landed a great job, got to the next level in a game, scored a date with a girl you like or any other accomplishment.

Shortly after you achieve the feat, you’re walking on air. Food tastes better, the sky is bluer, mountains seem climbable – even Batman v Superman seems like less of a garbage fire. (It would admittedly take one hell of an accomplishment to make that last one feasible.)

But inevitably, your euphoria fades. The pride you took in your grade gives way to pressure to achieve the next one. The great job you landed starts to feel like more of a grind. That next level of the game is even harder and more time-consuming than you expected. And it turns out that girl you were so excited to date isn’t flawless after all.

Getting Used to The Good

Gentlemen, meet habituation.

“Habituation is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated presentations,” writes Kendra Cherry of

In a nutshell, habituation is the name psychologists use to describe the process by which we get used to things. When the initial high you get from an accomplishment or a new experience fades away and starts to feel ordinary or routine, that’s habituation at work.

It’s another reason why negative thoughts come in mind more frequently than we’d prefer, and like the negativity bias, it too can wreak havoc on our efforts to build self confidence.

After all, how’s a guy supposed to feel good about himself when his good feelings fade away quickly and his negative thoughts are pushed to the forefront by his jerk of a brain?

How to Beat Your Brain
Metaphorically, that is…

why negative thoughts come in mindAdmittedly, finding out that your brain is not going to do you any favors in the confidence-building department is not great news. But the good news is that there’s a lot you can do to put that cantankerous motherfucker  it in its place.

Simply knowing why negative thoughts come in mind is the first important step to overcoming our negativity bias. I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to harping on myself and focusing on possible negative outcomes, regardless of how realistic it is to expect them to happen.

But now that I know that these cynical thoughts stem not from any problem with me but from my brain’s habit of acting like a curmudgeonly doctor played to perfection by Hugh Laurie, I can catch myself in the act of thinking negatively and correct course.

Likewise, if you know that your feelings of accomplishments will fade, you can take steps to try and recapture them, however briefly. I find I can sometimes even kill both birds with one stone.

why-negative-thoughts-come-in-mind-thinkingWhen I catch myself going negative I simply pause, take a breath, and consciously focus on something positive – people I love, an accomplishment I’m proud of, something I’m looking forward to.

I may not be able to reach the emotional high I attained the first time around, but more often than not, just reminiscing about these things is enough to push the negativity aside and move on without it.

Admittedly, you may find this tricky at first; knowing why negative thoughts come in mind is one thing, but ridding yourself of them is another.

But if you try it even once a day, you’ll find it gets easier over time, and you’ll start to notice that negative thoughts dissipate more quickly. (Take that, brain!)

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About Dave Bowden

Dave Bowden

Irreverent Gent founder Dave Bowden is a style blogger whose advice on how to look good and live well has been featured in some of the world’s most trusted publications, including New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider and more.

When not obsessing over style and self-improvement, he can usually be found spending time with his wonderful wife and son, indulging in a hoppy craft beer, or sobbing over the woeful state of Toronto's sports teams.

Check out Dave's Style Story to find out how a chance encounter with his friend's step-dad taught him the value of looking good and living well. (Don't worry—it's less creepy than it sounds!)

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