Have you ever noticed that when someone says something negative about you it carries much more weight than when someone says something positive about you?
One psychological theory for why this happens is that when something negative happens this is a signal that we need to change something: be more attentive to our partner, do a better job at work, pick the spinach out of our teeth. When someone says something positive, everything is status quo and we just go about our business.
In fact, because negativity weighs more than positivity, the magic ratio for happiness is 3 to 1: three positive occurrences for every negative occurrence. So whenever someone says something mean to you, find 3 people who like you and ask them to say something nice about you.
For me personally, three positive comments are not sufficient to undo the self-criticism that occurs after one negative comment. I need a ratio of something like 50:1, so brutal is that voice in my head that tells me that I suck.
When I was teaching online, I would have 50 students in individual tutorials, which is a lot of work, especially on top of my full-time job. Most students would give me positive feedback.
Here’s how I would treat their feedback as I went through my emails: I really enjoyed your class! I signed up for another one next term. (Delete) I loved the paper assignments. I felt like I learned a lot about myself. (Delete) I really loved the textbook. I’m going to keep it rather than sell it back. (Delete)
Here’s what would happen when I got negative feedback: I thought the exams were hard and that you did not give me enough feedback on how to improve my grade. I’m going to complain about you to my advisor right now. (Reread 10 times. Did I do something wrong? I told her the same thing I tell every student after an exam. Maybe I just suck as a teacher. Maybe they’re going to get mad at me and fire me. Maybe this student is just upset by her grade. No, it must be my fault.)
And I would obsess about this for, well the rest of my life, really. I remember every mistake I’ve ever made, even the ones that happened when I was 5 (like stealing that pack of gum from K-Mart). For obsessive people, there is no statute of limitations. You can be charged at any time for real or imagined crimes.
But I have learned some strategies that help me balance the scale between positivity and negativity.
- Whenever I remember a negative comment from a student years ago and start thinking about what a terrible teacher I was, I remind myself that the other 49 students said that they enjoyed the class.
- When I start beating myself up because I’m obsessing over a negative comment that a student made years ago, I tell myself that I’m not crazy; I just have a really good memory, and this is one of the downsides of remembering everything.
- When I get positive feedback I read it over and over again, tell myself to take it in and give myself permission to believe it’s true. I tell someone about it to make the feeling last.
- When all else fails, I take an Ativan because my psychiatrist said that’s what I should do.
Today I was looking through the registration form for what I thought was a new client, and there is a section where we ask if they’ve been in therapy before and if they found it helpful. She wrote that she had seen me in therapy previously for several months and found it extremely helpful, that she hasn’t been able to find a therapist who she trusts since then.
P.S. Later research found that the 3:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback doesn’t help. So it’s not just me.