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Breaking Bad

"The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones." Rick Hanson, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, author

This blog starts with a difficult true story. The story is not so important except as an illustration to get you thinking about the power of bad. That sounds pretty pessimistic, but it isn't going to be. We can break the power of bad if we know what we are up against.

My husband, John, was a dentist for forty years.  He took his mission in life and in his job seriously… to create a warm, caring, meaningful positive experience with everyone he had the opportunity to touch.  It was his way of creating world peace. 

John's thinking went like this.  Each person, each patient, would go home well served, happy – kiss their spouse, hug their kids, and spread joy in the lives of each person they encountered. The ripple effect. Who knows how far a little kindness could go?

Life was good.

Near the very end of his career, however, John encountered a VERY challenging woman.  He won’t let me call her a bad person.  He points out that we don't know what trauma had happened in her life which had caused her own suffering and abusive behavior.  John saw it as his duty to care for her.

John tried and tried and tried to make her happy.  No dice.  Seems like she called him every mean thing she could think of, questioned his integrity, knew exactly what buttons to push to hurt him. He urged her to find someone else who could make her happy. She refused.

Retirement started to look quite good. He could be free of the woman and the anxiety the encounters with her seemed to provoke. (Keep in mind though I’m telling you this story in a linear sort of way, we can’t remember the exact unfolding of events and insights.) 

What became clearer at one point later down the line was the negative encounter seemed to block John's joy, his memories of all the good he and his team had done for folks over the years could not be conjured up.  He could not get hold of his fond and joyful memories of learning together, growing together with his team...meaningfully living the mission. 

Just thinking of dentistry triggered him with bad thoughts about facing this woman.  Why would he want to hold on to his license for other options which might arise later for him? His decisions about his future were becoming colored.

Yes, walk out the door, be free of the problem and the anxiety, that seemed like the ticket. But no.

He did retire, did walk out the door. And he did feel a bit of relief that he would never have to care for this woman again. Still, there was no real peace. He had suffered a deep emotional wound. The memory of this last encounter consumed a lot of mental space. 

John’s brain seemed haunted.  Doubts crept in; life looked bleak. He felt depressed.

Now just take a moment to reflect on what seemingly has happened here.  A stable and competent individual has ONE bad encounter toward the end of an otherwise amazingly satisfying and highly successful career and it creates incredible psychological havoc.

Only recently has John been able to get more insight as to what happened and has begun to experience less anxiety and depression.  It takes courage to share this story. We don’t talk about our deep hurts much. And the story isn't over.

Fast forward. What helped? It was a letter John himself had written to his patients as he neared retirement. He had forgotten about it.  But not too long ago a friend, who was a patient, was going through some of her documents and found John’s letter which she had kept because it had touched her. She took a picture of it and sent it to us.  Said something kind like it reminded her of the great dentist John had been for her.

When John read the letter, images of this woman and good friend... and his many lovely patients started to surface. The bad started to crack.  The good times and good people flowed back to mind.

Good can break bad. But first we need to better understand how our brains work.  We have learned that our brains are wired to notice and remember the negative.  The negativity bias. Threat. It lures our attention. It made sense for our survival at one time. 

These days, for most situations, the negativity bias works against us. Hurts us.  Under the influence of the negativity bias we can’t see reality objectively. We make poor decisions. Feel bad.

The best book to read if you want to understand more about the wide and deep influence of the negativity bias in our individual and collective lives including love, politics, religion, business, education, journalism, and parenting is Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s book – The Power of Bad: And How to Overcome it. Some of the stories and research are not so new, but other parts of the book are astonishing, at the least, quite encouraging.

For example, consider what we have heard about PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome).  Remember after World War I some soldiers were diagnosed with a new condition called “shell shock.” The disorder was quite real. Then starting in the 1990s, psychologists noticed something else as well.

While many people (estimated to be at least half the population according to Baumeister and Tierney, but others like Gabor Mate claims everyone) have endured a traumatic event at some point, in the long run, many (60 to 90 percent) emerge stronger...eventually. PTG (post traumatic growth) is what it's called.  The growth is not a result of the trauma which is just plain bad, but rather the growth comes in the way that people respond to bad by becoming kinder, stronger, and more mindful of life’s joys for instance.

Here's one idea for today on how to break bad. Liberate your inner Pollyanna. Yep, that’s right.

I admit it. I loved the movie character Pollyanna (despite that just about everyone else I know ridiculed her rose-colored attitude toward life). But just a minute.  Maybe others have brown-colored glasses, that negativity bias thing. We may need some rose-colored glasses to adjust our brains.

Just to prove my point. Take twenty seconds to list all the emotions you can think of.  Look at the list.  How many are bad feelings rather than good feelings?  Did you list bliss, ecstasy, serenity, tranquility, contentment, joviality, joy, enjoyment, curiosity, satisfaction? BTW, one thing psychologists are doing to help people feel better is by helping them learn more positive feeling/emotion words. That's all.

Pollyanna plays the Glad Game.  Remember the story? Pollyanna must go live with a nasty tempered old aunt in Vermont. Even though the aunt lives alone in a mansion Pollyanna is given a bare little attic room – nothing at all on the walls, not even curtains. Pollyanna quickly sees the advantage. Nothing to distract her from the view of the window. We might call it seeing the silver linings in life.

The Glad Game was taught to Pollyanna by her father.  For example, when she was hoping for a doll in a shipment of goods, instead she received a pair of crutches. Of course, she was disappointed until her father taught her to always look for a reason to rejoice.  And he came up with one in this situation.  "Be glad you don’t need those crutches."

Pollyanna teaches the Glad Game to neighbors even to her nasty ole aunt…which helps her be rewarded with a lovely husband.  Okay, I see why some think it’s all a bit over the top, but the idea is good according to Baumeister and Tierney, it’s a scientific way of breaking bad.

And the GOOD news is that a lot of us, even though we poo-poo it, already have a little Pollyanna inside of us just hoping to be unleashed.

The idea here is not about ignoring problems and burying bad feelings, but not allowing bad to overwhelm us. We find benefits in setbacks. New strengths are discovered. Complexities of life and of emotions can be tolerated. When we liberate our inner Pollyanna, we pay less attention to the hassles and more attention to the small pleasures, the possibilities.

Some of us got ashes put on our heads yesterday.  Some wording was said which reminded us of our mortality.  Why in the world would we want to do that?  Well, if we liberate our inner Pollyanna, we might see that reminding ourselves that we will return to dust could allow us to live more fully. Right now. Make the most of it. Be kind. See that we are all in the same boat.

John cannot yet find the silver lining about working with this very difficult patient, but he has liberated his inner Pollyanna enough to believe it’s going to happen. May take a little while. He does believe he has more empathy now for people who have experienced dealing with traumatic people or situations. Good can break bad.

We can better break bad if we know what we are up against. The sooner the better.  More later.  For now…

How might we journey together to the Good Life by understanding the power of bad - our negativity bias, not being scared by it, but learning how to break its hold on our brains…let more joy flow into our lives?


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