We’ve all met a negative person, and perhaps afterwards felt their negativity linger like a bad smell or a button that’s too tight around the throat.
People can become negative in the face of stress or obstacles, of course, but for all those who allow themselves to become negative, there are those who maintain positivity in the face of similar, sometimes even grave circumstances. So it can’t all be put down to bad luck or genes, whether you develop a negativity bias, or not.
Negativity bias is a phenomenon in psychology (e.g. Being Mindful, Being Christian, Bretherton, Collicutt & Brickman (Eds.) p. 173) where, in a situation with certain challenges, one sees only the things that are lacking, the scarcity, the uphill struggle, and in contemplating these, negative feelings arise, which then make you feel even more negative.
You were feeling bad anyway, because you were looking at a situation and seeing only the difficulties involved, so then as well as looking at the negatives you begin to feel negative, then perhaps feel bad for feeling negative, which is in itself a further bad thing, and so the spiral downward goes. In short, we become what we contemplate.
It’s perfectly possible that certain types of ‘upbeat’ Christianity can make things worse by telling you to ignore your negative feelings and trust God, which sounds fair, but it’s a fine line; if you don’t even acknowledge your negative feelings you can’t seek for something more positive, something ultimately healing.
And profoundly negative feelings that have gone unhealed, that have gone underground psychologically, can wreak havoc if not unearthed and faced honestly, as anyone who’s wondered why an apparently ‘quiet’ neighbour has just run amok with an automatic weapon will point out.
As a spiritual director said to me once – saying “I shouldn’t be feeling this” is a nonsense. You are feeling it – and it may be frighteningly strong – but what are you going to do about it? That’s the more important question.
Avoiding negativity bias when you lead a very small church is something I have given a lot of thought to (and I mean very small – i.e. if 30 people are present on an average Sunday morning, you are totally gobsmacked and go home on a spiritual high which lasts all week).
This would be my normal reaction, on preparing to lead Sunday worship, until I began to try and live more in the present (at which point I noticed my negativity bias):
Stand up to begin the service – see hardly anyone there – note mentally who’s not there – feel uncharitable towards them – check myself – feel mean for being judgmental – think about all the ways they could be encouraged to come more – check myself – slowly come round from my reverie and notice who is there – feel bad at how long it took me to notice who was there – announce the first hymn.
Imagine – all this negativity is happening inside one’s head in perhaps 3 – 4 short seconds. It is just about the worse way to prepare yourself (and everyone else) for worship. And that’s even before you’ve factored in the effect of discovering ten minutes before church there’s yet another Fun Run/10k/Half Marathon/Community Organised Walk/school event/sporting fixture/awkward road closure happening a few metres from your church door, in that actual very moment.
It took me a while to realise, but to focus on the spaces instead of the filled seats is a prime example of negative bias, clergy-style. As is the immediate way one clocks the uncompleted tasks in church life, before reminding yourself that there are certain things yet unfinished, yes, but which have at least been put in motion. If you’re a Completer, this is a hard one, but I’ve come to value the present reality and the process so much more recently. And it gives you valuable headspace, even a certain lift on a Sunday. It also fosters trust of others, something else leaders are poor at.
Your greatest temptation as an ordained person, is that you think you have to do/be everything all the time to everyone. And this is despite us banging on about collaborative leadership. Old habits die very hard.
Thankfully, theologically, God doesn’t stand over us and demand where the finished product is. And it’s a lot better for your mental health if you don’t either, with people or projects. Especially with people, because you’re not a finished product. And there’ll always be more jobs to complete. Always.
Contemplation, of God’s provision, of reality, of the present, keeps me from negativity bias, from feeling the need to sort everyone and everything out. It is perhaps the light weight yoke that Jesus talked of in Matthew 11:29. Easy to wear, no bad smell, and no strangling top button.