Don’t pretend things are worse than they are

There is this thing I think about a lot. I don’t know what it’s called. I know even less how to put it into words.

It’s when we note the existence of one single negative, and take that to mean that there is nothing positive or neutral any more.

We can be plodding along quite happily, but then one bad thing happens, and that’s it – it’s all shit now. Except, of course, it isn’t – not unless we decide to make it so.

A story, to illustrate…

Let’s say you and your six friends are desperate to go to a concert. Tickets cost £5 each. You offer to buy all seven tickets – you’re a generous guy, after all – and you tell everyone they can just pay you back at the end of the concert.

The night of the concert comes, and it is every bit the amazing night you thought it would be. Except one thing sours it slightly – before you all go home, five of your six friends give you the £5 ticket money back, as agreed. But one decides he’s not going to – he tells you that it was only a fiver, and he didn’t enjoy the show that much, and anyway, it’s not like you need the money – and leaves you £5 down.

You’re pissed off – not so much about the money, but the betrayal of trust. Other than deciding not to be his friend any more, you don’t have much recourse, though. You vow never to be taken advantage of like that again.

A couple of months later, there’s another concert you all want to go to. Your friends – now just five – all want to go, and they ask you if you can get the tickets again – they’ll pay you back just like last time.

You have a think, remember what happened last time, and say “no, sorry.” None of you end up going to the concert.


Now, you had every right to be annoyed at the one friend that didn’t pay you back – he broke your trust, after all. Had he wanted you to buy him a ticket the second time, it’d be reasonable to reject him – fool me once, etc…

But what did that have to do with the other five, all of whom paid you back on time, and presumably would have again?

Just because you’d had your fingers burnt, and your trust betrayed once, you decided it was safer not to trust anyone anymore, even the people who had showed themselves worthy of your trust in the past. Irrational, no?

We do this all the time.

Memories and emotions

One reason we blow negative events out of all proportion is to do with the way our memories work – they are designed to key in on the highlights of our lives, positive or negative, and to ignore the rest, because – let’s be honest – most of the time, everything is fine. Time ticks by, and the closer our experiences are to neutral – the less remarkable they are – the less likely we are to remember them.

But when something happens that deviates from the middle-ground – either in a positive direction or negative – we are many times more likely to remember them. Especially the negative ones.

And so we remember the friend betraying our trust much more vividly than the other five friends not betraying our trust, because, well… not having your trust betrayed is not really an event, is it?

Every day, billions of people don’t betray your trust. But if we never sit down and actually acknowledge that reality, focusing instead on the one person who did, then we’re liable to start telling ourselves stories like “you can’t trust anyone.” It’s not that you can or should trust everybody you come across immediately and indiscriminately, just that never trusting anyone because of one bad experience is somewhat of an over-reaction.

What to do?

First, you must accept that this is simply the way your brain works. Your brain, my brain… all brains. We remember negative events much more vividly than positive or neutral ones, and this leads us to distort the bigger picture, giving the negative event more space on the canvas than it deserves.

It’s not that bad things don’t happen. It’s just that compared to the positive and neutral things, they don’t happen nearly as often as your emotions (and your memory) might lead you to believe.

Once you accept that this is your natural tendency, the only thing you can do is to try to counter-act it with rationality.

For example, think about the fact that an estimated 6.5% of the population are afraid of flying. And yet fewer than one flight in 300,000 (0.000003%) is involved in an accident, and just one flight in 3,000,000 (0.0000003%) results in anybody’s death. You are more likely to die from food poisoning, by a falling ladder, falling off a bed or chair, drowning in a bath, being hit by a firework, or the old favourite – being hit by lightning.

You don’t have to become delusional – there are genuine dangers in life. You can acknowledge the negative things that happen, just don’t pretend there are more of them than there really are.

“Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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