There is a metaphor I often use in my therapy practice to explain the natural negativity bias that so many of us reckon with. It’s called the “missing tile syndrome.” If we’re looking at a beautiful mosaic, think about how often our eyes might be drawn to the missing tile or tiles within the mosaic as opposed to the greater beauty of the entire piece. Similarly, in our lives, we often remember negative memories more than positive ones; we frequently look for what is wrong in a situation rather than for what is good. This is the body’s and mind’s way of keeping us safe and protecting us from danger.
I’ve been getting up close and personal with this nagging habit of a comparing mind. I’ve spent the last eight months island hopping in Thailand, from one idyllic ocean paradise to another. While I’ve been extremely happy and feeling utterly blessed much of the time, I’ve also spent a significant amount of energy critiquing each place and focusing on what was lacking.
In Koh Samui, for example, I judged the community as superficial, materialistic, and shallow. I longed for deeper connections and more spirituality like I found in Ubud, Bali, one of my favorite places in the world. I later moved to Koh Phangan, and while it did feel more spiritual and deeper conversation was more commonplace, my mind found plenty “wrong” with it. The people were too hippy or too “backpacker-y” for me, and even the delicious plant-based eateries there seemed to lack that “Ubud magic.” Again, I found myself focusing on what was missing.
Now that I have made my way back to Ubud, I’m noticing the same pattern of mind creeping in:
It’s too quiet.
It’s not the same as it once was.
The people try too hard to be perfect.
The rice fields no longer give me that “move-me-to-tears” feeling of peace and joy.
I’ve realized that it is not the places or the people that are the problem, but my mind’s relationship to them. Rather than accepting people and places and even myself for what they are—perfectly imperfect—I am unconsciously keeping myself contracted against the life that is before me. If I spend a lifetime chasing perfection, I am destined for a life with many moments of dissatisfaction.
“The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.” Tara Brach
Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT, broke down practice of mindfulness into six simple and practical skills that can be used to combat a negativity bias. They are: observe, describe, participate, nonjudgmentally, effectively and one-mindfully.
Observe: Notice what is happening inside of you—your mind and body—and around you. Experience through your senses; what do you see, hear, smell, taste and touch? This grounding skill helps to orient you to the present moment and bring awareness to your internal world.
Describe: Put words to your experience. Label feelings and thoughts such as dissatisfaction, comparing thoughts, sadness, longing. This skill helps prevent us from being hijacked by our experience by creating distance from it, making the intensity of emotions more manageable.
Participate: Throw yourself fully into the present moment. Dive in, go with the flow, let go of self-consciousness or critical thoughts and enter in to this moment exactly as it is.
Nonjudgmentally: Notice judgmental thoughts and let them go. Maybe try saying “A judgmental thought arose in my mind” before you release it. Maybe count judgmental thoughts by keeping a tally in your phone. Just by shining the light of awareness on the judgmental thoughts, they will naturally decrease and hold less power over you.
Effectively: Focus on doing what really works. Get clear on what your objective is in any given situation and consider the most direct route to reaching that objective, without becoming detoured by self-righteous anger, principled thinking, or a comparing mind.
One-mindfully: Bring your full awareness to one thing at a time—eat when you are eating, walk when you are walking, and work when you are working.
These skills help my clients and me tackle what often feels like a really challenging mental habit. Making a practice of even just one or two of them can help release troubling thoughts or emotions and bring us back into the power of our awareness.