Last year, my neighbor Sam passed away unexpectedly. Though Sam and his wife had been like surrogate grandparents to them, neither of my kids were able to attend his memorial service. So when my daughter came home for a visit a few days ahead of the scheduled service, I suggested that she and her brother should go next door and express their condolences to Sam’s wife, Mabel.
“I thought about that,” my daughter said, “but all their family is over there. I don’t know them. It’ll be awkward and weird.”
“Yeah, it probably will,” I said. “But it will mean a lot to Mabel, and you’ll survive a few minutes of feeling awkward.”
My daughter sighed, but she finally conceded that I was right. “I just hate doing things like this,” she said.
“So do I,” I told her. “I probably won’t know anyone at the memorial service, but I’m going anyway. Sometimes you just have to get over yourself and do the right thing.”
My kids ultimately did run next door to talk to Mabel, and I was proud of them for doing that. As Deirdre Sullivan notes in her essay, Always Go to the Funeral, it’s surprisingly difficult to do those small things that create a moment of discomfort for us, but mean so much to others.
As a family of introverts, we struggle with even the briefest social situations. Our natural tendency is to huddle up at home, staying safe and secure. But it wasn’t entirely clear to me why it’s so difficult for some introverts to get past their concerns about interacting with others until I learned about negativity bias.
To put it simply: our brains have a tendency to give more weight to negative stimuli. This is why we introverts can remember (perhaps in excruciating detail) every time we’ve felt like people with zero social skills. Negativity bias evolved for practical reasons–to help human beings remember which things would harm them–but it has the potential to blow uncomfortable feelings way out of proportion. That’s why I had to remind my daughter that she wouldn’t die of awkwardness.
Negativity bias also has the potential to make us anxious all the time. In other words, it’s possible to feel genuine anxiety about the possibility of feeling anxious. So the typical introvert doesn’t attend social gatherings because, in the past, those gatherings have made them feel awkward. That memory puts the introvert on high alert when a new social situation arises. But not attending that event–especially if it’s something important, like a memorial service or wedding–causes anxiety as well. The introvert worries about disappointing others, or about creating the wrong impression via their absence. There’s no way of avoiding the anxiety, no matter what you do.
So how can we get ourselves going, when we need to? Fortunately, it’s not that hard.
Focus on the positive.
It sounds cliche, but this is one sure way to subvert negativity bias. Instead of thinking about all the bad things that might happen, focus on the good things. As we headed for Sam’s memorial service, I reminded myself that I’d get to hear good things about someone I loved. I’d get to show support for Mabel and make her feel loved. I’d survive a little social awkwardness, and in the process I’d be doing something nice for a friend. That made it seem not-so-painful to get through small talk with people I didn’t know very well.
Remember how you’re wired.
Knowing that my brain is actually designed to focus on the negative has been hugely helpful to me. Instead of beating myself up for dwelling on the negative, I simply turn my attention elsewhere. Yes, it’s going to be awkward, but it’s also going to be comforting. Simple as that. No What’s wrong with you? This is not about your feelings. Stop being so self-absorbed. There’s no need to be unkind to yourself when you realize that your brain is just doing its job.
Look at the big picture.
I find it amusing that one of the places I tend to be most outgoing is the grocery store. That’s because I know my interactions with others are superficial: they don’t know me, I don’t know them, and we’ll most likely never see each other again. I have no trouble focusing on this big picture while I’m shopping, so I have no trouble making small talk while I’m in the checkout line.
Keeping this big picture in mind is almost always a helpful strategy for getting over yourself and getting past negativity bias. When you have an awkward interchange with someone, remind yourself that they probably won’t be thinking about it five minutes from now.
Minimize the sources of alarm.
I recently stopped watching a local news channel because of its tendency toward fear-mongering. While it’s true that the world is a dangerous place, it’s also true that the world is (and always has been) populated mostly by people who wish each other well. If that weren’t true, civilization would have died out long ago. I stopped watching violent movies and TV shows many years ago, for exactly the same reason.
If you have friends or relatives who live in a perpetual state of panic, spending less time in their company might be a good idea. This is especially true if you find their anxiety rubbing off on you. As a Highly Sensitive Person, I tend to “absorb” the moods and feelings of others. That’s why, for the sake of my own well-being, I choose to spend less time around anxious people.
Negativity bias in present in all our minds, but it’s a bigger challenge for introverts. Still, it’s not an excuse for failing to support those we care about when they need us most. It’s just a fact to keep in mind as we work to get over ourselves and get going.