Why It's Easy To Be Negative Post-Breakup (And What To Do)

One of my coaching clients —let's call her Lauren— recently came in to share the story of her first date post-divorce. I was excited that she felt ready to meet someone after her challenging year. "So, tell me about it. How'd it go?" I asked.

She whispered, "Horrible. It was horrible." I could feel the pain in her words. After a moment I said, "Tell me about it. What happened?"

This is what she remembered. His name was Mark. They rendezvoused at a restaurant he suggested. She waited for Mark at the bar, as she was a few minutes early so she saw him walk in. He was handsome— even more so than in his online pictures. He came over and gave her a little hug. When they got to the table, Mark pulled out her chair for her before sitting down. During dinner, Mark asked a lot of questions about her childhood, work, and other things in her life. He also spoke at length about a great dish he'd eaten at the restaurant earlier that month.

Near the end of the date, Mark's phone buzzed. He glanced at it and then apologized, saying it was a work call he had to take, and he would be just a quick minute (which he was). He paid, and they made their way to the door. When they stepped outside the restaurant, Mark started talking about some concert tickets he had just bought. She got the idea he wanted the concert to be their second date, but she politely told him she was buried in work and would get in touch.

Still waiting for the horrific details, I asked, "Is that it?"

She responded in disbelief, “Is that it?”

I wasn't quite following, so I said, "Why don't you tell me what irked you most?" Her list of grievances was long: Mark asked way too many questions. He practically ordered for her. And his phone rang during dinner! Then she paused, her shoulders sank, and voice cracked as she asked earnestly, "Is this what it's like out there? All this date did was make me think about my ex."

So, to review: Lauren went on a date with a seemingly kind, handsome, and thoughtful person. Maybe the date wasn't perfect, but she left the experience focused on what she perceived as the negatives. She even seemed to skew reality. (For example, she equated Mark's talking about a dish he liked with ordering for her.)

Why was it so easy for Lauren to focus on the negatives? Intelligent human design. Humans are wired to give more mental weight to negative events and information than to positive events and information. In the psychological community, this is known as negativity bias. In fact, psychologist Barbara Frederickson's research on this subject finds that the "bad stuff" can outweigh the good by three times!

Let's look at the science behind this phenomenon and some practical strategies to overcome negativity bias.

1. Magnify the 'good stuff"

Imagine you're a hunter-gatherer caveman (or cavewoman) heading out into the great unknown to find food for your family. Your surroundings are unfamiliar and potentially dangerous. So while it might be nice for you notice the rainbow in a corner of the sky, you really need to be on high alert for a saber-tooth cat ready to make you its next meal. These days, most of us don't have to be wary of scary predators lurking in the bush, but research shows that our brains are still hardwired to act as if we do. In short, our minds are programmed to detect, dwell on, and even magnify the "bad stuff" in order to help keep us alive.

What to do: Try using the 4Cs, a process I developed to actively challenge your negative thoughts. Start by picking one negative thought, and the next time it pops up, be a thought detective.

  • Catch the thought. In my work with Lauren, we caught this negative thought: "I can't believe my date tried to order dinner for me."
  • Collect evidence supporting or negating the thought. Lauren tried to think about her date more factually. What did her date actually say about the food? Did he, in fact, tell the waiter that she wanted a particular dish?
  • Challenge your original thought, and
  • Change it (if appropriate). Lauren concluded with this statement: "My date really liked a dish at the restaurant— so much so that I felt like he was suggesting I order it. More likely, he just wanted to express his opinion about the dish."

Keep in mind, this exercise is not about positive thinking, but rather accurate thinking.

2. Store up the positive events

Here's something that might throw you for a loop— research summarized by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson reveals that negative information is stored in our brains immediately, while positive information needs to be held in our minds for 5–20 seconds to leave a lasting emotional impression. This is why the "good stuff" — appreciating a beautiful day or receiving a compliment from someone, for example — often goes in one ear and out the other.

What to do: Savor positive moments, no matter how small.  Give yourself a full 20 seconds (or more!) for that positive moment to sink in and store itself away in your brain. In Lauren’s case, she felt excited about meeting someone new—she even got butterflies (the good kind)! We focused on those feelings during our coaching session. She put her hand on her heart, closed her eyes, and recreated the warmth and excitement of her anticipation at meeting Mark.

3. Emphasize acceptance over rejection

In one study of self-esteem, researchers told a group of participants they had been selected to be included in a special group, while other participants were told they had been rejected. We all know what it feels like to be rejected. Whether someone broke up with you or whether you ended a relationship yourself, breakups can leave you feeling like who you are just isn’t good enough. The researchers found that, as expected, the rejected people showed big drops in their self-esteem. But the lucky accepted people? Meh. Their self-esteem pretty much stayed the same. In other words, bad events like rejection can cause us to feel especially bad while good events like acceptance barely register. We have to work extra hard to savor those good moments.

What to do: Express thanks! It's too easy for us to dwell on everything that is wrong in our lives. Try flipping that negativity around and seek out everything that is right. Start a gratitude journal and mark down positive moments as they occur. For Lauren, we made a huge list that included some big things (her health, her friends) and many small things (the warm cup of tea she had in her hands). She made a commitment to find at least three good things in each day ahead and record them in her journal.

4. Finding positivity

After a few weeks of trying these exercises, Lauren came to me with these thoughts: Breaking up is hard, and dating and connecting with another person can also be a challenge. But making an effort to infuse positivity into her life has helped Lauren change her mindset. She feels she is now able to give herself a real chance at finding meaning in a new relationship.

Learn more about Amelie's research-based toolbox to heal a broken heart in Step to Heal