Today’s Reminder: Avoid the Negative Spiral

Whether it’s in regards to a crush, an actual relationship or any other facet of your life, being able to tell when you’re falling into a negative spiral is the first step in not getting stuck in a very bad place.

A negative spiral is a pattern of thought or behavior that is self-reinforcing and based on either faulty or a lack of actual information. It is triggered by risk-taking behavior and usually kicks in when the results or fall out from that behavior don’t occur quickly.

For example:

You shoot off a message telling someone you like them. Then you wait for a response. Maybe a day goes by. Now you start to think “Oh no! They’re not answering! They’re probably trying to figure out how to let me down easy. Or maybe I’ve scared them away entirely by coming on too strong.” Legitimate concerns, especially if you’ve had such things happen before, but no more probable than them being busy or their computer being down.

Another day goes by. Now the negative spiral kicks in full force. It begins to pick and choose all the worse case scenarios you’ve ever experienced or heard about. It finds connections from those to all of your previous interactions with this person you sent the note off to. “Uh-oh! This is just like that time my ex was cheating on me! She went a whole week without writing back!” Even though the only thing that negative experience has in common with the current experience is a lag time in response. It could just as easily be “just like that time dad’s computer died and he didn’t respond to that e-mail I sent.”

As the negative spiral progresses, it encourages you to act out–to preemptively apologize for things you haven’t quite done, for feelings you may (or may not) have hurt. It drives you to scrutinize ever more closely (and with more negative bias) any interaction you’ve had before. It encourages a negative self-image (“This is going bad, just like things always do for me.”)

If you give in to those urges, the situation almost always gets more complicated before it gets better. Now, the person who may have been flattered by your first letter (even if they weren’t interested) comes home from an unplanned trip to an in-box full of apologies (and sometimes accusations) that wash away that good feeling and just leave them seeing an insecure, hyper-sensitive and slightly crazy person who’s spent the last ten or fifteen messages holding a conversation with themselves.

Is that really the impression you want to give?

The bottom line is they are either going to respond or they are not. If they do respond, it will be in the affirmative (“Yeah, I feel that way too”), the negative (“Uh, no… and that’s kind of creepy, I don’t want to see you anywhere near me”) or, most often, in a neutral way (“That’s flattering, but I’m not looking for a relationship right now”). As long as you haven’t been completely outlandish in your initial contact, you stand better than a 50% chance of things being neutral or good.

When you notice yourself being pulled in to a negative spiral of thought fight very hard against taking action based on it. Stay away from your “send” button. Don’t dial her number on the phone (you’ll probably end up leaving a long, rambling voice mail message that would make any sitcom plot proud). Don’t go and camp out on her doorstep. Do not take any action until more concrete information comes your way.

Most of the time, if you can hold back the dark cloud of panic and depression that a negative spiral brings with it, you’ll hear back and things will be good (or, at least, neutral and mostly unchanged).

We all have responses that have become automatic over time. If we can recognize the bad ones for what they are, we can begin to change them. This makes us–and everyone we have to interact with–happier.

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