Accentuate the Positive

Bing Crosby sang: You’ve got to accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative, Latch on to the affirmative. This article explains why it’s so difficult for us to do that, and why it’s so important that we do.

Humans are sophisticated, but we still have some instincts that aren’t all that necessary anymore. These instincts influence our behavior, despite how advanced we think we are. One instinct is to notice when things are not how they are supposed to be. We enter a room and instantly notice the one thing that is out of place and ignore the 87 things that are right where they should be. The purpose of this instinct is to protect us. When we had limited shelter from the elements and from wild animals, we needed to notice every little thing that was out of place in order to defend ourselves against danger. We had to notice animal tracks, a change in the wind, the odor of fire, and so on, because each of those little things could signal deadly danger. Now that we have smoke detectors, brick buildings, and telephones, we don’t need to be so aware of changes in our environment that could kill us. However, the instinct continues to exist and express itself. It does so by making us notice when our child has left his book bag on the living room floor or his towel on the floor, or when our husband didn’t empty the ashtray or when our wife didn’t balance the checkbook. None of these items are ‘life or death’ serious, but we notice them, and almost cannot resist saying or doing something about them. Whatever you call it – complaining, criticizing, nagging, correcting, or giving instruction – the overall message is negative. You’re telling people that what they did isn’t good enough.

When you give people enough negative messages, they eventually tune you out. They get angry, hurt, or just plain sick of hearing you talk and they stop listening to you. If you, as a parent, continually point out what your children did poorly and when they put something in the wrong place and how they didn’t do enough of whatever it was they were trying to do, they get very sick of listening to you and they just stop. They no longer care what you say and then when it is time to tell them something important, they are no longer interested and they will miss the important message. Likewise, if a spouse is always cutting down what the other spouse does, the browbeaten spouse will eventually just block the complainer out and ignore what he or she says. This generally leads to divorce since you can’t maintain a relationship when you’re not listening to each other.

We are instinctively prone to notice the negative, criticize it, and want to correct it, but the people in your family need for you to suppress that instinctual tendency and accentuate the positive!

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