The Negativity Bias and Burnout

Negativity bias

If you are low on energy, motivation, or confidence…

If you are ruminating and beating yourself up…

If you struggle with “giving yourself grace” or being nice to yourself…

This blog is for you.

The cognitive bias that trips us up the most when it comes to happiness is the simple negativity bias that traps the brain in being hyper-focused on what’s going wrong.

And it’s a major contributor to physician burnout.

1. The Negativity Bias: Why?

The negativity bias is a pattern designed for one reason: survival. The human species did not rise up the evolutionary ladder because of our physical prowess. Definitely not. And the cavemen and women who lived in idyllic bliss and smiled all the time, staring off at sunsets while saber-toothed tigers approached, were quickly weeded out.

But our most neurotic, high-strung great-great-great… grandparents who anxiously scanned the horizon for potential threats…

They made it to see another day and procreate.

You see, our brains are designed to keep us alive, not to keep us happy, confident, or joyful. They are designed to scan for threats so we can respond to them…and live.

But in the modern world, what are our brains scanning for?

They’re scanning for psychological, not physical, threats.

Today, that hyper-focus on threats presents itself as self-criticism, worry, fear, and stress.

For those in healthcare, this may be rumination, fear of a lawsuit, dreading work, inability to be present when you come home, a lack of compassion for your patients (or yourself), or many other things.

But the important thing to remember is that this is the natural pattern of the brain.

In other words, it is a personal failing and it is not your fault.

Mindfulness to Reduce the Negativity Bias (and Burnout)

For those of you who have read Daavi and my recent book, Mindful MD. 6 Ways Mindfulness Restores Your Autonomy and Cures Healthcare Burnout, you know that I don’t teach my coaching clients mindfulness because I’m trying to create a generation of Buddhist doctors.

No, I teach my clients mindfulness because of its tremendous capacity to mitigate burnout. This is via the awareness that mindfulness brings. I liken this to making a diagnosis. It’s not until we are fully aware of the impact of the negativity bias on our thinking and actions that we can shift its hold. After all, we can’t intervene (read: treat) until we diagnose.

And part of the diagnosing is realizing just how much the negativity bias is contributing to our burnout. It steals our ability to see the positive. When we can’t see the positives, not the pollyanna ones but the very real ones we all encounter in our work and lives, we become downtrodden, exhausted, and lost, and, yes, burned out.

If you can see the negativity bias for what it is, become the observer of it, and mindfully detach from it, you see more clearly that there’s nothing wrong with you for having self-critical thoughts or living in fear and worry. You see that these thought processes are simply a result of the brain you were dropped here with, then you can move towards patterns and thoughts that actually serve you.

The reason physicians and others benefit so much from mindfulness (and I’ve seen this benefit in the over 500 docs and others I’ve coached) is because it’s where the rubber meets the road.

So what can you do?

Here are a few simple steps you can do today:

  1. Notice when your mind is veering to the negative.
  2. Name to yourself that this is the negativity bias.
  3. Smile at the negativity bias and see that you have a choice whether you attach to it or not.
  4. See if you can bring your mind to something more positive and resourceful.
  5. Give yourself credit for helping your mind be your ally rather than your foe.

It takes practice to reverse this powerful force yet it is practice that is well worth it.

Perfectionism: How it Contributes to Physician Burnout: Part 1

There’s a lot of buzz these days about perfectionism and this is something I’m very glad to see.

Perfectionism is something I have personal experience with and it’s also something I have seen in almost every one of the hundreds of physicians I have coached over the past 12 years. Sometimes the physician identifies their perfectionism as a problem early on in the coaching. Other times, it is more subtle and, only after we do some probing does it become clear just how much perfectionism is derailing their well-being.

Here’s an example, a client I’ll call Janet:

Janet came to coaching struggling to get her charts done. The Achilles Heel of the modern physician, Janet found charting a big burden, something she resented having to spend time on, No sooner would she sit down at the computer to get that day’s charts done, than she found herself surfing the Web, looking at the family shopping list, and basically doing anything other than getting the charts done.

When we took a deep dive as to what was stalling her, she shared something important. “When other

As a physician, you were likely taught that attention to detail and a commitment to excellence are important qualities to have. And if you’re a physician, undoubtedly, in one area or another, you’re hard on yourself. There’s nothing wrong with striving to do your best (of course), but it’s important to be mindful of where that striving is coming from. Because if it’s an over-reliance on perfectionism, it may be from a place of fear, low self-worth, and lack – surefire causes for burnout.

Perfectionism is extremely common among physicians, and this is likely because of how close to perfect you have to be to become a doctor. Since being a teenager, you’ve likely had to get near-perfect grades and test scores and have a flawless CV to make it through to the next checkpoint on the journey to becoming a doctor. While this pressure and do-or-die mentality may have worked for earning the white coat, it certainly doesn’t for keeping it.

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