Why you’re doing everything wrong

You always remember your bad reviews. 50 people could tell you how amazing you are and what will keep you awake at 3am? Yep, the one who said something critical.

Our brains are hardwired to zone in on negative experience. Clifford Nass who’s a professor of communications at Stanford University wrote ‘The Man Who Lied to his Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships’. There is, he says a physiological reason why we focus on the bad reviews, rather than the positive ones. A negative emotion makes us think differently, often requiring more reflection and attention. The positive thought, by comparison, glides through rather painlessly. So we ruminate on unhappy events and physically give them more headspace.

There are schools and methods for trying to undermine the way our brains are wired but it’s more insidious when you reflect on how the fear of failure is now a business model. Knowing that you’ll reflect on the negative and want to not do that again brands and media can motivate you by pulling at that thread, by making you feel like you’re doing everything wrong. They know you’ll buy the products, read the columns, follow the life plan and pay for it because you’re afraid if you don’t then you’ll fail.

Diets, cult or otherwise, can cut your risk of dementia, cancer and depression apparently. Failure to toe the line and you’re putting your own health at risk. You’re letting the side down because who has to pick up the pieces? Everyone else. You can’t even use the excuse of being too busy because that, apparently, is a fallacy. You’re just failing to use your time effectively enough. What you need is a gadget that helps you manage your time. Can’t afford one? Then obviously you’ve failed because you’re not wealthy.

The idea that society has a yardstick that you’re constantly measured against and found wanting is exhausting. But what benefit can their possibly be in media and brands reminding us we’re constantly failing?

They know you’ll remember. They know that if on Saturday morning you read a feature that offers yet another list of tips on how to parent in your mind you’ll be one step closer to the idealised figure in society the media tells you that you can actively be. So you try to toe the line and you fail. You slip back into what they call bad habits (bad habits which is roughly translated as ‘the way you live your life’). “We did tell you”, they trill, “it’s not our fault you can’t achieve it”.

The inference, of course, is that they have. By pointing out your failings and suggesting ways you can overcome them they are in a position of aspirational power. They are the person you trust, the one who want to be when you can finally have all your ducks in a ┬árow. You want to be them. Why? Because they’ve told you they’re everything you want to be. Except in truth they’re not. They’re the same as you.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself. But following a path dictated by someone else, being told you’re failing to measure up and going back to the starting line isn’t bettering yourself, it’s Stockholm Syndrome. Much better to decide what you want to do, what you want your life to look like and then work out how you can reasonably manage to get there. Without someone else telling you how far you’re falling short of their yardstick.


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