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To Be Better, Not Bitter


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When I walked into my new FBI office, I was viewed as a curiosity more than anything else. In the 1980’s there weren’t that many female FBI agents; everyone was polite but distant. I wore a suit and low-heeled shoes—despite what is shown in movies and TV shows, nothing looks more ridiculous than a woman tottering around on high heels while trying to balance the weight of a gun on her hip.

I pretended not to notice when the guys grabbed their jackets and headed out the door for lunch without inviting me. I also pretended not to notice that I wasn’t included in the informal squad debriefings about the direction the more important cases were headed. Our squad worked counterintelligence and espionage cases and only senior agents were considered experienced enough to be investigating the activities of an intelligence officer.

It soon became evident that I would never get the opportunity as long as I was assigned the cases no one else on the squad wanted. If I wanted to work against a foreign spy, I’d need to go out and find one myself.

I could have been bitter; instead, I let this situation show me how to be better.

We’ve all been in situations where it’s hard to keep a positive attitude. When this happens, we have to intentionally choose to be positive because we all have an innate bias toward negativity. We process bad news faster than good news because our brain is survival driven. Survival is a tough, uncompromising business. For centuries our brain programmed us to “Get lunch—not BE lunch.”

This explains why we’re driven to avoid losses far more than we’re driven to pursue gains. When faced with uncertainty, the brain is wired to quit because it is reminded of past failures. And I’ll admit that there were times I wanted to quit the squad and ask to be reassigned.

It is at this point, however, that we can chose to be influenced by our negativity bias, or conversely, pursue positive thinking. The choice is ours. We can choose to learn from our experiences and be better, or feel sorry for ourselves and be bitter.

I did not leave the squad. Instead, I made a choice to be proactive. I crafted an undercover proposal where I would be the undercover agent in a position to target foreign spies visiting companies with classified or proprietary information. FBI Headquarters loved it because it was a fresh and unique approach.

Each one of us has a choice when faced with adversity and obstacles: we can either continue the negativity spiral or decide to move forward in other ways. Here are four suggestions:

1. Admit the negativity bias. Once you acknowledge what is going on, it prompts you to move out of the emotional limbic system, which is survival-driven, and into the cerebral brain, which is logical and thinking. Once you admit your negativity bias, it also helps you to identify partners and colleagues who can offer you support and assistance in your move.

2. Distinguish between “wishful thinking” and “positive thinking.” Your brain will dismiss wishful thinking as a threat to your survival. Positive thinking requires you to recognize a situation for what it actually is and then work within those confines.

3. Notice legitimate positives. Try to identify at least 3 times as many positives as negatives in your situation. Because of your negativity bias, it’s important to consciously focus on positive experiences wherever they may be in your everyday life.

4. Focus and sustain. Once you have noticed (or created) a positive response, stay focused on it for 10-20 seconds. Basically, positive experiences have a cumulative effect over time. The longer and more often you do this, you will not only get more curious about those experiences, you’ll actually be changing the structure of your brain. You will be creating new connections and building pathways associated with positive experiences.

Whenever I am tempted to feel bitterness toward the way I was treated by my squad as a new agent, I remind myself that because of their cold shoulder, I dug deep and found positive attributes in myself that I may not have discovered otherwise.

Be better, not bitter.

Change one letter of the alphabet and change your life.

How do you find positives in the middle of negative situations? How do you distinguish between positive thinking and wishful thinking?

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