How I internalized my achievements to better deal with negative feelings

Whenever I struggle to make progress on an important goal, I feel bad. I get feelings of frustration, impatience, and apathy. I think to myself, “I have wasted all this time, and I will never get it back.” The resulting behavior during these moments does not help either; my impatience makes it hard to concentrate, so I often work on more engaging tasks rather than the essential ones I ideally want to focus on. I also tend to push through; even if I feel tired, I want to make progress at all costs. I force myself to work, which results in decreased motivation, making it hard to make actual progress.

Thanks to a practice called HEAL, introduced in the book Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson, I now deal much better with this situation. HEAL stands for Having a beneficial experience, Enriching it, Absorbing it, and optionally Linking it to a negative experience. To dive straight in and use HEAL in practice, you can explore this guided HEAL meditation. More meditations can be found here, at the end of the Hardwiring Happiness book, and most of the meditations I found useful are in his Foundations of Wellbeing course (you can apply for scholarships).

The book suggests that behavior like my frustration can be caused by some underlying unmet need, resulting in compulsively trying to fulfill this need. This information and introspective techniques like Focusing helped me discover that these negative feelings came from some unmet need to feel worthwhile and recognized, but the problem was that I heavily tied my self-worth to the amount of progress I made.

HEAL allowed me to fulfill this need and thereby soothe these negative feelings by generating positive experiences of past accomplishments and letting the truth of these facts sink in by enriching and absorbing the experience, allowing me to see that I have made significant progress and am proud of what I have achieved. This helped me put these negative thoughts in perspective and let me realize on a deeper level that I am OK and capable of achieving meaningful things.

I feel calmer after doing this practice; it allows me to disengage from negative thought loops. When I have more distance from a negative thought, I ask myself what I can learn from this feeling and what is helpful for me at this moment, be it going for a short walk, talking with a friend about my frustration, or refocusing on the important task I wanted to accomplish.

Another benefit is that it helps me focus on the positive aspects that excite me and guide me toward what I want to create. One post that does a good job of clarifying why this can be useful is replacing fear.

HEAL can be used for many unhelpful thoughts or feelings. Using HEAL, we can internalize self-confidence when feeling fear about a presentation or job interview, motivation to overcome procrastination, self-acceptance to lessen the burdens of imposter syndrome, assertiveness when entering a difficult conversation, and courage to pursue that startup idea we always wanted to pursue.

How I applied the HEAL method

To soothe these negative thoughts of frustration, impatience, and apathy that I encounter when not making enough progress, I called to mind instances where I was honestly satisfied with my accomplishments. This is the first step in the HEAL process: Having a beneficial experience. I recalled a moment after giving a workshop where someone told me they found the workshop valuable and eye-opening.

Next, I Enriched this experience by holding it in my mind for a dozen seconds, vividly imagining the scenario, feeling everything I felt then, and clarifying why this was a meaningful experience for me.

Third is the Absorbing step, where I let this experience sink in and let myself be touched by it. I allowed the meaningfulness to sink in and the fact that it aligns with my value of helping people grow as a person. I realized, “Oh wow, I am proud of my previous accomplishments, and by working diligently, I can make progress on the things I care about; maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh on myself after all.” I allowed myself to feel some of this proudness, which was partly successful and partly met with resistance by some negative beliefs coming up. The linking step can be helpful for dealing with this resistance.

Lastly, Linking it to a negative experience. Keep the negative experience in the background of awareness and the positive in the foreground. My fundamental negative belief around this was that I was not good enough; I needed to accomplish more and work harder to see myself as worthwhile. Contrasting this to the previous feelings of recognizing my accomplishment helped me put this thought in perspective.

Doing this practice helped me to reassure myself that not everything is a disaster and I am basically still OK and can bounce back from an unproductive day, which makes it easier to step back from the frustration, feel calm and relaxed, and see it in perspective. When I now feel impatience coming up, I try to calm down and say to myself, “Yes, I didn’t make progress today because I slept badly. This is not the end of the world, and I am still happy where I stand today”. I ask myself what I can do better next time to prevent this and what would be the best action, like going for a walk to calm down, doing sports, or relaxing to engage productively again later on.

Over time, this practice trained my mind to focus on what is most helpful by deliberately internalizing experiences of positive feelings during the HEAL meditations, which provided an antidote to soothe my negative thoughts and put them in perspective, allowing me to act in a constructive way rather than dwelling on these negative feelings repeatedly and acting impulsively as I tried to escape them.

To this day, I still practice this regularly. It helps me relax, feel less impatient, and be excited about all the things I can still accomplish, which results in experiencing less stress and allowing me to be more motivated, focused, and catching myself when distracted by unimportant tasks.

The importance of internalizing positive experiences

Throughout our day, we have many positive experiences. For example, a colleague helps us at work, we progress on an important goal, or we have the courage to talk to a specific important person at a conference. However, we often fail to internalize these positive experiences and make them part of how we view ourselves: we sometimes take courageous or conscientious actions, but these might not lead to seeing ourselves as a courageous or conscientious person.

Our brain has a negativity bias; bad experiences or negative news tend to have a more substantial impact on how we think, feel, and behave compared to positive experiences of the same intensity. For example, we might dwell longer on a critical comment than a compliment or remember a traumatic event more vividly than a happy one.

This is because of a negative sensitization process in our brain that quickly stores memories related to negative events in our long-term memory to help us avoid making a similar mistake in the future. On the other hand, positive experiences (unless they are intense or novel) have little lasting effect. Instead, positive experiences are processed through our standard memory systems. New memories are first held in short-term memory buffers; only if they are held there long enough do they transfer to long-term storage. But we rarely dwell consciously on positive experiences for 5, 10, or 20 seconds. The consequence is that improving our skills, having fun with friends, and performing well on a presentation or job don’t necessarily influence how we view ourselves.

To counteract the negativity bias, it’s crucial to deliberately focus on and internalize positive experiences, giving them the attention and recognition they deserve by consciously savoring these moments. This can turn fleeting moments of joy into enduring sources of comfort and strength, leading to more positive actions and creating a virtuous cycle.

The HEAL method in detail

We can counteract our negativity bias with the HEAL practice. Below are the four steps of the HEAL process.

Have a positive experience

Either notice a positive experience you’re already having or deliberately create one, such as a feeling of compassion or, in my case, accomplishment. Let it be a genuine feeling you are happy about, some experience that is meaningful to you.

Enrich it

In this step, we enrich the experience to make it more likely to stick to long-term memory. Rick Hanson introduces five ways to enrich the experience. You can:

  • Increase the duration of the experience.

  • Increasing the intensity by feeling it more strongly.

  • Use multi-modality by engaging other senses, such as visualizing the experience.

  • Seek novelty by looking for what’s new or fresh about it.

  • Find its relevance by highlighting why it matters and is meaningful to you.

Absorb it

Letting the experience sink into you, savoring it, and making it meaningful. This can help deepen the emotional impact of the experience. If enriching is making the campfire larger, absorbing is taking in the warmth of the fire. I did this by allowing myself to feel proud about my achievements, not in an overinflating way, but honestly recognizing that I did accomplish something that was important to me.

Linking positive and negative material

This step has two variations. Both rely on the memory reconsolidation mechanism explained in this post.

  1. Putting the negative experience in perspective by contrasting it to positive experiences. This can be done by simultaneously holding the positive experience created in the first three steps of HEAL and the negative experience in mind. The positive experience should be kept in the foreground, and the negative experience should be held in the background. You should acknowledge the negative experience but let it not overwhelm you. In this way, you store a more balanced view in your memory. Using my example again, I contrasted the internalized belief of not being good enough with feelings of past accomplishments.

  2. Removing the association between a neutral object and unhelpful thought. In my example, I linked typical hurdles in my progress (neutral object) to feelings of failure and not accomplishing enough. To remove this association, I first activate the negative thought of feeling like a failure, which opens a window of reconsolidation for at least an hour or so. I can use this window to repeatedly bring to mind the neutral object of a typical hurdle while feeling only neutral or positive experiences for a dozen seconds or longer, which will disrupt the reconsolidation of the negative associations I have when encountering such a hurdle.

Summary and Conclusion

The thoughts you think about yourself matter. Due to the negativity bias, we tend to focus more on the negative aspects of ourselves than the positive aspects.

We can counteract this negativity bias by internalizing positive experiences and storing them in long-term memory. This helps put our negative thoughts in perspective and helps us handle them more effectively.

You can internalize positive experiences by using HEAL: Having a beneficial experience, Enriching it, Absorbing it, and optionally Linking it to negative experiences to soothe and gradually replace unhelpful thoughts.

This gives us the strength to take on the challenges in our lives and fully live up to our potential by feeling resourceful and strong inside.