Evolution has rigged all of us with a negativity bias—a survival-driven habit to scan for what’s wrong and to fixate on it. In contemporary society, a pervasive target is our own sense of unworthiness. We habitually fixate on how we’re falling short—in our relationships, our work, our appearance, our mood and behaviors. And while self-aversion is our primary reflex, we also fixate on the faults of others, how other people are letting us down, how they are wrong or bad and should be different. Whether we are focusing inwardly or outwardly, we are creating an enemy, and imprisoning ourselves in the sense of a separate, threatened self.
While the negativity bias is a key part of our survival apparatus, when it dominates our daily life, we lose access to the more recently evolved parts of our brain that contribute to feelings of connection, empathy and wellbeing. What helps us to de-condition the negativity bias? How do we shift from limbic reactivity to “attend and befriend"? Here are three ways that help us awaken our full potential for natural presence and caring.
Look for the Vulnerability
The first thing we can do is to look toward the vulnerability, starting with ourselves. When we’re blaming ourselves, we can ask: What’s really going on underneath here? What has driven me to behave in this way? Perhaps you’ll see you were afraid to fall short, and that fear made you act exactly how you didn’t want to act. Or maybe you see you really wanted approval because you were feeling insecure, and so you ended up somehow betraying yourself and not acting with integrity.
Once you are more present and balanced, try to look through the eyes of wisdom at what might behind their behavior. How might this person be caught in their own sense of insecurity, inadequacy, confusion? If you can begin to see how this person might be suffering, you will reconnect with a natural sense of tenderness and care.
Actively Express Compassion
When you begin to understand that you are really hurting in some way, you will naturally open out of blame and into self-compassion. When triggered by others, first bring a kind presence to your own feelings of vulnerability. When compassion arises, the next step is to actively express it. This is what brings compassion fully to life. If you’re working on self-compassion, look to the vulnerable part of yourself to sense what it most needs from you. Is it forgiveness? Acceptance? Companionship? Safety? Love? Then, from the most wise and kind place in your being, try to offer inwardly what is most needed. Either mentally or with a whisper, you might say your name and send a message of kindness; that you are holding it with love, that you are not leaving. You might place a hand gently on your heart or cheek, or even give yourself a light hug as a way of conveying, from your more awake heart: I’m here with you. I care.
If you’re working with compassion for others, then it’s powerful and healing to communicate your recognition of their suffering, and your care. We all know that when we are with somebody we love, if we actually say the words "I love you" out loud, it brings the love to a new level. If you want to reverse your negativity bias with someone—to reverse your habits of blaming or distancing—look for their vulnerability and then, either through prayer or in person, offer them some message of understanding and kindness.
Include Those Who Seem Different
Part of our negativity bias, and the cause of much racial, religious and other domains of violence, is we assume potential danger—something wrong—associated with those who are different. A practice that evolves us (and our larger society) toward inclusive loving is to intentionally deepen our relationships with others of difference. When we communicate on purpose, trying to understand, it opens us to the larger truth of our interconnectedness.
While our brain has a flight, fight, freeze mechanism, it also has a compassion network that includes mirror neurons that allow us to register what it’s like for another. We can sense that others want to feel loved and loving; that they want to feel safe and be happy. When we feel that connection, it enables us to act on behalf of each other and the relationship or larger community. But unless we purposefully take time to pause and listen to others of difference, we won’t automatically engage that part of our brain. And to have these heart-awakening dialogues, we need to intentionally create safe conscious containers.
In the same way as we train on the cushion, we can train in conscious communication with each other, and gradually widen the circles to connect with those who may be more notably of difference. There are many effective practices like Insight Dialogue, Non-Violent Communication and circles of reconciliation that offer a formal structure for communicating.
Importantly, we need to practice in our close-in relationships. A couple of times a week, my husband and I will meditate together and then we’ll have a period of silence where we reflect on certain inquires like: What are you grateful for right now? and What is difficult for you right now? We also ask: Is there anything between us that is getting in the way of an open and loving flow? The other person listens with a kind, accepting presence, and we each get to name what we’re experiencing. Whatever practice you choose, you can trust it’s important healing work, especially in these times.
What about those who aren’t willing to engage in conversation with us? Fortunately, we can know that our capacity to feel connection isn’t hitched to their capacity to connect to us. Of course, it’s easier to feel it when there’s mutuality, but we can still offer kindness from our hearts, regardless. And research shows that this kind attention wakes up the part of our brain that feels compassion. It’s possible to do this in every situation, with every person we meet.
It’s natural that in the face of hurt, injustice, deception, and violation we will feel a range of emotions, like fear, hatred and anger. The negativity bias can lock us into being at war with ourselves and with others “out there.” It is important that we pause, be with ourselves and with each other, and open fully to the feelings that arise. When we honor and listen to those feelings, we can get beneath them, down to the human vulnerability and care that is really our essence. It then becomes possible to respond to our world aligned with our hearts.
I have a morning prayer that’s really simple: Teach me about kindness. When I move through the day with that informing me, the moments become filled with presence, tenderness and aliveness—even when I encounter challenging people, myself included!