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.