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  • Writer's pictureLisa Gottlieb

Overcoming Negativity Bias

As humans, we are geared to look for what’s wrong in our environment. Our species wouldn’t have survived if we weren’t naturally wary while navigating the world. Think of early humans living in caves, ignoring the rustling in the deep brush (could be a saber tooth tiger) or eating the enticing bright red berries without remembering what happened the last time someone else ate them (yikes, poison).

In modern times that hyperalertness to potential danger still serves us. A car driving too fast as we cross the street motivates us to jump back to the curb, or scurry across to get out of the way. This finely honed sensitivity to potential danger is helpful in unknown or unsafe situations.

However, in our interpersonal relationships, it can get in the way of assuming goodwill in our partners and other important relationships, especially if we have a history of showing emotional vulnerability with people before we have established enough of a safe connection with them, or with those who may not have our best interests at heart. Sometimes we err on the side of not disclosing anything, because we learned early on that to do so would lead to shame or blame. Learning to share warmly and empathically, with safe, healthy discernment is a key feature in skilled and connecting communication.

Take a moment and consider your own approach to life and relationships. Do you generally default to noticing what’s wrong in situations, or with what other people say and do? Do you tend to treat yourself harshly when you don’t meet expectations or goals you set for yourself? For some, this kind of approach can be motivating to drive you when you are tired, overwhelmed, or bored. Yet, it takes a toll on your nervous system, your stress levels, and it can leak out into how you treat others. Often people who are very hard on themselves are also that way with other people.

Perhaps, instead, you lean towards people-pleasing and make excuses for others' poor behavior or hurtful words because directly addressing the hurt or pain is too scary. This is especially true for those who grew up in conditions where fear of abandonment, or of abuse and neglect were very real threats. Sometimes people who grew up in these conditions use gratitude or a pressure to be spiritually above it all to bypass the fear and pain of taking a stand for ourselves. This is exhausting and may lead to depression and anxiety.

In NVC, we practice a needs-based consciousness to support bringing our attention to what we want more of, instead of what is wrong to avoid our default tendencies that are less effective and limit us in our lives. We do this by bringing our attention to what we are feeling in any given situation (sensations and emotions) and naming those feelings. Using the FEELINGS Inventory is a helpful tool to distinguish what is an authentic feeling, and what is an accusation or blame approach. These accusations can be hidden in words that we may believe are feelings, such as “I feel abandoned” or “I feel dismissed”, yet these are thoughts about what someone else is doing to us. In NVC we call these faux feelings (faux is French for false) and upping your awareness about what are feelings and what are the thoughts or accusations of others (or yourself) can go a long way to owning your own experience and bringing your attention back to what you chose to do in any given situation, and where you have the most agency and choice in your decisions.

A suggested activity is to take a look at the NEEDS inventory and familiarize yourself with needs that are important to you, and deserve some attention. You may notice some of the needs on the list you don’t spend a lot of time with because those needs are easily available for you to meet, on your own, or in your connections with other people. Other needs may bring up some pain, loss, or a tender quality, because they are often missing in your life. If you are able to have some warm curiosity for yourself as you examine the list, you will likely touch into some vulnerability related to these needs. Track these tender needs, and the next time you sense some distress, reactivity, or that something or someone is “wrong” or “bad”, consider those tender needs, and shift into what you want more of. In other words, what need is calling for attention in the situation? You may find that when you switch from who or what is wrong, bad, dissatisfying, or otherwise distressing you, to what need is alive in the moment, you come back to yourself. This self-connection can then lead to more ownership for what you need, than turning on someone else and making them wrong or bad. When we self-connect with our needs, we have more agency and choice about what we decide we want to do to make things better for ourselves and others with whom we are in relationship.

Doing this practice consistently over time will increase your self-connection, give you more bandwidth when you are struggling with a situation or another person, and eventually lead you to skill-building related to what other people may also be needing. When we connect with ourselves and others through needs, instead of thoughts, opinions, blaming or wrongness, we are more able to remember our shared humanity, and the ways we are more alike than different.

Relating through shared needs opens us creatively to collaborative problem-solving and more grace for being human in this complicated time we are all currently navigating.

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