My dad has gone through some hard times with his health in the last year, and it’s really changed his perspective. It seems like he always finds the negative in everything. To be honest, being around him brings me down too. After all he’s been through and at his age, I want him to appreciate the good things he still has. Is there a way to get through to him and change his outlook? And if not, how can I avoid “catching” his negativity when I spend time with him?
Seeking the Positive
Dear Seeking the Positive,
Thank you for writing in. I can feel how much you love and care about your dad. I imagine it is tough to balance holding your care and concern for him while also protecting yourself from his negativity. Your question has a lot of depth, and when I read it, the words of the famous psychologist Rick Hanson came to mind. He teaches that, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” He further points out that our experiences can be shaded by a negativity bias.
In simple terms, the negativity bias is a research-based concept that suggests we humans seem to be more influenced by negative perceptions than by positive ones. Perhaps this is because, as we evolved, noticing threats served our survival better. Threat monitoring makes it so we can take evasive and protective action to stay safe and perpetuate our species. However, the pitfall in this is that if all we notice is the negative, that is the direction in which our attention and energy will go. Therefore, we must be intentional about discovering and seeing the good that is also around us in moments where we are indeed safe.
If we hold this model in mind when we think about your dad, one hypothesis is that the illness may have amplified his predisposition to notice what is negative over what is good. He is on alert mode and perhaps more attuned to what is wrong internally and externally. I know this sort of insight doesn’t make his negativity feel any better for you, but perhaps developing this awareness can call forth greater compassion for where he is at. It also doesn’t mean that you should not address it or set effective boundaries with him. Maintaining healthy boundaries is an act of love, not a punishment. They protect the relationship.
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It is true that the extent to which you can transform your dad’s perspective may be limited. He must want that for himself. However, you do have control over how you would like to be in your relationship with him and how you can let go of whatever negative stuff he puts on or around you. It is on this domain that I offer the following contemplation.
A Practice to Focus on the Positive
The first step is to open psychological space and freedom by sitting in stillness and connecting to deep breathing. So take a few wholesome, long, slow, deep breaths that flow down into your belly and pelvis, and draw up some of the natural good healing medicine from the earth. Carry that up through you to awaken compassion in your heart.
Next, call into awareness a recent event that challenged you. Observe what interpretations you hold about this event with respect to yourself, to others, and to the world in general. Notice where you may be caught in some form of negativity. Does this challenging experience spark any negative statements about yourself, others, or the world? Are you judging? Shoulding? Othering? Craving, desiring, or wanting in a way that is perpetuating further hurt or suffering? If so, can you sit in the space of these challenging thoughts and emotions with a soft recognition that it is OK to have them? Then, can you recognize that this is a moment of hurt for you—and allow it? Take a few moments here and be gentle with the breath.
When you feel centered, proceed by setting the intention that you are going to make a conscious move toward growth.
The next step is to reflect on this same experience to determine if you are neglecting other important details of it due to the negativity bias. What parts of the experience may have some good in them? Do not dismiss this possibility without looking. There is likely something good in the situation, or if not in the situation, in the people involved, how you worked your way through it, or how you may be able to grow as a result of the experience. What comes up for you?
When you have identified some good in this experience, then let it steep. Give yourself permission to pause here, letting yourself savor and embody this goodness. Much like it requires time to let a good cup of coffee or loose-leaf tea steep to maximize the delicious flavor, we can let ourselves steep in our positive cognitions, sensations, and emotions resulting from our experiences. When you feel that you have let the positive soak in, take a moment to set an intention to carry this good, healing energy forward with you.
When you are ready, close out the practice by coming back to the breath and having a good, long exhale through the mouth. An audible sigh is a great way to signify the letting go and completely release the meditation.
As you move forward from this practice and in life, stay true to this intention to do your best to stay alert to the good that is happening around in all moments, and put your focus there. The more you focus your lens, the more clearly you will see.
Thank you again for writing in. I wish you the best on your journey!
The author wishes to acknowledge the teachings of Rick Hanson, PhD, and Kristin Neff, PhD, for their scholarly contributions that have influenced this author in his own practice and formulating this article and related practice.