Overcoming Negativity Bias
Right from the very first session, the intention is to connect the couple and take them to a place where they can experience feeling good about each other.
Even though most of the initial session is taken up with collecting information and learning about the couple, such as their history together, what has brought them to counselling and what their hopes for the relationship are, some time is left at the end of the session so that they can experience what it is like to work within the Imago Relationship Therapy model.
This is the point at which I ask the couple to move their chairs so that they are facing each other. They are invited to close their eyes and if they feel comfortable doing so to take each other's hands. At this point there is usually not very much time so the couple are invited to participate in a very short centring and grounding exercise. While in this exercise they are asked to simply acknowledge the presence of the other and bring to their mind some of the things that they appreciate about each other.
In my experience couples who may have been in distress earlier in the session seem to soften into this exercise. In sync breathing and the comfort of physical touch seems to magically bring the couple to a place of calm in a phenomenon known as "mirror neurons". I am so often touched that even before anything has been shared I witness the tears roll down both their cheeks. It is so obvious in those moments just how much we all yearn for that connection with each other.
I witness the tears roll down both their cheeks.
After the brief meditation exercise they are invited to offer the other a gift of appreciation. Each must share with the other the appreciation that came up for them during the mindfulness exercise. After giving each other an appreciation, we discuss the intention of the exercise. Appreciations begin the rewiring process of the brain and begins to carve out new neural pathways. These new pathways and the rewiring begin the process of moving the brain to a state of greater positivity with each other. It begins to counter the natural negative bias of the human brain.
The negativity bias is the natural inclination of the human mind to not only register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on those things. In our relationships it means that the twenty positive interactions you may have had that day with your partner can be wiped out by that one irritating thing they have done and that becomes all you can think about it.
Once upon a time this negativity bias was necessary for us to survive as a species. For example if we weren't looking out for the dangers in our environment we could be eaten by a predator. This negativity bias, so necessary for our human survival, is still alive and functioning in modern life. In our relationships this bias is maladaptive and the cause of much grief. But this negativity bias is hardwired in us and is not so easy to change.
We can all recognise that when we are not feeling good about each other we tend to focus on all that is not right with our partners. We have tunnel vision for all their faults. The appreciation exercise is an important first step in this process of reversing this bias.
Gratitude is a huge topic at the moment and we are all encouraged to keep a gratitude journal. Scientific studies have indicated that gratitude switches something on in our brains and by simply finding three things in our day we are grateful for, our brain switches to a new mode and begins to find more and more that we can be grateful for. Benefits include the fact that this alters our mood and we experience a greater sense of well being.
It works exactly the same way in our relationships. Finding things we appreciate about each other can open the flood gates to finding more and more qualities and behaviours that we had become blind to while locked in the negativity bias.
Seeing warring couples achieve this in even the first session is one of the perks of my job.