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Knee-Jerk Negativity

Have you ever found yourself expressing a criticism or contrary opinion in an automatic sort of way?  If you do this habitually over time, you likely feel yourself become someone you don't like very much.  The more you find fault with a person or idea, the more negative you become, and the more you find fault.  You feel irritable.  Every little thing seems to annoy you.  You have lost your center and ability to find stillness.  What's happening?

At a most basic level, there is our amoeba-like nature.  Amoebas can't do a whole lot, but what they can do is move away from something they don't like and move toward what they do like.  All day long you have these same amoeba-like impulses.  When you are not self-aware and grounded, your whole experience can become a series of lunges toward and pulls away from all you encounter.  Part of what it means to be free, is to have enough awareness that you notice the impulse to lunge or pull away and get to decide what you really want.

Interrupting this kind of knee jerk reactivity, in a situation with someone close to you, means pausing and holding yourself still when you have the impulse to pull away through criticism and contrary opinions.  In that stillness you can feel the aversive feeling and ask yourself if acting on that feeling will help you create what you want in the moment.

On a more complex level, knee jerk negativity also arises out a drive to establish your sense of self in hopes of meeting needs for security, belonging, autonomy, and more.  Establishing a sense of self that is whole, integrated, and dynamic is a natural part of any evolving path.
However, trying to establish a sense of self by expressing what you don't like and don't agree with, will leave you feeling empty and listless.

Establishing a solid sense of yourself in relationship with others, often means allowing and making space for pauses in any interaction.  Asking for a time to take in what someone says, not only gives them the sense that you are really listening, but also allows you to make a true choice about your response.  In that pause, you might find that you can be curious about perspectives that seem contrary to your own.  You might come out of a pause and ask a clarifying question and/or make a guess at the need or good intention behind what this person is saying.   Or you might come out of the pause with clarity about your own needs and values.  You could then honor yourself and your listener and ask if she or he is interested in hearing your perspective.

The ability to find stillness and ask for a pause is one of the most important skills you can cultivate.  With this skill you can consistently make decisions that are in alignment with your values and your heart's longing.  With this skill you can transform escalating arguments into collaborative conversations that can respect differences and take action from universal needs (Go here for a feelings and needs list:


This week pick something that you regularly react to with negativity.  Some common examples might be:  other drivers, smoke outside your office window, a co-worker whom you dislike, your child pleading for more video game time, your partner talking about a challenge at work, noise from the neighbors, etc.  Choose one thing and set the intention to be still and simply notice your negative reaction and letting the intensity of it pass so that you can choose how you would most like to respond.

Next Gem
Asking for a Pause
Previous Gem
Requests-Moving towards what you want

8 Responses

  1. Jul 10, 2013

    would you give an example of how to ask for stillness without ending the conversation?

  2. Jul 10, 2013

    This connection gem was especially helpful to me. I have just moved to a new town and I have found myself feeling agitated and reactive towards some of the new people I am meeting. I was aware that this could be my frustration at not feeling understood. What you said about establishing a sense of self really clarified what has been happening. I have been taking these positions on things that I don't like in order to let people know where I stand, who I am. But, I haven't felt that I was really being myself. Thank you.

  3. Jul 10, 2013

    Thank you for the clarification of why my spontaneous reactions to requests are often negative - it's from a place of protection/security needs. Your meta-practice of asking myself whether I am actually being physically threatened in the moment is helping me to break that pattern and I am starting to connect it with gratitude as that moves me from fear to open-heartedness.

  4. Jul 11, 2013
    Tricia Armstrong

    I'm curious about your response to Angela's question LaShelle. This amoeba often notices the lunge or retreat way after the fact, but in the event I do notice in the moment the more tools in the kit, the better :-) I'm remembering one time that I was able to ask for a pause in a conversation to let some negativity pass, but this conversation didn't have "typical" conditions i.e. it was planned ahead, both of us deeply connect with and aspire to practice compassionate communication etc...

  5. Jul 12, 2013

    Thank you for your comments. It's so helpful to hear how these articles land for you.

    It sounds like I have a topic for the next Connection Gem: "Asking for a Pause"

  6. Jul 26, 2013

    I am wondering if the "Asking for a Pause" answered your questions?

  7. Jul 26, 2013
    Tricia Armstrong

    Yes...I found "Asking for a Pause" clarifying.

    I'm realizing that it's step 1 of the process that's a real challenge for me. Often if I'm "on the go", I'm not plugged into my intention to connect with the other person, or self-connected for that matter, and so I realize that a pause would have been helpful, way after the fact.

    Having you list out what might be getting in my way of asking for a pause triggered this insight and the other habits you listed in the second paragraph reflect this "disconnection habit", that is for me, self-disconnected entry into communication.

    I also found it helpful that you mentioned what can happen when we take a pause and the intention comes from "life-alienating" ends like promoting our agenda etc... I always want to remember to pause with the intention to connect :-)

    Lastly, I want to celebrate that although I didn't find the words this week to speak to my unease when a service person referred to his staff as "the girls", I did pause (this in itself got his attention) and make sure that I didn't refer to them that way. It was one step better than than me just keeping a smile on my face and denying to myself that a need wasn't being met by listening to grown women being referred to as "the girls".

    Thanks LaShelle!

  8. Jul 26, 2013

    Thanks so much Tricia for your thoughtful feedback and sharing of your process. Hearing you reflecting and practicing in this way meets my need for community :)

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