As I have worked on self awareness and worked to be a more understanding person capable of seeing the world from multiple perspectives, I have become more aware of my first impressions and snap judgments of other people. An important first step in becoming a more integrated person is recognizing the impulse thoughts we have about others and understanding where those thoughts come from. Colin Wright in his book Considerations addresses this idea and drives it to an even deeper level. He examines the structure of the brain and out thoughts to understand why we have developed these impulse thoughts, and he challenges everyone to recognize and push back against these often times hidden beliefs (emphasis mine):
“Testing our assumptions is an excellent way to see the potential in things and people we wouldn’t otherwise stop to notice. A person with a black plastic trash bag could be a lot of things, and it’s worth considering more than just your first impression if you intend to be an active participant in your environment, rather than just a passive experiencer.”
When I first started working on mindfulness and recognizing my thoughts about others, including my immediate reactions, I constantly felt discouraged by my negative reaction to people of other races or who appeared to be homeless or in poverty. I would scold myself for having a negative initial judgement, and then worry that my initial thoughts bled over to my outward attitude and behavior. What Wright explains in his book is that these types of instant reactions are evolutionary left overs from a time when we needed to make assumptions about our environment and react quickly to avoid wild animals that could kill and eat us. Our quick reactions, memory, and pattern recognition saved our ancestors, but now those same traits get in our way. The best approach to improve our behavior is to recognize these thoughts and accept that we make poor initial judgments. Once we identify our behavior we can work to challenge and change our reactions.
I am particularly struck by the last part of Wright’s quote. It shows that in order to be fully integrated with our environment and to find real meaning through our impact in the world we must challenge our beliefs to push ourselves to grow and have stronger interactions and relationships with everyone in society. The more we challenge our knee-jerk reactions and the more we push ourselves to be involved with those who we normally would not interact with, the more we will be able to connect with the world. Those new connections will shape us and push us to a point where we no longer need to worry about a negative emotion being noticed by people who are different from us.