How to deal effectively with toxic, highly-negative people
What is the single biggest determinant of your happiness?
The answer to this question, as you probably already know, is not “wealth,” “fame,” “beauty” or “power”. Rather, it is how others, particularly those closest to you—friends, family, and colleagues—treat you. When people close to you are nice to you, you can’t help but feel happy; when they mistreat you or avoid you, you are bound to be unhappy.
The reason our happiness depends so much on the quality of our relationships is because humans are supremely social creatures, as revealed in this humorous video. Evidence of our social nature is all around us. We care so much about what others think of us that, as some of my findings show, we would rather experience an unpleasant event (e.g., watch a bad movie) with those who share our negative opinions about the event than experience a pleasant event (e.g., watch our favorite team win) in the company of those who disagree with us. Our social nature is also the reason why being in love is one of the most cherished experiences and why isolation—the extreme form of which is solitary confinement—is rated, by those who were unfortunate to endure it, one of life’s most grueling experiences.
What all of this means is that it can be excruciatingly difficult to deal with negative people—people who bring your mood down with their pessimism, anxiety, and general sense of distrust. Imagine being constantly discouraged from pursuing your dreams because “very few people make it big.” Or imagine being constantly warned against learning a new skill—like Scuba diving or horseback riding—because “it’s too dangerous.” Likewise, imagine being routinely exposed to negative judgments about other people (e.g., “I can’t believe you told our neighbors that you failed your driving test—now they’ll never respect you!”) Constant exposure to such negativity can make deep inroads into your bank of positivity, leading you to either become negative—diffident, anxious, and distrustful—yourself, or to become indifferent, uncaring, or even mean towards the negative person.
So, how does one deal with negative people?
One obvious solution is to walk away from them. But this is easier said than done; while we could always walk away from the bartender with a bad attitude or the airline agent with an anger-management problem, we can’t walk away from a parent, sibling, spouse, colleague, or friend with a negative attitude.
A more practical approach to dealing with them is to start by understanding the reasons for their negativity. In brief, almost all negativity has its roots in one of three deep-seated fears: the fear of being disrespected by others, the fear of not being loved by others, and the fear that “bad things” are going to happen. These fears feed off each other to fuel the belief that “the world is a dangerous place and people are generally mean.”
It is easy to see how, from the perspective of someone operating from such fears, it makes sense to question the wisdom of pursuing dreams (failure seems all but guaranteed), and to be averse to taking risks even if it is obvious that doing so is necessary to learn and grow. It is also easy to see why people with these fears would find it difficult to trust other people.
The fears that negative people harbor manifest themselves in a variety of ways, including:
• A thin skin, or the proclivity to take umbrage at others’ comments; e.g., “you look good today” is interpreted as, “you mean, I didn’t look good yesterday?”
• Judgmentalism, or the tendency to impute negative motivations to others’ innocent actions; thus, guests who don’t compliment a meal are judged as “uncouth brutes who don’t deserve future invitations.”
• Diffidence: A sense of helplessness about one’s ability to deal with life’s challenges, leading to anxiety in facing those challenges, and to shame or guilt when the challenges are not met.
• Demanding nature: Although negative people are diffident about their own abilities, they nevertheless put pressure on close-others to succeed and “make me proud” and “not let me down”.
• Pessimism, or the tendency to believe that the future is bleak; thus, for example, negative people can more readily think of ways in which an important sales call will go badly than well.
• Risk aversion, especially in social settings. This leads to reluctance to divulge any information that could be “used against me,” leading, ultimately, to boring conversations and superficial relationships.
• The need to control others’—especially close-others’—behaviors. For example, negative people have strong preferences on what and how their children should eat, what type of car their spouse should drive, etc.
Notice a common feature across all of these manifestations of negativity: the tendency to blame external factors—other people, the environment, or “luck”—rather than oneself, for one’s negative attitudes. Thus, negative people tend to think, “If only people realized my true worth, if only people were nicer and the world wasn’t fraught with danger, and if only my friends, relatives, and colleagues behaved like I want them to, then I’d be happy!”
At first blush, it might seem paradoxical that negative people can simultaneously feel diffident about themselves and feel entitled to others’ respect and love. Similarly, it may seem paradoxical that negative people feel pessimistic about their own future and yet goad others to succeed. But of course, there’s no paradox here. It’s precisely because negative people don’t feel respected and loved enough, and don’t feel sufficiently in control of their own life that they demand others’ respect and love, and seek to control others.
Looked at from this perspective, their negativity is a thinly disguised cry for help. Of course, negative people do themselves no favors by being needy and controlling—they’d be far more successful in getting the respect, love and control they crave if they realized how self-defeating their neediness and desire for control is—but that doesn’t take away the fact that negative people need help.
A straightforward, but ultimately unproductive way of helping negative people is to give them the respect, love, and control they crave. However, this could be a slippery slope since people adapt to the new levels of respect, love, and control they get and thus, you may find yourself in the position of having to provide increasing levels of respect, love and control to keep the negative people happy. Put differently, by fulfilling their desires, you may be creating a Frankenstein that comes back to haunt you worse than ever.
An alternative solution is to get the negative people to see the sources of their negativity and make them realize that their negativity has more to do with their attitude than with the objective state of the world. However, as I discussed in another article, people don’t respond well to critical feedback, and those feeling negative almost definitely won’t be open to listening—let alone accepting—critical feedback.
This means that there are really only three other options left for you. First, you can grit your teeth and accept the negativity and hope that things will improve. The second is to seek the help of a counselor or an arbiter (e.g., a common friend), and hope that a “third party’s” perspective will help the negative person recognize that their negativity isn’t helping anyone.
Both of these options, however, are unlikely to fix the problem. In the case of gritting your teeth and hoping that the negative person becomes more positive over time, your passivity may be taken as a sign of acceptance that their negativity is justified. Over time, this may lead to increasing demands on you and, if you fail to deliver on these demands, increasing complaints about you.
The caveat with going to a third-party is that negative people often have a way of walking away feeling even more indignant and wronged—“everyone, including my own friends are against me!” Even if the third-party manages to get the negative person to see how their negativity is unproductive, it is unlikely to change things. This is because merely recognizing one’s negativity is not sufficient; it’s important to fix the sub-conscious thought-patterns that underlie the negativity.
This brings me to the final and, in my opinion, most tenable option for dealing with negative people. In a nutshell, this option involves three elements: compassion for the negative person, taking responsibility for your own happiness despite the other person’s negativity, and maturity in how you interact with the negative person.
The compassionate element involves rarely—if ever—advising the negative person about changing their behavior. It also involves never lecturing or preaching to them about the sources of their negativity. As already mentioned, most of us are not good at taking negative and critical feedback and negative people are particularly averse to such feedback. Now, it may be difficult for you to not react in some way to the negative person, especially if their negativity is getting to you. However, remember that “getting it off your chest” is only going to escalate the problem and is not going to fix it. It may help to remember that, while you have to deal with the negative person for only some time, they have to deal with themselves all the time! This recognition should help you respond—or not respond, in this case—to them with compassion.
The second element—of taking personal responsibility for your own positivity—involves doing what it takes to protect your own happiness. If you cannot maintain your positivity and composure, then all is lost. In another article, I had suggested some tips for taking personal responsibility for your own happiness. In a nutshell, it involves adopting a set of more positive attitudes, but that alone may not be enough to deal with a constant onslaught of negativity; you may have to take time away from the negative person on a regular basis to maintain your composure. Of course, if you do take time away from them, it would be important to come up with an appropriate “cover story” for it—you don’t want the negative person to feel that you are avoiding her.
The final element—of being mature—involves understanding that the most reliable way to steer the negative person towards positivity is to manifest the positivity yourself. For instance, blaming the negative person for making you feel negative is not going to help; indeed, it would be particularly ironic if you advised the negative person to “stop blaming others for your negativity” if you are blaming them for bringing your mood down!
But, how exactly do you manifest positive attitudes that you want the negative person to exhibit without crossing over into being preachy or judgmental?
The trick is to act, as far as possible, like a person who is fully secure. That is, act like someone who is respected and loved by others, and in control of the important aspects of their life. This means: do not let the other’s negativity curtail your natural inclination to pursue your dreams, take healthy risks, and trust others. However, do not take such actions to spite the negative person or to prove a point; rather, tap into the space of authenticity from which it seems natural to behave in a spontaneous, positive, and trusting manner. Then, when the negative person makes the skeptical or cynical comment—as he or she inevitably will—take the time to explain why you chose to act as you did.
For instance, if the negative person warns you of the futility of pursuing your dreams, let him know that you feel differently about your chances, or tell her calmly that you would rather than take the chance and fail than not try at all. Likewise, if the negative person warns you of the dire consequences of taking what you think is a healthy risk, tell him calmly, “we will see what happens.” Hopefully—if you are calibrated accurately—you will emerge unhurt, and with enhanced skills. Over time, the negative person will recognize that, while your predilection for taking risks may be higher than his or her own, you are not reckless. And finally, if the negative person chastises you for trusting people too much, ask her calmly to recount instances in which you have been taken advantage of on account of your trusting nature. (Hopefully, there won’t be any such instances and if there are a few, it may mean that the negative person is right—perhaps you are more trusting than you should be.) You could also calmly point out what research shows: it is important to trust people to form deep and meaningful relationships. (Hopefully, you have more deep and meaningful friendships that the negative person does!)
Although it may take a long time for you to see any results, they will occur; the pace of change will likely be glacial, but whatever change occurs will be relatively permanent. The fact is, people like being around positive people, so the negative person will, even if only grudgingly, have to appreciate your positive outlook and attitudes. People also like feeling positive themselves. So, as the negative person absorbs positivity from your presence, he will like himself better, and this hopefully will lead to a virtuous cycle of greater trust in others and optimism about the future.
As you may have realized by now, dealing with negative people also takes humility. The fact that you find it difficult to deal with others’ negativity suggests that there is a seed of negativity in you. If you didn’t feel constricted or deflated by others’ negativity—if you were fully secure in how you view yourself—you wouldn’t find the company of negative people to be aversive. Realizing that you have to work on fixing your own negativity even as you are helping another person deal with their negativity will help you gain the compassion, positivity, and maturity that is needed for this tricky, but ultimately satisfying, endeavor.
Best of luck!