Willpower doesn’t grow on trees.
I used to travel a lot for business. These were expensed trips where I’d be wined and dined in cool places like San Francisco, Lexington, Kentucky and Taos, New Mexico. The cities were all so different from my suburban life in Florida. But then my ex would pick me up from the airport and within minutes of the hellos, he’d embark on all the things that were wrong.
All the eateries in the airport were closed so he couldn’t get a coffee, the Interstate had one lane blocked so the traffic sucked, it had rained for three days straight … and, and, and.
Welcome back to negativity-land.
Many of us have people in our lives who, to put it bluntly, bring us down. Heck, even if we’re not always upbeat, if you spend much time with a negative Nelly, it can be a drain. Plus, there’s a lot to be said for the company you keep. If you’re regularly exposed to downer influences, their attitudes and moods can weasel their way into your soul and strip you of your well-being and sense of peace. Even your world view can become skewed by their incessant lack of enthusiasm.
Under the influence of a negative person, you might even second guess yourself on important decisions, feel sad, uncomfortable or depressed. Worse, you could even take on some of the same negative qualities you resent in your negative Nelly.
But before you lament the negative people in your life and banish them to the ethers, know that the ability to stay positive—especially when times are tough—or the tendency to fall down the negative rabbit hole may be hardwired. A study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found a brain marker that distinguishes negative thinkers from positive ones providing biological evidence that there may be positive and negative people in the world.
Worried or negative thinkers show a sort of backfiring in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions. In essence, these folks have a hard time putting a positive spin on stuff.
And not surprisingly, negativity breeds more negativity. Studies show social media accounts with a majority of negative posts correlate with fewer followers and Stanford researchers identified that negative comments in article feedback sections are actually detrimental to the community.
So how can you stay positive around negative people?
Keep your power. Negative people’s pessimistic outlook can drag down your mood making you feel sullen and cynical. “[A]llowing a negative person to dictate your emotions gives them too much power,” wrote psychotherapist Amy Morin. This means you’re responsible for your mood and outlook—don’t let anyone else sour it.
Counterattack with positivity. Some people are negative simply because they know it can rile you. So, if a co-worker says, “Those shoes are an interesting choice,” try countering with “I love your top today.” If your neighbor constantly complains about the weather, reply with how pretty the sky looks or what a great paint job her house has. When some people realize their negativity falls on deaf ears, they may give up the comedowns.
Remember it’s not about you. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was “it has nothing to do with you.” Negative people are negative; if they’re critical or harsh, they’re like that with everyone. Don’t make it personal.
Distance yourself. If it’s a relative you must endure, distance yourself emotionally while remaining cordial. If you have to engage with this person at, say, holiday dinners, or a college reunion, be pleasant while keeping a space between you and them, like the buffet table or a long chat with your favorite cousin.
Try honesty. It may be helpful to pull them aside and let them know how their comments affect you. Try something like, “You may not realize it but when you always talk about how everything’s wrong, it can make me feel pessimistic.”
Look for the positive. Even in people who you feel are negative, try to find some positivity within. Sure, maybe they complain a lot, but maybe they’re also the first to offer to pet-sit when you go on vacation.
Write a letter to yourself. Finally, if it’s someone you must cut out of your life because of this issue, write a letter to yourself listing all the reasons you can no longer tolerate the relationship and why you need to move on. You needn’t disclose these reasons to the person—that may be too painful—and you don’t owe them an explanation, but having the reasons in front of you can help you make the tough decision of excising a negative Nelly. Then back away gradually, being too busy with positive things for their negative chats at the water cooler or weekly gripe-fests.