We all have a Debbie Downer in our lives—the coworker who always complains, the negative friend who feels the world is out to get them, or the family member who thinks they will never measure up. The trapping spiral of negativity can be exhausting and self-destructive to even the most positive among us.
I almost had to cut ties with one of my BFFs because it seemed that no matter where we were or what we were doing, negativity always came pouring out. It took me some time to realize that my ways of trying to help were basically equivalent to fanning hot coals.
With a shift in perspective and some advice from the experts, I was able to arm myself with the tools to successfully handle it. If you find yourself dreading being around someone who’s chronically annoyed, critical, angry, or just plain rude, here are four key things to keep in mind when dealing with a negative friend so you can keep the peace and your sanity.
1. Resist the urge to judge
Negative people don’t generally see themselves as being that way. In their minds, the world is what’s negative, and they’re simply responding to it. Also, something may be going on behind closed doors that you aren’t aware of, so try to be curious and non-judgmental in your approach. Negativity can be disguising a cry for help. Could this person be anxious, insecure, or dealing with a scary part of life they’ve never encountered? If so, realize this can be painful, and they may not have reliable support. It’s always easier to offer someone compassion if you try to put yourself in their shoes.
2. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you.
When someone frustrates you or gets under your skin, always take a deep breath before you react. If you’re upset, it may be best to have the discussion later when you’re calmer. At that time, Dr. Judith Orlff, author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life, says these three things are key to supporting this person:
1. Focus only on solutions, not the problems.
2. Be a good listener and mindful of your tendency to interrupt, even if you disagree.
3. Be aware of your tone and body language, as negative people can gravitate toward others who react strongly.
If you become defensive and let your emotions fuel the situation, this person will quickly realize that they can depend on you for a response that justifies their negativity. In my case, when I was literally biting my tongue trying not to react to my friend’s negative rants, I heeded Dr. Orlff’s advice and took a deep breath (or 10), and reminded myself that it’s best to empathize with her struggles rather than feed into it. This helped me be supportive from a distant place of inner-strength and kindness.
3. Establish and Maintain a Positive Boundary
Setting and maintaining boundaries is essential to healthy relationships with others and ourselves. When someone acts in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable or resentful, they’re most likely crossing a boundary, and it’s up to us to decide how to protect ourselves. Of course, setting boundaries is easier said than done, especially with someone you love. Initially, I felt guilty and fearful of my friend’s response. Then I reminded myself that I can’t change people; they have to be willing and open to change themselves.
It’s hard to take the high road and create distance—we’re human, and taught to love and always be there for one another. But sometimes, the “support” we give ends up enabling the behavior, and depleting us to the red ‘E’ line. Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of self-respect.
Give yourself the permission to put your own oxygen mask on first—set boundaries, and stick to your guns. Sometimes, silence is the best way to get people to truly hear themselves.
4. Ask Yourself: What’s in It for Me?
It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. The next time you find yourself being reluctantly drawn back to this person, do a mental check-in and ask yourself why you voluntarily keep coming back. Are you focusing on them because it’s a distraction from your own problems or insecurities? Or, are you trying to get this person talking so you have something new to gossip about at Sunday brunch?
Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 says, “When it comes to toxic people, fixating on how crazy and difficult they are gives them power over you. Quit thinking and talking about how troubling your difficult person is, and focus instead on how you can go about handling them. This makes you more effective by putting you in control.”
Sometimes, we unknowingly maintain negative or toxic relationships for our own selfish gain. By allowing this to happen, we give up all control of our boundaries. To best support others, we need to be the best version of ourselves first.
The next time a negative person is venting to you, remember to control what you can, and eliminate what you can’t. Hopefully this person will want to change some day. Until then, we can continue to come from a place of compassion and understanding, while loving ourselves enough to take care of our needs. The best you can do is accept them as they are, let them know you believe in their ability to be happy, and give them space to make the choice.
This post was originally published on June 7, 2019, and has since been updated.