Sometimes I’m convinced that some people exist only to make everyone else miserable. To bring us all down when we feel a little better than usual. To rip apart our dreams. Of course, the reality is that these people are unhappy and haven’t learnt to deal with their emotions in constructive ways. They criticise, insult, drain, deride and belittle other people in misguided attempts to express or assuage their own negative emotions. It’s useful to regard them with empathy – not so that you can steer them onto a different path (only they can do that for themselves), but so that you can decide how to handle these people and their negativity.
First, don’t expect them to change. Change is possible, but it’s not inevitable and you have to deal with certainties, i.e. their current behaviour.
Secondly, you must prioritise your own health – which includes your mental health. You do not have to be someone’s scapegoat or whipping boy. You do not have to accept another person’s bad behaviour.
With these points in mind, determine how big an impact certain negative people have on your own wellbeing. Decide whether or not you would like to change the situation – would you be content for things to continue as they are? If not, think about how you could change the situation.
In some cases, cutting all contact with someone is the best solution. If a so-called friend or family member continuously treats you like shit, they are not worth your love and attention. You deserve to be treated with respect, at the very least. It may take some planning to cut contact with certain people, for example, anyone you live or work with, but if you can’t cope with their behaviour it will be worth the additional short term hassle. It is also helpful to discuss your decision with other people, whether close friends and relatives or a mental health professional.
A less drastic alternative is to cut down on the amount of contact you have with the person in question. If they demand to know why you no longer phone them every week or spend hours listening to them whinge and moan, simply explain that spending a lot of time with them is having a negative impact on your own health. Don’t attack them and try to be specific, for example: “when you complain about your work, I feel drained and dejected because I can’t work at the moment and wish I had work problems. I know it’s not your fault, but it isn’t mine either and I don’t want to spend time with you when it leaves me feeling bad.” Keep the focus on the behaviours which impact you, not the person themselves. You can reassess your decision at regular intervals, so that if the person does change in the future, you can spend more time with them without it leaving you feeling worse.
Another option is to change the way you spend time with negative people. If meeting in a café usually involves your companion ranting about their relationship, try meeting up for a dance class or to go to the cinema. You can still chat beforehand and afterwards (and even during, if the activity allows), but because the time is broken up to make room for the activity there is little opportunity for a prolonged monologue. A change of scenery can change people’s behaviour even if you can still chat throughout – going for a walk, for example, may be more conducive to positive, two-sided conversations. Plus you can speed up if your companion starts moaning, so that they are too short of breath to rant!
You can also refuse to engage in someone’s negativity. This takes a little practice to build up your confidence in doing it, but it’s very effective. When the negative person starts complaining, say “I’m sorry, but I have a no-negativity policy. If you would like to find solutions to your problems, I’d be delighted to help but I can’t be a sounding board because it affects my mood and wellbeing.” If they criticise you, say “I disagree, because…” and give evidence for your opinion. For example, “You might think I’m lazy, but I disagree because I work hard in the office and I’m studying in my spare time.” If their criticism is true, acknowledge it and move on. If they continue to criticise you, say “I’m aware of your feelings. There’s no need to repeat them.” If they respond negatively, walk away.
Walking away is a great strategy because it removes you from the situation, which prevents you from feeling worse, and gives you space to clear your mind and assess the situation from a more objective perspective. If you have nowhere else to go, lock yourself in a toilet cubicle until you feel more equipped to deal with the situation. Negative people often criticise this strategy as “running away” but it’s actually a way of facing the reality of the situation. If you stay and let someone’s negativity bring you down, you are not in a position to determine the truth of what they are saying. Your viewpoint will be skewed by your now-negative thoughts and emotions. If you were in physical danger, you would have no qualms about walking away – why should it be any different when your mental health is endangered?
Finally, try not to give negative people your headspace. Their criticisms and insults are their opinions. Even if there’s some truth in their words, dwelling on them is unhelpful. Pick apart their words and look for evidence of whether there is any truth in them. If there is not, there is no value in dwelling on the words. If there is some truth and it bothers you, think of constructive solutions. Other people’s negativity is theirs – never let it become yours.