For some, pessimism is a way of life. Here’s how to manage it with friends and family—without hurting your relationships or your mental health.
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Everyone is entitled to bouts of crankiness now and again. But spending time with someone who is constantly down or negative can start to take a toll on you.
“Negativity has a sneaky way of rubbing off on people,” says Andrew Lima, Psy.D., a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow with the Manhattan Psychology Group in New York City.
Some of that, Lima says, is due to negativity bias, which is the tendency in humans to give negative information more importance than positive or neutral information.
Other people’s constant negativity doesn’t just harm your relationships with them—it can also start to impact your own outlook on life.
“If you find yourself feeling depressed, stressed, angry, and overall more negative after being around certain people, it’s a sign that you are beginning to internalize their negativity,” Lima says.
It’s not always possible to simply spend less time (or none at all) with the negative people in your life. But it is important to draw boundaries. Fortunately, there are ways to handle negative people while also protecting your mental health. Here are five coping strategies to consider.
Strategy #1: Be Honest but Nonjudgmental
You don’t have to avoid talking about someone’s negativity, even if they’ve been that way forever. It’s fine to let them know that you’ve noticed their bitterness and that it bothers you.
“The key is to frame it in a way that is caring and curious so that the person doesn’t feel attacked,” Lima says. He suggests opening the conversation by saying, “I’ve noticed you’ve been pointing out a lot of negative things lately, and I’ve started to do the same. Is there something else going on? How are your stress levels?”
Coming from a place of compassion will go a long way toward having a constructive conversation. It’s also important to separate the behavior from the person, says Virginia Gilbert, L.M.F.T., a marriage and family therapist with a practice in Los Angeles.
“Don’t use blanket statements about their personality,” she says. Instead, identify the problematic behavior (frequent complaining about a mutual friend, for example) and how it is negatively impacting you.
Strategy #2: Flip the Script
When possible, try to counter some of this person’s negativity with positivity, Lima says. That doesn’t mean you have to be a ball of sunshine at all times or never allow your friend or family member to complain.
Instead, use redirection. If they’re going down a negative path, point out a positive aspect of their situation. For example, if they’re complaining about a bad travel experience, you might say, “That sounds unpleasant, but what did you enjoy about the trip?”
Encouraging the person to focus on the things they’re grateful for, without explicitly telling them what you’re doing, can be helpful. A 2018 study published in Psychology, Health & Medicine found that when people spend time thinking about something they’re grateful for, they feel less stressed and lonely.
Strategy #3: Resist the Urge to Fix Everything
It’s not your job to solve every problem in this person’s life. Doing so will only leave you feeling drained and exhausted. It’s also helpful to realize that many negative people aren’t always looking for you to fix their issues. Often they just want to blow off steam or receive affirmation of their feelings, Lima says.
You can also acknowledge what your friend or family member is saying—sometimes by simply repeating their take on a topic—without agreeing with them.
Strategy #4: Give Yourself Space
When a negative person is wearing you down, don’t be afraid to set limits. “Rather than focus on trying to change this person’s mindset, set boundaries and limit your time around them,” Lima says.
If you’ve made a request or set a limit and the person doesn’t respect that boundary, “end the conversation and don’t feel guilty about it,” Gilbert says.
You should also give yourself permission to let their phone calls go to voicemail sometimes or to wait a while before responding to a text or email.
Strategy #5: Recommend Help
Not everyone who is overly negative or cranky is depressed, but it can be a symptom of mental health issues, Lima says.
“Some mental health disorders, like major depressive disorder, make it extra difficult for people to attend to positive information,” he says. Depression doesn’t always come across as sadness or hopelessness. In men and teens in particular, irritability can be a sign of depression.
All of this means that negativity isn’t always a choice. And while you run the risk of alienating someone by suggesting that they talk to a therapist, it might be one of the best things you can do for them. If they’re interested but aren’t sure where to start, suggest that they talk to their primary care physician, who can likely connect them with the right people.
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