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The Secret to Staying Grounded Around Negative People

A Personal Perspective: Others' emotions don't have to disrupt our inner world.

Key points

  • It can be hard to be around negative people because their negativity begins to color our world as well.
  • When we’re at the receiving end of someone’s negativity, we have to find the calm we seek within ourselves.
  • With self-compassion, we nurture the safe space that is home to empathy, wisdom, and courage.
Ben White / Unsplash
Ben White / Unsplash

We all have them in our lives—people who complain constantly, who are hyper-focused on everything that’s wrong or about to go wrong, and for whom life plays out on a backdrop of doom and gloom.

It’s very hard to be around such people because their negativity begins to color our world as well. Emotions are contagious, after all, and even if they don’t express their misery in words (which they regularly do), we can feel the heavy weight of their emotions.

I remember during the peak of the pandemic a couple of years ago, I and my four teenage kids were locked down in a tiny apartment in downtown Toronto. It wasn’t an easy time for anyone, but, for them in particular, being pulled out of university to live with Mom again wasn’t exactly the life they wanted.

Their negativity was constant, and nothing was ever right. Someone spoke too much, someone typed too loudly. The radiator was too hot, the weather was too cold, the professor was a farce, the chair was stupid because it broke their back. And now they couldn’t work because Amazon was too slow…Really??

I may have found the humor in it if not for the fact that the barrage of complaints left me drained, mentally and emotionally. I was unable to focus and was struggling to meet deadlines on my book Goodbye, Perfect. And I was harming my physical health because I couldn’t turn off my mind at night: Why are they so ungrateful? Can’t they see millions have it way worse? I’ve failed as a parent.

Two months in, and I felt I was losing my mind. Things needed to change. I told them their constant complaints, urghs, and other expressions of misery and anger had to come to an end. They had better keep their emotions to themselves so we could have a relatively pleasant time together.

Little did I realize the far stronger force of unexpressed emotions. Even though the complaints fizzled, that heavy weight of negativity seemed to only get heavier. And there was no way I could ask them to not feel. I’d arrived at the end of my locus of control.

It turned out to be a good thing after all because I was called to practice what I already knew from the science: When we’re at the receiving end of someone’s constant negativity, or when we’re prone to pick it up like sponges, we have to find the calm we seek within ourselves.

Practicing Self-Compassion

I truly believe that life challenges us to grow in areas where we have the greatest room for growth. This was certainly one for me. I’d learned over time to manage my inner critic and replace it with the voice of compassion and nonjudgment toward myself.

But when my inner world was rattled by someone else’s actions, I didn’t even think of turning inward. It never dawned on me that I was suffering, and, again, I needed that same inner presence of compassion to hold me in her embrace and let me know she could feel my pain.

The more I learned to extend grace and compassion to myself for what I was going through, the more I was able to open my heart to my kids. Instead of trying to force perspective down their throats, I could remind myself that suffering doesn’t become easier when we compare our struggles with those of others. It simply adds a layer of guilt to it.

If you’re living or working with someone whose negativity is affecting you adversely, begin with self-compassion. It could be in the form of a self-compassion meditation that you practice every morning or whenever you’re struggling. Or it could be a loving presence you build inside yourself and bring to mind when your internal world is being rattled.

Either way, you’re nurturing the safe space that is home to empathy, wisdom, courage, and every human virtue we desire. Because, yes, sometimes you do need to turn toward others when they’re feeling negative and to feel their emotions with them. Self-compassion will give you the strength to do so. And sometimes you need to accept the limits of your control and let their negativity wash off of you like raindrops on a rain jacket.

Self-compassion will give you the wisdom to know the difference.

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