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Taking a Deeper Look at the "Negative Person"

When sadness is the source of pessimism.

Key points

  • “Negative” people, unlike “toxic” people, may be more about vulnerability and less about vice.
  • Some definitions of negativity sound much like the sadness and irritability that are part of depression or anxiety.
  • A seemingly “negative” person may be a suffering person.
Source: Chloe Barron
Source: Chloe Barron

Sometimes, on social media, well-meaning people give this advice: “Stay away from negative people.”

It always troubles me. I can understand avoiding “toxic” people such as bullies, sociopaths, conflict instigators, and destroyers of the good. In fact, the medical recommendation in many cases is to do just that—walk away, don’t look back, and hang up the phone if you answer and it is your tormenter. (See The Empathy Trap: Understanding Antisocial Personalities by Dr. Jane McGregor and Tim McGregor.)

However, “negative” people, unlike “toxic” people, may be more about vulnerability and less about vice. The label seems unfair if there is an underlying frailty.

What is a negative person and why are they negative? Here is a definition of negativity from the web dictionary:

“Negativity is a tendency to be downbeat, disagreeable, and skeptical. It's a pessimistic attitude that always expects the worst. Negative outcomes are bad outcomes like losing a game, getting a disease, suffering an injury, or getting something stolen.”

This description of negativity sounds very much like the sadness, irritability, hopelessness, and catastrophic thinking that are part of depression or anxiety. (Depression and anxiety are often intertwined in the same person.)

So negativity is not necessarily about ingrained disposition. It could be derailment. A person might be basically positive, but have been ransacked. An optimistic, more naturally cheery person can be thwacked by circumstances, chronic or acute, and appear to be an Eeyore when they are really a Pooh (from A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh).

We have all been there. A breakup, homesickness, illness, betrayal, job loss, a biological illness, or a lifetime of little assaults/empathic flaws on the part of caregivers takes a toll. It is very difficult to smile when you want to cry and it is a great relief when you can tell someone what is actually going on. All this to say that the “negative” person may be a suffering person, and could use reach-out rather than stay-away. If their despair shows up in the form of irritability or even hostility, it may be worth trying to perceive the deeper issue. It might help them personally, enhance the interpersonal dynamic and improve the milieu.

Pessimistic leanings do exist but even this is not necessarily a negative. These people are good preparers, critical thinkers, and serious planners.

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