A recurring question I get from readers is, “How do you deal with negative people?” I’ve never directly written about it because I’m not always sure whether they’re asking how *I* deal with negative people, or how one ought to deal with negative people. I can only tell you how I do it.
There are actually two ways I deal with negative people.
When someone makes a needless negative comment, I feel a spike of contempt somewhere in my lungs, and my eyes probably narrow for a second. I give a terse answer, if one is required. My mind says to the person, “Why do you have to be such a dick about it?” but I don’t actually say that.
Then once I’m out of their presence I tell stories in my head about how wrong they are, I play out imaginary confrontations, I might make a speech that nobody will hear. Or I think of what I should have said right then, George Costanza style. “Well the jerk store called, and…”
This kind of internal dialogue/monologue can go on until I’m interrupted by real life, but even then it sometimes resurfaces later. It sometimes makes the day a bad day.
With this method, the one thing I don’t do is do something. I do think a lot though. I think with great force and anger. I think up a storm, a real impressive one. I inventory my reasons for how right I am, several letters-to-the-editor’s worth. My body doesn’t do anything except maybe make involuntary faces. It’s possible my tongue moves, I don’t know.
In other words, the first of the two methods I have for dealing with negative people is to become one.
It starts out the same: person says something negative, and I feel that contempt feeling, but for whatever reason it triggers a different thought process. I do feel the impulse to go on an internal tirade, but I don’t. Instead I find myself recognizing that the offensive party is having a bad day or a bad moment that could just as easily be happening to me. Even if they’re having a bad life, that could just as easily be happening to me too.
It’s not quite forgiveness, it’s more like, “Ah I’ve been there. Frustrated and unreasonable. Directing it at people who don’t deserve it.”
Even though my knee-jerk response is to stare daggers, I’m reminded that people get negative when they’re unconscious, in pain or trying to protect themselves from pain. All human activity can be boiled down to a combintion of seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering. Negativity tends to come from avoiding suffering, and if I’m being fair, it helps neither of us to blame them for it.
Pessimism shields people from despair because it keeps expectations low. Blame shields people from the threats of having to be responsible for a problem they don’t think should be happening. I have been caught up in both, at times today even.
When I use method two I end up feeling almost good towards the negative party. It’s a weird feeling if you’re not used to it. The pain of others suddenly becomes directly relevant to you, yet it remains theirs.
I have been that guy, with nothing positive or helpful to say, I am not a bad person for it, and I hope not too many people resent me when I am that guy.
And after I recognize my own frustration in someone else’s, their negativity no longer feels like a problem. The issue was never that the other person is being negative. The problem happens when I make it my own.
The right method for you
The biggest difference between the two methods above is that one of them is stupid.
Which one I use depends on how calm and centered I am whenever it happens. Number one is the default, and something like it probably is the default for most people. The interesting thing is that it is exactly what causes negativity.
I think the reason we often opt for method 1 is because we sometimes believe the myth that certain instances of anger and frustration are justifiable, and others aren’t.
When I’m not in the heat of the moment, I understand that resentment is never justifiable. It can be understandable, expectable, socially acceptable, but it is still always foolish to justify anger. Depending on what someone has done, you can justify all sorts of actions in response, but all that happens when we justify anger is that we stay angry and foolish. Woe to the person who agrees when his mind tells him he should be mad.
Yet the first impulse we have when we feel anger is to defend and justfy that anger. Resentment is a self-sustaining energy, something like how Steven Tyler (I think it was Steven Tyler) explained how he spent 20 million dollars on cocaine over a decade: “The main thing cocaine does to you is it makes you want to do more cocaine.”
In the same way, resentment lends itself only to itself, with more than enough momentum to keep itself going, unless you are conscious enough in the moment to push back and say no, I will not justify resentment this time. It has to be a conscious intention, because you won’t catch it otherwise. Anger is arguably even more insidious than cocaine, because while it can still weaken and kill you, you never run out.
Human beings live, day in and day out, subject to a very slick and silent impulse to justify any anger they feel. Throughout my whole life I don’t think giving into that impulse has ever helped me once.
Action, on the other hand, can be totally justifiable and does change things. Whenever I feel that impulse to defend my resentment, if I’m smart (often I’m not) then I remember to ask: what action does this justify?
In other words, if someone really has wronged me, what am I going to do about it? The answer I find almost always, after all the indignance and internal tirades, is nothing. This reveals the truth about anger: it’s bullshit. It’s a big cloud of noise and doublespeak that exists only to hide a grave weakness of character: an unwillingness to make things different. And if you do intend to make things different, what do you need anger for?
That may be the most useful refrain I’ve ever come up with (I think it was me that came up with it) — never justify anger, only justify action. Worth writing out and taping to your fridge.
If you’re not willing to justify action, what’s the point? What good is a thought that doesn’t get you doing something different?
The answer is low-level self-pleasure. That’s the only reason to justify anger without justifying action. Indignance feels good in a bad kind of way. Junk food.
As far as I’m concerned the only way to do less of number two is to get that refrain into your head. Never justify anger, only justify action.
You feel resentment. What are you going to do? Nothing? Then you have nothing to defend here. You have no case to make. You literally have nothing to do with this.
You are not always going to be conscious enough to recognize that, but sometimes you will. In any case, chronically negative people are only going to test you again and again, and there is something to be said for taking Machiavelli’s cold advice: avoid the unhappy and unlucky. What a difference it makes to remove a constant source of negativity from your life, assuming that you sometimes fall prey to method 1.
It is definitely in your interest to limit your exposure to negativity, just the way good investors limit their exposure to questionable lending. If you don’t limit your exposure to negative people, you may end up using method number 1 more often, and other people may want to limit their exposure to you.
The full circle should be obvious by now: Method 1, as popular as it is, is negativity. So the best way to deal with negative people is to yourself avoid being someone who must be “dealt with.”