One time I spoke at a women-only event in Southern California and a petite blonde woman cornered me in the bathroom afterward to ask about how to better handle her husband.
She explained, “I am the optimistic one in the marriage, while my husband is the pessimist, and it’s killing me.” I could hear the concern and frustration in this woman’s voice, and even a touch of desperation as she tried so hard to help him “see the light.”
She kept butting her head against a wall every day for years, and she was at the breaking point. I’ve been there with negative people in my life—and those negative people have negatively influenced my own mood and performance.
“How do I deal with a negative person in my life?”
This is by far the most common question I get when presenting our research at client companies. Although it is asked often in terms of dealing with a negative person on a team at work, there are some who may be thinking about how to handle negativity from a spouse or in-law.
Negative people affect our stress levels and ability to choose the positive. We quit, blow up, or die early because of these people. Repeated exposure to life’s stresses actually has the potential to shorten our life span by destroying the DNA telomeres at the end of our chromosomes. Furthermore, a study conducted at the University of Georgia found that negative thoughts can be so contagious that depression can actually spread from person to person.
This isn’t a corporate or cultural problem; it is a human problem—one that we all have felt.
The key to dealing with negative people in our lives is not to isolate ourselves, but to shield or momentarily separate ourselves from negativity to retreat, regroup, and reenter the fray stronger than we were before we left it. It is possible to outweigh someone else’s negativity by refueling yourself with positivity—including mindfully reconnecting with the meaning in your life or things you’re grateful for.
Here are some helpful strategies from my book Broadcasting Happiness to help you combat negative people in your life using your own positivity:
Create a strategic retreat — on an island or in your office
Sometimes the most effective way to deepen a conversation is to retreat from it. Retreats are cowardly, but strategic retreats make us stronger and better able to handle others. A strategic retreat enables us to preserve our resources (both mental and physical) and create the space to formulate an action plan for the future.
A strategic retreat from the negative can be crucial to creating a positive shift in our relationships at work. Once when I was feeling burned out from my overnight job and by some of the frustrating people in my life, I took a vacation by myself to the Caribbean for some R & R (rum and rum). I later came to see was that this was a strategic retreat, which allowed me to recharge.
And much to my surprise, after a few days of being away, I found that I actually missed some people, even the frustrating ones. I used my strategic retreat to give space to refocus my brain on positive elements of my life including the work I loved and the close relationships I had—not only to support my own happiness, but to create an action plan to use my positivity to proactively counteract negativity from my colleagues.
Now, I understand that not everyone can just pick up and go to the Caribbean by themselves, but strategic retreats don’t have to be elaborate, “Eat, Pray, Love,” round-the-world journeys. Strategic retreats can be created almost anywhere on any given day—even in your own office!
If you are looking to retreat immediately but can’t get away from the office, take a few minutes to close your office door. Turn on some calming music and think about the things in your life that make you happy. Another way you can strategically retreat at work is to go for a walk by yourself at a nearby park or outdoor area during your lunch break. Being outside in the sun will help you think positively while enriching you with some Vitamin D.
But taking a strategic retreat is only half the battle. Eventually we need to come back and face negativity head-on.
Reenter with daily positive, proactive habits
Return to the fray with a proactive plan to keep your mind focused on the fueling parts of your reality. Here are some helpful ways that we can create daily positive habits at work that research has shown have a lasting beneficial impact on your mindset:
- Send an email of praise or thanks. Every day for 21 days, first thing in the morning, send a short positive email to someone you know. This creates a habit out of meaningfully connecting with our colleagues and shrinks the level of influence negative people have on our lives.
- Collect your gratitudes. Each day, write down three new and unique things you are grateful for in life. This will train your brain to scan the world in a more positive way. Research has found that gratitude practices conducted in two weeks led to a significant rise in well-being.
- Snap a positive picture. Each day, snap a picture of something that makes you happy, grateful or loved, whether it’s a sunset, your child sleeping, or a project at work you successfully finished. The positive pictures you take remind you of the emotions you felt while taking them, increasing your positive emotions as a result.
So, if you are like the woman from the audience at my talk struggling to cope with a negative person in your life, remember—take care of yourself first, and that will better help you broadcast your positive mindset to others. Every time you have a positive encounter with a negative person, you’re shifting his or her reality for the better.
If you’d like to learn more about how to combat negativity by retreating, regrouping and reentering relationships with positivity, I invite you to join us for our (free) Wake Up & Inspire Happiness Video Workshop. On Day 3, we share more strategies and examples to learn how to switch negative people in your life to positive in seconds.
Michelle Gielan, national CBS News anchor turned positive psychology researcher, is the best-selling author of Broadcasting Happiness.
Michelle is the Founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and is partnered with Arianna Huffington to study how transformative stories fuel success. She is an Executive Producer of “The Happiness Advantage” Special on PBS and a featured professor in Oprah’s Happiness course.
Michelle holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and her research and advice have received attention from The New York Times, Washington Post, FORBES, CNN, FOX, and Harvard Business Review.