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Dr. D. Writes: Why Are Some People So Negative?

We all have that friend, colleague or family member who puts a negative spin on everything. They do not know how to appreciate good things or see the positive side of things.

We all have that friend, colleague or family member who puts a negative spin on everything. They do not know how to appreciate good things or see the positive side of things. You could tell them the best news in the world and they would find a way to point out all the negative things about that situation or everything that could go wrong.

What do we call them? Negative Nancy, Debbie Downer, Pessimistic Pete, Depressive Donnie… They just can’t help themselves! Worst of all, they may not know or acknowledge that they are being negative. They are sure to retort with comments such as, “I’m just being real… I’m just looking out for you… I just don’t want you to get your hopes up too much….” when you point out that they are raining on your parade.

What is it that makes some people so negative? Well, here are some reasons why:

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Psychosocial Development: Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development posits that, up until our teenage years, we develop the foundations of trust versus mistrust, autonomy versus shame and doubt, taking the initiative versus feeling guilty, and being industrious versus feeling inferior. When we do not experience the positive end of the spectrum in the various stages (E.g., if we had an unreliable caregiver or one who shamed us and never encouraged us), we grow up thinking that people cannot be trusted or that we are inferior to others. Our outlook on life is thus negative.

Attachment Styles: Mary Ainsworth, in her Strange Situation experiment, explained how we attach to our caregivers in our childhood, with some people developing secure attachments and others developing insecure attachments. Consequently, some people have a solid foundation of being open and unafraid to attach to others while others end up being unable to form secure relationships with others. Insecure attachment styles could lead to a fear of abandonment and rejection. We subsequently project these fears in various ways. We convince ourselves and others that people are bad and cannot be trusted, and that we should not be vulnerable to them because we have not experienced the safety found in secure relationships.

Genetics/Conditioning: Certain traits or syndromes such as anger, depression, and anxiety run in families. Add to that a family environment of fear, lack of encouragement, blame, no validation or acceptance etc., and negativity is sure to run through the family. Some people were never praised for their accomplishments or virtues as children. Some were threatened, discouraged, or scared into refraining from certain behaviors as children (E.g., Don’t climb the tree; you’ll fall and break your neck… don’t go to that event; you may have an accident on the way and die.”). They consequently find themselves utilizing the same schemas (thought frameworks), manifesting the same negative emotions, and exhibiting the same behaviors in adulthood as their caregivers.

Adulthood experiences: Subsequent experiences in our adulthood confirm or disconfirm these schemas or perceptions that we have about ourselves, others, and the world. Somebody who has had negative experiences with no ability to reframe them positively will tend to have a skewed view of the world.  Imagine that people avoid you because you are negative. That further cements your view that people are bad and cannot be trusted. This creates a dynamic of dysfunction (impaired functioning), characterized by negative emotions and mindsets such as bitterness, anger, mistrust, and cynicism.

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Insecurity about oneself/Envy: Some people have a poor sense of self. Their low self-esteem makes it difficult for them to properly manage negative and positive events. They magnify negativity and minimize positivity. A person may be perceived to be successful by others; however, they may not see themselves as such. This poor sense of self or sense of failure about oneself could turn into envy, which could also manifest as criticism, blaming others, gossiping, cynicism, and undermining others’ good ideas and success. Their poor sense of self is thus reflected in their perceptions and they cannot see the good in anything that others do. They do not know how to be happy for others for that reason.

Low self-esteem could also manifest as narcissism (marked by hubris, a sense of grandiosity and inflated self-worth, which is really overcorrecting for low self-esteem). The narcissist thus wants to make everything about themselves and will likely be negative about good things about others. Their thinking is thus along the lines of “I know better than anybody else… I’m the most successful person here… Nobody does it better than me.” This is way beyond the healthy reminders of our accomplishments or the little motivational talks that we give ourselves.

Mental health problems: Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and trauma could cause a rewiring of our brains. We could have a depletion or excessive amounts of certain neurotransmitters or structural brain changes that can alter the way we perceive events. This could consequently result in pessimism, where a person struggles to be positive. A dose of pessimism or cautious optimism is good for us, otherwise we would all suffer the dire consequences for being brazenly stupid or careless. However, consistent negativity is dysfunctional and maladaptive (a bad way of coping with a situation).

Appraisal style: With the confluence of factors listed above, a person could become generally negative in their thinking. Their filters and lenses through which they appraise events become negative. Over time, negative thinking, emotions and behaviors become automatic. The person thus exhibits those traits (meaning that it becomes their character) and people start to notice that about them.

How do we deal with negative people? 

Re-assess your friendships/relationships: Acknowledge that some people are really that way and may not know it or may be resistant to change. For that reason, re-assess who needs to be close to you and who needs to be placed further away from you. Keep the negative ones further away from your inner circle.

Be selective in who you tell things to:  Not everybody needs to know what is going on in your life. If you do not share details of an issue with a negative person, they will have nothing negative to say to you about that issue.

Set boundaries: Do not let negative people influence your thinking or decision-making. Seek out people who are positive-minded to process things with but, ultimately, learn to make your own decisions.

Be careful not to be drawn into their negativity: Misery loves miserable company. A negative person may end up making a disciple out of you. Before you know it, you’ve also become a Negative Nancy or a Pessimistic Pete. To avoid this, try changing the topic whenever they start being negative or politely get off the phone/end the conversation (E.g., Sorry, I need to run. Could we catch up later?).

Be empathetic and patient: This may be hard to do as engaging with negative people may leave you feeling irritated or annoyed. Do your best to offer positive counter-points to their negative comments (E.g., when they say, “Don’t trust anybody; they’re lying; they want to steal your money;” you could say, “Yes, true, but I am looking at ways to counter that.”). However, we all have our limits. If you cannot handle them then it would be best not to engage them as much.

Try to learn something from them: As negative as they are, if you have the stomach for it, you could learn to do a good risk assessment based on their negativity. This is a skill for the psychologically mature, however. You have to get past the negative emotions they evoke in you to consider everything they are saying and learn from it. At the very least, you know what not to sound like or be like to others. Learning from the negative attributes of others should put us on the path of making a conscious effort to be self-reflective and positive.

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