How to not suck in the negativity
March 21, 2013 9:18 AM   Subscribe

I soak up negativity like a sponge - please help me stop!

I was raised with a hyperactive, bipolar sibling. It was my duty to make sure nothing I did would set off or contribute to sibling's bouncing off the walls and/or manic episodes. Around sibling, I had to be contained and not show any giddiness, etc, because that was enough to set him off and I was held responsible for it. Any conflict between us was deemed to be my fault, even if I was right. So avoiding conflict is the norm for me and I am always acutely aware of the emotions in the room. I can sniff it out easily and any negative emotions even make me physically uncomfortable, like the feeling you get when you see the cop lights & sirens catching you for speeding.

Add to that: my extended family has the horrible habit that if one person is miserable or unhappy or so anxious they can't even function, we must all be miserable together. Any display of happiness is considered inappropriate and just terribly lacking in empathy. Basically, you are a jerk for being happy. Sadly, the opposite (one is happy, let's all be happy) never applies.

This is taking a toll on my life. If someone is being negative (anxious, depressed, angry, pissy, overly-critical, etc) around me, I soak it in like a sponge and get that uncomfortable, self-aware feeling again. If someone is being negative to me, it hits me incredibly hard. It affects me so badly that I end up bending over backwards to try to please people when they really don't deserve it (coworkers, in-laws, roommates, etc) just to try to decrease the negativity in the room. It's so second-nature for me to cater to their needs to avoid conflict (like I did with my sibling) that some people soon realize that it's a very easy way to manipulate me. Then I feel angry at myself for having catered to their unreasonable demands.

I don't like people having that kind of power over me. But I also don't know how to avoid it. How do I shrug it off and get on with my life? Any techniques? Books I should read? Things I should keep in mind? Any help or suggestions are very appreciated!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Well, for one thing, try removing yourself from the company of negative people as much as possible.

For another thing, on those occasions when you can't get away, try giving back the problem. I mean it's their problem if they want to act like jerks. You'll have to live with the discomfort of not doing what you sense is desired of you, but there it is. See above, re: getting away.

A good example is in Dexter where Doakes says, "You give me the fucking creeps, you know that, Morgan?" and he replies, "Yeah, I know. Sorry about that." Which of course is the perfect answer.
posted by tel3path at 9:24 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd start by cutting short the time you spend with your family, because seriously.

Yeah, I know it's not the easiest thing in the world. But it is doable - if you're with your family and someone's trying to bring everyone down, just...leave the room and go do something else. Or if you're on the phone with someone who starts being a Debbie Downer, just....wrap up the call.

In either case, it's your choice whether you want to tell them that this is what you're doing ("you know, guys, you always seem to want to make everyone else depressed when you're depressed and that's not good, so if you're going to be that way I'm going to go"), or whether you want to just do it (rather than telling your mother that this is why you're ending the call, use the "so, I have some laundry I need to go check on, talk to you later" white lie approach). Or whether you're more comfortable starting with the white lie and then eventually telling them what you're doing.

But withdrawing from all that negativity will definitely help you in the short term and help you build up your own defenses. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:25 AM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah, may I just add: I wouldn't start by practising this on your family, as they're likely to just become even more stubborn. You'll develop your skills a lot faster by trying them on people who are less close to you.

A good book for this kind of tactic is "The Nice Factor Book" by Robin Chandler and Jo Ellen Grzyb.
posted by tel3path at 9:36 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you enjoy visualizing, imagine a transparent but strong bubble around you that causes other people's emotions to bounce right off. I've also found it helps to focus on my exhales, holding the intention of expelling other people's "stuff" from my system, when I'm in a situation where I feel myself absorbing everyone else's problems or emotions.

The Drama of the Gifted Child is very much about what to do when you've had a childhood like you have (the "gifted" is "emotionally gifted," not academically). Other books on boundaries or assertiveness could be helpful. When Anger Scares You is a particularly good one.
posted by jaguar at 9:43 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

You want to learn to establish healthy boundaries, which your family discouraged (and you are not alone - many, many families do not allow their members to have boundaries!). You also want to break the habit of feeling responsible for other people's emotions and behaviors.

Remember, you are not responsible for how other people feel (unless, of course, you actively insult them or step on their foot or something!).

How dependent financially and emotionally are you on your family and/or in-laws? If you set boundaries and they get angry, and you decide to say "I don't want to be around you if you act like this," will it result in financial or emotional disaster? Or will you just feel awful for a few weeks and life goes on? Almost certainly, it will be the latter.

Likewise, with your job: If you set boundaries with your coworkers, is your position at your company so fragile that they will use any excuse to fire you? Almost certainly the answer is "no," and people will sulk for a bit and then treat you with more respect.

I mention these scenarios because imagining the worst-case scenario is all too common and here is where CBT/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (see below) can help - and it is really unlikely that your worst case scenario will happen if you set boundaries. Children are dependent on their parents. Adults have much more agency. Yet the fear patterns of "worst case scenarios" set in childhood remain with us.

You might want to seek out Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aka CBT. Also helpful might be a local Codependents Anonymous or Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting (even if your parents weren't alcoholics, the enmeshment issues are the same).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:47 AM on March 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you take responsibility for people's negative feelings. You take on undue responsibility for smoothing everything out, and to not escalate bad feelings. The truth is, of course, that you are not responsible for their feelings, you're not responsible for making them feel better. As a people-pleaser, that might sound callous, but it's really not. If you take up everyone else's emotions as something you need to control/ease/appease, you'll have no room for yourself.

It's something I'm working on myself, and it's been slow going, but really just realizing the truth in the above and saying to yourself (for example), "her frustration is not my problem" can be really freeing.
posted by Katine at 9:50 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I could have pretty much written this Ask myself, and I reckon I am far from the only one. Some things I figured out slightly, for example when I feel something like this (and it is a very frequent feeling):

any negative emotions even make me physically uncomfortable, like the feeling you get when you see the cop lights & sirens catching you for speeding

I came to realise that I'm if I'm just sitting with the uncomfortable feeling without giving in to its "call", it eventually passes and I can come out the other end unscathed without bending over backwards to sort it all out, or to play therapist/class-clown/ whatnot, just to change the negative atmosphere. Just leave the negativity be without feeling the need to react in any way, as though it were a huge pimple on someone else's face - I wouldn't go squeeze that out just 'cause it's there, so similarly I don't need to absorb the negativity or do something to make things better.

Another thing which is relatively easy once you've done it a few times (seems impossible at first) is to just get out. These days I sometimes also SAY why I am removing myself ("I can see you're kind of agitated about x, I'm gonna go do y to give you some space" kind of thing), and this has even sounded the alarm for the other person - not always, but sometimes when I return the atmosphere is somewhat more neutral.

Really, my feeling is that it all has to do with boundaries and learning how to enforce them (which means also being OK with the blow-back).

Possibly useful reading list:

From the Baggage Reclaim blog:

Sometimes You've Got to Reteach People What to Expect from You

You ARE Allowed To Have Boundaries With Family

Knowing Your Own Approval

Being Honest is Not an Automatic Precursor to Compliance

The BS Diet: Natural Consequences & Why You Need To Stop Being a Cover-Up

There's more there which might be of help, it pays to rummage around.

Finally, a very impact-full read for me: The Narcissistic Family, about "parenting systems" in which the needs of the child are not attended to but rather neglected in favour of the parents' own needs, and/or where the child is regularly required to take on responsibilities which are not commensurate with their years and developmental level.

TLDR - what everyone else said.
posted by miorita at 10:17 AM on March 21, 2013 [12 favorites]

If someone is being negative to me, it hits me incredibly hard. It affects me so badly that I end up bending over backwards to try to please people when they really don't deserve it (coworkers, in-laws, roommates, etc) just to try to decrease the negativity in the room.

I had a terrible time with a roommate who had this exact dynamic with me. What helped was the old AskMe cliche -- therapy. I'm sure I would have gotten there without it, but it sure as hell made it a lot easier and quicker.

The short version: Identify your own needs, and respect them. You are not responsible for other people's feelings. You can set boundaries. You can be OK with someone else disapproving of you.
posted by pie ninja at 10:23 AM on March 21, 2013

For different reasons, I am also highly aware of negativity and emotionalism around me. Like you, I often struggle with it. It can be hard to cope with. But I came here to say that you have more power than you think. I know you are currently experiencing this as torture, but it is a kind of gift.

Most social problems in life are rooted in emotional crap and most people are pretty oblivious, so they step in it a whole lot, much to their own detriment. Your heightened awareness is an asset. It is kind of like being the only sighted person in a room full of blind people. It empowers you to do something constructive about it. I think the main piece you are missing is that your feelings and point of view have as much power and right to shape social reality as theirs do.

Just yesterday I was struggling with how to reply to an iceberg-sized load of negativity from someone -- where the vast majority of it is under the surface and largely denied. I ended up ranting about it at my younger son. He was able to remind me that this person just does not see what I see. It helped me completely drop my desire to have a counterproductive bitch fit (which I have been trying to avoid for many months) and employ a policy I know to be more effective: Meeting negative emotionalism with neutral information and reassurance.

That policy works well in a great many situations. Let's suppose you make some generic observation (say about your own poor eating habits) and Suzie goes apeshit in reaction. You thus realize this is really about some big personal demon of hers that she will probably never admit to (say about her own weight and self esteem which has some huge iceberg of a story behind it). Currently, your policy seems to be to walk on eggshells and let sleeping demon dogs lie rather than waking them by rattling the bones of the skeletons in the closet. So you try to never mention food, weight, etc around her ever again. And every interaction is an exhausting exercise in remembering to not accidentally set her off.

Instead, you can work on learning to gently (possibly indirectly) say "I wasn't calling you fat" or "Not all cultures are so harshly judgemental of a woman's weight". You can talk about fashion and beauty and the awful ways in which society and many families hang a ton of baggage on women about this issue that they don't hang on men. You can sincerely compliment her in a low key fashion on other things, like her great taste in clothes or her wonderful sense of humor. You can regularly address the real problem even though she may never admit to it. You can do a hundred little things over the course of a few weeks to take the focus off her weight as the one and only thing by which her worth as a woman is measured until the problem deflates and stops being some fearsome topic that you have to dread.

Do you have to do that? No. But it usually works better than telling someone "not my problem." In some situations, it won't work. I got myself quietly moved at work to avoid someone who was a problem for me. He was later fired. So sometimes you can't help someone. In those cases, you can use your awareness of emotional stuff to try to carefully sidestep disaster or minimize problems. But if you can quietly and effectively rebutt some of the unstated accusations ("You are calling me FAT!") and erode the foundational assumptions they are rooted in, their life and yours will run more smoothly.

Just try to keep a really light hand and don't get sucked into becoming their unpaid therapist. This is where good boundaries are really helpful. My goal is not to "fix" other people. I consider that rude. If they wanted to be fixed, they could go hire a therapist. My goal is to effectively convey the sentiment "I'm not your bitch. Don't hang your shit on me." or "Don't tread on me." I have a right to defend myself. The point at which they make their shit my problem is the point at which I feel I have a right to defend myself by gently pushing back. If they get off my back and wish to go be neurotic elsewhere, that's not my business anymore.

My understanding is that where the English bible says "The meek shall inherit the earth" the French version says "The nonchalant shall inherit the earth." So I try to be nonchalant about the whole thing, not because I can't be confrontational but because it usually is counterproductive.
posted by Michele in California at 11:03 AM on March 21, 2013 [7 favorites]

TLDR Some more thoughts on your question plus warnings – there are things to be done, and they are needful for your mental equilibrium, but the road is tough.

So… after I wrote the answer above I went to see my parents. By some unfortunate serendipity, my mum was “on fire”: a completely innocuous, run-of-the-mill police drama set off repeat shouty tirades on evil in humanity, my country’s politics, an inconsiderate neighbor, and, again, how much people suck. With your question in mind, I took note of what I did:

1. As always, felt shell-shocked to begin with. It was mild, ‘cause I’m kind of inured by now.
2. Felt indignation at her indignation well up inside me.
3. Tried to "make it better": started to trot out the old horse about how not everybody is evil, there are people doing great stuff… whatever, I trailed off, bad tactics anyway, didn’t cause her to even come up for air. Never does.
4. Got up, asked if she wanted something from the kitchen, she didn’t pause.
5. I went out, sort of down and shaky, could hear her carry on for a few seconds, I turned on the water tap, the sound of the water made the shakes evaporate, turned the tap off and returned, she had stopped, we carried on with the TV.
6. It started again, I thought “please, not again”, got up, went to another room, fetched a chocolate, came back, ate chocolate, it was sweet, I rarely eat chocolate, what a treat.
7. Repeat 1-6 with variations a couple of times.
8. My dad comes in, they start talking, tension and negativity skyrocket, I put my coat on and start chatting to the dogs, they jump around and howl and wag their tail to say “yeah, let’s get out of here!”, we get out of there. Before I leave, I shout a cheery “Bye!” and get a cheery “Bye!”-duet back (go figure). And now I sit here and am bemused-amused by my social interactions… At least there are dogs, and mine are blessed with a sort of perpetual smiley expression.

What I actually wanted to add to my answer above is this: in my experience, propelling yourself out of the negative aspects of relations is damned hard. Even in the trivial example above: I was sitting soooo comfortably, was completely absorbed in the TV drama, so would have vegged some more, but if the internal weight is to fall off me, sacrifices like this are par for the course. Maybe you’ve just gotten a glass of wine/ just took your shoes off to make yourself more comfortable, maybe you’re just burning to tell your story or have just spent days on end on a project and are thirsting for human interaction. Seems minor from a distance, but it can be so very hard to tear yourself away just to put distance between yourself and the flood of negativity/ other shitty dynamics. And after all, what if I bear with it just this one time, and clearly they are hurting too, and bla, bla, whatever keeps you there, I honestly believe that without being willing to drop everything and remove yourself you cannot make that first step towards inner hygiene and harmony.

But then there are the really hard things: you realize that some of your relationships might not survive you putting up a fence against certain behaviours (one of my friendships is currently seriously threatened because of this), and as soon as you make your boundaries known, you might realize some unpleasant things about the people around you – there will be those who scoff at the idea that you might have a will/ needs (after all, we’ve been people pleasers for so long! It’s like you’re being a whole other person who they didn’t get to vote on!), those who think they have a god-given right to take whatever it is that torments them out on you, those who have no genuine interest in you beyond the role you fulfilled for them (echo-chamber, cheer-leader, cheerer-upper, therapist, all that) etc. But there will also be those who will find it difficult to adjust, but who will care enough to be part of this re-negotiation of the relationship and who stick it out through the growing pains.

Lastly, one of the difficulties I had: separate generalized negativity from the sorrows and difficulties that any person encounters in the course of their life – because I still want to be there for my nearest and dearest and for others as well, whether that’s being a people-pleaser or not. My (provisional) rule is: stuff that I can help with, OK. Concrete complaints are OK, but general stuff not so much, so no “humankind is evil”, or “our politicians are all corrupt and will kill the country”, but “x happened today, just after y happened yesterday, and then z also happened to aunt Edna – sometimes I think we are just evil” might fly. Once in a long while. One or two or three venting session when life just seems to fling awfulness at you, great, but more means we’re becoming co-dependent and that is not OK. Complaining endlessly about stuff that’s well within your power to change, not OK. A persistent negative atmosphere – not OK, even if it does not manifest verbally but only via body language and facial expression (as you said, if you’re attuned to this it’s literally like a kick in the face as soon as you walk in the door). If you’re aggrieved/feel a negative emotion for whatever reason, it is OK to verbalise it within certain parameters (along the lines above), but it is not OK to passive-aggressively beat me around the head with your silent sulking until I HAVE to ask what’s up so that the responsibility for a conversation I don’t want to have lies on my shoulders. For each negativity-infused interaction we need at least two positive one (so far, that's wishful-thinking, of course, but I'm working on it) - otherwise, and barring serious life-crises, the relationship is gonna fade some. Etc, I’m still tinkering with this, and sometimes it feels easier to just evade the whole thing altogether, but I think it’s important to reach a balance of expressing love and care and being there for others whilst not being entombed in other people’s existential hurt.
posted by miorita at 1:33 PM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think one thing that really helps is to keep your eyes on what YOU want! Be really honest with yourself and ask yourself what is it that you want? Happiness? A certain job? To learn a particular skill? Focus on what you want, work out what you need to get there and run at it!! It is that simple! I think that once you are focused on what YOU want and actively working towards those things, other people's complaints and needs will affect you less.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 2:09 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

So much good advice above. I have also found visualization helpful, in moments when I've felt invaded; just wanted to add another take on the bubble idea - for me it's a kind of force-field or electric aura, which is ordinarily kind of diffuse. I imagine drawing it back toward myself, concentrating it, and then sort of grounding it. That field defines my space. I take my space, and expand within it.

Another I've used in the past (if there was some emergency situation I couldn't leave, or I was in a non-emergency situation, but felt sucked in, baited or directly attacked): I'd 'step out' of the emotional response I was having - I imagined literally stepping to one side of the bad-energy-ball growing in the pit of my stomach, which was connected with the other person's bad-energy-ball. I'd 'step out' of the dynamic entirely, and focus my attention on something ridiculous in what I could now see as a badly written (usually cliche-filled) scene, from the perspective of an audience. Someone's furrowed brow wasn't threatening, now, but comic. That would help bring me to the neutral attitude Michele in California described. It dehumanizes people a bit, but can have a useful cooling effect, if you feel stuck/sucked in/hypnotized.

Those are probably way too idiosyncratic to be helpful, but totally second that visualization can a powerful tool to help modulate emotional reactions. (I guess the ones that have worked for me connect internal bodily sensations and imagined movement with visual images; I think jaguar's might be like that too.)
posted by nelljie at 11:46 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

This seems like the exact sort of thing therapists are trained to help with and commonfolk not sure much. I'd definitely recommend therapy.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:07 PM on March 22, 2013

(AppleTurnover is right, and I can see how the illustration I offered above sounds [and probably is] kooky. There is evidence to support the idea that attending to neutral, absurd or non-personal aspects of a stressful situation can have a cooling effect on 'hot' cognitions. But yes, for sure a therapist would be a much better guide to applying this principle!)
posted by nelljie at 5:54 PM on March 25, 2013

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