It’s almost impossible to go through life without living or working with someone who is a complainer, always looking for proof they’ve been wronged or are the victims of some evil force, and for whom life plays out on a backdrop of doom and gloom. So, what to do when you’re around negative people?

It’s very hard to be around such negative people without being thrown off by their negativity because emotions are contagious.

Even if they don’t express their misery in words (which they regularly do), we can feel the heavy weight of their emotions.

I remember during the peak of the pandemic a couple of years ago, me and my four teenage kids were locked down in a tiny apartment in downtown Toronto. It was a bad time for everyone, but for them, it was also the shattering of a dream. The college life they dreamt of wasn’t exactly huddling indoors with mom and siblings, and my heart did hurt for them. Initially.

But two months in, and I was at my wits end. Their negativity was constant and nothing was ever right. Someone spoke too much, someone typed too loudly. The radiator was too hot, the weather was too cold, the professor was a farce, the chair was stupid because it broke their back. And now they couldn’t work because Amazon was too slow…Really??

The barrage of negativity left me drained, mentally, emotionally, and physically. I couldn’t focus and struggled to meet deadlines for my book, Goodbye, Perfect. Turning off my mind at night was imposible so I was harming my health too. I wondered why they were so ungrateful and couldn’t see that millions have it way worse. I’ve failed as parent.

One fine day, I decided things needed to change.

Their constant complaints, urghs and other expressions of misery and anger had to come to an end. I told them they needed to keep their emotions to themselves so we could have a relatively pleasant time together.

Little did I realize the far stronger force of unexpressed emotions. Even though the complaints frizzled, that heavy weight of negativity seemed to only get heavier. They moped around and were listless. They were also on edge and fought over little things. And when I asked then what was wrong, they said: Oh sorry, we forgot we aren’t allowed to show our emotions around here. Ouch!

I then realized I was being called to practice what I already knew from the science: when we’re at the receiving end of someone’s constant negativity, or when we’re prone to pick it up like sponges, we have to find the calm we seek within ourselves. We have to turn inward, recognize our suffering, and let ourselves know it’s going to be okay.

The more I learned to extend grace and compassion to myself for what I was going through, the more I was able to experience the magic of self-compassion:

1. When to listen

I knew when to listen to their complaints with empathy instead of trying to force perspective down their throats. The truth is that suffering doesn’t become easier when we compare our struggles with those of others. It simply adds a layer of guilt to it.

2. When to ignore

I knew when to ignore their complaints and accept the limits of my locus of control. I could wash their emotions off of me like rain drops on a rain jacket instead of ruminating about their ingratitude or my failings as a mother.

3. When to transform

And I also knew when to transform their complaints into growth by tapping into their biggest selves and reminding them of their resourcefulness. I truly believe that life challenges us to grow in areas where we have the greatest room for growth.

There is no clear formula for knowing the best strategy in any given situation. Only your heart has the answers you’re looking for. And when you turn toward it with love, it gives you the wisdom and strength to face your unique situation with the best of yourself.

If you’re living or working with someone whose negativity is affecting you adversely, begin with self-compassion.

It could be in the form of a self-compassion meditation that you practice every morning or whenever you’re struggling. Or it could be a loving presence you build inside yourself and bring to mind when your internal world is being rattled.

And then witness what flows through you.

A version of this article originally appeared on Psychology Today. 

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