How to Distance Yourself from Other People’s Negative Emotions

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This article first appeared on Happify

Have you ever been at the receiving end of other people’s negative emotions? You might have a partner who gets needlessly critical at home because they’ve had a bad day at work. Or a friend or colleague who keeps passing snide comments without fully expressing what’s bothering them. Or a child who sulks and spreads misery all day with a curt “I don’t want to talk about it” when you try to help them.

Misery—like joy—is contagious. And while most emotions have a relatively short lifecycle—which generally makes it easier to manage other people’s moods—some people insist on holding onto their negativity until the whole world knows about it. It’s not that they enjoy spreading misery; it’s often because they feel overwhelmed by their emotional surge and have no other way of dealing with it. Seeing another person suffer alongside them makes their own load lighter, and takes some of the responsibility off of them to do something about it.

No wonder, then, that such people are often at their most negative around sensitive people. With mile-high emotional receptivity antennae myself, I know how exhausting it can be to be around them. I also know that it’s extremely frustrating because you feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. You stay with them and you get swept away by their emotional onslaught. You distance yourself and they become more persistent, a push-and-pull cycle that eventually leads to negative outcomes.

If you relate, here’s a 3-step strategy that I’ve found to be very helpful. Feel free to adapt it to the situation you’re in, because the way you deal with difficult people at home will be different from how you do it at work. Either way, the 3 steps are still the same.

1. Protect Your Core

Sensitive or not, we can eventually become enveloped by other people’s negativity the longer we stay steeped in it. What we need in that moment is our understanding and compassion; otherwise we activate our own fear-based response of blame, anger, or sometimes shame. Self-compassion, either as a regular guided meditation practice or simply with kind words in the moment, can bring us back to center. Try saying something like, “This is difficult, and I’m here for you.” Or protect yourself before you enter the negative space by mentally calming yourself or by practicing Loving Kindness Meditation. If the negativity is prolonged, you may want to increase the positive emotions in your life. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s research shows that it takes many more positive emotions to balance out a few negative ones. Meet friends you like being around, take walks in nature, sing, dance—whatever brings you joy.

2. Connect with Compassion

Being there for yourself allows you to be there for others when they need you—even if their way of expressing themselves is frustrating, at the very least. When you’re centered, you can take their perspective with empathy instead of judgment. You can ask yourself, “What does their 6-year-old need?” and, “What can I do to provide it to them?” Often you may find that it’s nothing more than a hug or a moment of comfort. Or you may want to ask yourself, “If I were their advocate, how would I view their situation?” You may even want to ask them how you can help them. This is especially important for people who don’t really know what they want from you, and helps them build autonomy and take responsibility for their own actions.

3. Take Values-Based Action

Tania Singer’s research shows that empathy leads to a pro-social response. I’ve experienced that myself. When I follow the first two steps, I find renewed energy and desire to be my best in situations that had previously felt draining and extremely frustrating. I find the clarity to take action that’s aligned with my values and honors a “me” within a “we.” This may mean offering a real hug, or simply sitting in understanding with a child or a friend in pain. It may mean creating a mental boundary of safety, or walking away with an excuse to not make things worse. Or it may mean taking a stand against unacceptable behavior, while keeping the doors open for communication. This is especially important for people who’ve become used to trampling over other people’s boundaries to get their own needs met.

When we follow these 3 steps, we can be the adult in a difficult situation—which is exactly what’s needed when the other person has been taken over by the little child that lives in every one of us.

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