Avoiding Negative People or Changing Your Attitude?

I saw a postcard circulating on the internet that read:

‘Avoid negative people for they are the great destroyers of self-confidence and self esteem. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you’.

I have no issue with the second statement but do take exception to the first.

Firstly, what exactly are negative people? Is this negativity a fixed state? If so, what a depressing view of humanity. It’s more accurate to refer to use the phrase ‘people holding negative attitudes’. It also offers the possibility that attitudes may change. However we can take this further. Using this absolutist mindset is not psychologically healthy in which we posit black and white categories of ‘positive people’ and ‘negative people’. In fact, in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT),  the ‘black and white mindset’ is seen as something the needs to change. Many of the CBT techniques are aimed at ‘logically disputing’ the results of black and white thinking.

As a coach, many of my clients hold negative attitudes which are usually directed towards themselves. So, as a coach, should I avoid such people? Instead should I surround myself with ‘positive people’? Working with people with negative attitudes is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work as a coach and as a teacher. Such clients bring out the best in me and I can clearly see that I have made a difference in people’s lives.

Going back to the idea of all-pervading negativity, are there really people who are absolutely negative about absolutely everything, all of the time? Of course not. Admittedly, people can get into a negative cycle but I have yet to encounter people for whom this is all encompassing. My coaching practice is heavily influenced by solution-focused therapy skills. As with CBT, I work with clients to explore the exceptions. I will ‘look for what sparkles’ in someone’s life rather than consign them to the scrap heap. Admittedly this is not the easiest route but it is infinitely more rewarding. My coaching practice is also significantly informed by my psychological training. My PhD was in attitudes and ‘black and white thinking’. I very much view coaching as process to facilitate attitude change.

The assumption in the self-help quote above is that ‘negative people’ destroy self confidence and self esteem.  However, there is another saying offering a different perspective: ‘Difficult people are our teachers’. Many people tell stories of triumph over adversity and overcoming obstacles. Sometimes ‘difficult people’ test us. It’s not necessarily a reason to avoid them. Obstacles can strengthen our resolve. There is also the question of perception. Sometimes ‘negative people’ and ‘difficult people’ are those who don’t agree with us. Of course, it’s different when faced with bullies and those who seek to put us down. However is total avoidance necessarily the right strategy? Will avoidance preserve confidence and esteem? Surely habitually using avoidance over assertiveness could actually lead to lower confidence and esteem. Is it really a strategy to run off to people who always tell you what you want to hear? I can think of countless times in my life when ‘difficult people’ brought out the best in me. I’m not alone in that. There isn’t a success story ever written that does not contain an element of triumphing over adversity. Yours will be no different.

The problem with much that is written in self-help circles is that it is simply not thought-through. It bears little relationship to real life or evidence based psychology or models teaching and learning. Much of it is written in an over-generalized style (says he over-generalizing). Often self-help stuff reads like newspaper horoscopes. it’s easy to pick and choose and distort the message to get out of it what you want. Explanations of psychological types can often be used to prevent people from moving on, such as the myth of the addictive personality, the myth of significant gender differences or in this case the myth of toxic people. Surrounding ourselves by supportive people is one thing but what happens when one of those people starts telling you what you want to hear? Do they get labelled ‘toxic’ and are then avoided?

Often it’s not what happens in our lives that counts but how we perceive it and deal with it. The same applies to difficult people. These people may offer you an opportunity to let your positive attitudes shine. The call to avoid people with negative attitudes taps into an emotional-focused coping strategy in life. It’s easier to deal with the emotions than it is to get to the heart of the issues. To avoid ‘negative attitudes’ is a short-term fix. Managing our attitudes towards people with negative attitudes is a longer term solution. Otherwise, you may as well go and live on a desert island.

Often people displaying negative attitudes just want to be seen and heard. It’s better to be a people manager than operate a people-waste disposal system. Managing your perceptions, actions and reactions will help to build your own self-esteem. Avoiding opportunities never will. There are always going to be people that push us to the limit and we feel that if we don’t get away that they will drag us down. I admit that I have met a few people like that in my life. On the odd occasion I did opt for self-preservation but that process took years not at the first hint of ‘trouble’. Giving up on people should be the last resort not our default ‘speed-dial’. Inevitably you will give up on people but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try first. So before you reach for the ‘self-help short cut’, ask yourself if there is not a better lesson in there somewhere than that offered by the ‘inspirational’ self-help postcard approach.

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