Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to "Negativity"
(Cynics and Pessimists)

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/negative.htm

Updated  04-11-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and both people feel heard and respected enough.

      This brief YouTube clip comments on "negative (relationship) energy."

      This article provides (a) perspective on excessive pessimism and (b) illustrates effective ways of responding to it. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • effective assertion and empathic listening skills.


      Across the ages, humans have struggled with the duality of life: light vs. dark; love vs. hate; truth vs. deception; peace vs. war; health vs. sickness; good vs. evil, and ultimately life vs. death. A type of  duality is ranking adults and kids between very negative (pessimistic, cynical, and "bad") to usually realistic to very positive (optimistic, idealistic, and "good"). Another type is judging some normal emotions to be positive (love, joy, contentment, happiness) and others negative (e.g. agony, terror, frustration, sadness, despair, guilt, and shame).

      People at each end of this spectrum can be difficult to relate to and communicate with. Can you think of examples of such people in your life? Where would people rank you on this spectrum?

      If you're a realist or an optimist, why can "excessively negative" people be hard to relate to? An answer emerges if you consider how you feel around them: Concerned? Impatient? Indifferent? Pitying? Scornful? Critical? Annoyed? Frustrated? Gloomy? Do you feel the urge to "fix" them - i.e. to persuade them to be more cheerful more often? If so, that may really be about hoping to lower your discomfort around them.

      Several factors can shape your reaction to excessive negativity: whether the person...

  • is openly cynical or pessimistic or has traits you feel are "negative," like "coldness," selfishness, egotism, greed, and dishonesty.

  • admits or denies their negative attitude;

  • is ashamed of it or defiant about it;

  • is passive about their negative views or imposes them on others (like you);

  • is negative about "everything" or just specific people and situations;

  • is rigid and absolute (generalizes), or admits "it's just my opinion on (some topic);" and/or whether s/he...

  • can tolerate and discuss other points of view fairly, or is rigid, closed to, absolute (black/white), and critical of different beliefs than theirs.

       Note the difference between the attitude of "excessive negativity" and the way the attitude is expressed - covertly, imperiously, adamantly, disrespectfully, deceitfully; manipulatively, loudly, obsessively, etc. Awareness of this difference can make your responses more specific and effective.

      It may also help to be aware of different forms of "negativity" - e.g...

Cynics commonly focus critically on the worst traits in people and groups;

Depressed people are apathetic, unresponsive, and low-energy. They may feel that they are worthless unlovable failures, nothing is worthwhile, and life is hopeless.

Skeptics and pessimists dwell on or forecast unpleasant or tragic outcomes to important situations ("AIDS is going to kill off most Africans" / "We'll never be able to protect our country from terrorists!");

Catastrophizers insist that the worst possible calamity is certain to happen despite all contrary evidence and attempts to avert it ("We WILL be destroyed by a world-wide plague / nuclear war / overpopulation / asteroids from space / the anti-Christ!" etc.) 

Martyrs and victims moan and complain about how badly they're treated or how lousy their life is, while avoiding responsibility for improving it. And...

Worriers are people who fear something. They may or may not be cynics, skeptics, depressed, or catastrophizers. 

Can you thin of other forms of "negativity"? It's likely that when traits like these are excessive, they are caused by the person being controlled by a well-meaning false self.

      How do you feel with such people? Does their "glass-half-empty" attitude or their communication style affect your respect and empathy for them? Your patience? .

Response Options

  • Mentally review these basics until they become automatic;

  • As a courtesy, ask if the person is open to some personal feedback now. If s/he says "No," you have a different problem.

  • If you need to vent (be heard and accepted) or invite awareness, mentally affirm your mutual rights and dignity, gain steady eye contact, and calmly say something like:

"I experience you as usually focusing on negative things. Are you aware of that?"

"I don't see ________ the way you do."

"When you focus on unpleasant things so often, I get discouraged / irritated / impatient / uncomfortable / weary / distracted / ...."

"Do you see yourself as a pessimist, a realist, or an optimist?"

"How do you feel around people who mainly focus on negative things?"

"(Name), when you need to focus only on (the worst possibilities / one side of things / failure / catastrophes / hopelessness / cynicism / pain and fear / suffering / calamities / etc.) I have a hard time listening to you."

      You can stop there and see how s/he responds, and/or if appropriate, you can add something like...

"I suspect a false self is controlling you now. What do you think?"

  • If you need to cause action or set a limit, try...

"I need to let you know when I'm uncomfortable with your negative focus / attitude / outlook (... so I'm going to put my fingers in my ears, OK?)"

      If you need the person to (want to) "become more positive," expect mounting frustration. Excessive "negativity" comes from being governed by Catastrophizer or Cynic/Pessimist and Lost or Scared Child subselves. They are ruled by emotion (like shame, guilt, and insecurity), and care little for "logic."

      Whatever your response, expect "resistance" like denial, excuses ("I can't help it"), explanations, whining, apologizing, silence, argument, complaints, blame, etc. Use empathic listening to acknowledge the resistance, and calmly repeat your response until you feel heard or your needs change.

      Keep in mind that your "negative" partner is probably unaware of or denying psychological wounds, and can't voluntarily change it without hitting bottom and committing to genuine wound-recovery. Keep these wisdoms handy..


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article offers (a) perspective on "excessive negativity" and several ways to respond to an overly-negative person. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity and validation of your needs, feelings, and personal rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, metatalk, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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