How to Help Negative People

June 26th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

Many people have asked me how they can help someone who’s stuck in negative thinking or depression.  Here are some tips on how to do that.

No matter what happens, stay positive

I once visited the house of an old acquaintance, and as soon as I saw him, I felt a wave of darkness pouring over me.  I regretted stopping by almost immediately.  No matter how many times I changed the subject, he proceeded to spin every topic of discussion into an excuse to complain about what he disliked about his life, other people, and the world at large.  After 30 minutes I couldn’t take it anymore and had to leave.  This man was a major energy vampire, trying to get me to agree with all his imaginary woes in order to validate his victimhood.  His dissatisfaction was palpable as I refused to join him in his self-made prison, which only made him want to try harder.  But he was getting out of life exactly what he intended.  He was a victim because he thought himself a victim.

One of the most important considerations when helping someone in a negative state is that you must avoid falling into negativity yourself.  Negative people are energy vampires.  They have an almost endless capacity to dwell on what they don’t want, whining and complaining about their lives while denying responsibility for their results.  Their fear blocks the natural flow of energy from within, so they must get it from other people instead.  After spending a few hours with them, you’ll usually feel drained, tired, worried, or stressed.  Positive people, on the other hand, have overcome their fears to such a degree that their energy flows outward.  Consequently, they give energy instead of taking it.  After spending time with very positive people, you’ll tend to feel energized, uplifted, and inspired.  Most people are somewhere in the middle though, so the energy exchange tends to be close to neutral.

It makes no difference what particular circumstances negative people blame for their negative outlook.  Ultimately it’s still a choice rooted in free will.  No matter how unconscious the person was when making the decision to sink into negativity, in this moment that person still has the power to choose otherwise.  So if you decide to help such a person, your primary role is to help guide him to make a more conscious choice, one that will likely be much more empowering.

How can you help negative people?

When I was earning my lifesaving merit badge as a Boy Scout, I learned that if you want to save someone who’s drowning, the last thing you should do is jump in after him.  Instead you should think through these steps in order:  reach, throw, row, go.  First, grab a pole or a stick and reach out to the person.  If the person is too far away or won’t grab the pole, then try throwing him a life preserver.  If that doesn’t work, hop in a boat, row out to him, and extend an oar for him to grab.  And as a last resort, you can swim out to save him yourself if you’re trained in how to do that.

Let’s consider how this same process can be used to help someone who’s stuck in a negative mindset.

Reach

Negative people are a danger not only to themselves but also to those around them.  Consequently, it’s important to preserve your own state of mind while trying to help them.  You won’t help a drowning victim by jumping in the water, flailing your arms, and screaming right beside him.  Yet some people use this highly ineffective strategy when trying to help negative friends out of depression.  Joining a negative person in a whining session only reinforces his negativity and makes you feel worse about your own life, even though it can temporarily make someone feel better to know he doesn’t have to drown alone.  Negative people have an endless supply of pity party invitations.  If you receive one, don’t RSVP.

If the person isn’t too far gone, you can reach out and try to hoist him back up to a more positive state.  This is best used on people who are within range of you, especially someone who’s normally positive or neutral but has become temporarily lost under a pile of fear and worry.  Reach out to him with a kind gesture.  Do what you can to cheer him up and bring him back to the positive side.  Invite him to an upbeat social event.  Take him out to eat and talk about positive memories together.  If he tries to get you to join him in his negative thinking, don’t.  Keep the discussion positive as you coax him back to shore.

Sometimes when my wife starts to lose it (which can happen at certain times of the month), I get her to stop whatever she’s doing, and I give her a 5-minute foot massage.  This usually succeeds in bringing her around because it switches her focus.  Given the option between focusing on her problems or focusing on her feet, she chooses the feet so she can enjoy the pleasure of the massage.  By the time the massage is over, she may not be totally happy, but she’s at least feeling more content.

Reaching out to someone in a negative state is effective in combating mild or temporary negativity.  Sometimes a kind word and some attention from a friend is all that’s needed to turn things around.  But when this solution isn’t effective or appropriate, then we move on to… 

Throw

If the person is a bit farther out in the sea of negativity, you might not be able to reach him directly.  Perhaps he refuses your initial attempts to help him.  Maybe he’s in denial of the problem even though it’s obvious to everyone else.  In this situation you can try a more indirect approach by throwing him a life preserver.

Ask a mutual friend or family member to intervene.  Send the person a book or CD you think may help.  Write him a card or letter to remind him that you care.  You can even use cards and letters with someone who lives with you, which often works well when verbal discussions are too easily derailed.  Get creative or do something humorous to help interrupt his negative pattern and bring him back to the table.  For example, record a personal audio message, and sneak it onto his iPod.

If your first throw doesn’t work, keep tossing until the person grabs on.  But if the attempts begins to wear you out, you can make one final toss, and say, “That’s it!  Either you grab the life preserver, or I’m cutting you off.”  Sometimes an ultimatum is the only way to get the person’s attention, but don’t use them unless your other attempts fail.

Many years ago one of my wife’s friends was in a destructive downward spiral, frequently hurting herself and others.  After various attempts at trying to help her, my wife decided to write her a long letter.  In that letter she expressed her feelings about this woman’s destructive behavior, offered the best advice she could, and said that their friendship had to end as a result of this woman’s choices.  My wife realized she had to let this friendship go, but she attempted to toss one final life preserver in the form of that letter.  For years we never heard from that woman again, and then out of the blue she contacted my wife again.  The woman relayed how my wife’s letter had a powerful transformative impact on her.  It made her take a hard look at herself and became the impetus for turning her life around.  Even though her initial reaction to the letter was far from positive, in the long run she was grateful for it.

But sometimes your best throws still aren’t enough, and in that case you may decide to…

Row

When people just won’t grab the lines you toss them, but you aren’t ready to give up on them yet, you can hop into a boat and row out to help them.  This is known as an intervention.  You put together a bunch of positive people who will reinforce each other and keep the group’s energy high.  Then you go visit the negative person and use your combined positive energy to help lift him out of the water.  Cast the light of awareness on what he’s doing to himself, and offer him all the combined help, resources, and assistance you can muster.

Just like a rowboat keeps you safe, a cadre of positive people will keep your energy from being drained by the negative person.  This is especially important if the negative person is surrounded by other negative people, and you need a powerful wedge to break them free.  If you go by yourself, you may not have nearly enough leverage – a common problem especially when drugs or alcohol are involved.

Someone I know started doing cocaine many years ago.  A casual user at first, this habit soon got the better of him.  He gradually went into debt to feed his addiction.  Once he’d exhausted his own sources of credit, he secretly applied for more credit in his wife’s name and ruined her credit rating without her knowledge.  His behavior became manic, his career went downhill, and pretty soon all his deceptions came crashing down around him.  Eventually he decided to go to rehab, and while he was there, his wife left him and sold many of their possessions.  He had hit rock bottom.  But then a rowboat showed up in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous.  He started going to meetings daily and got a sponsor.  AA really helped him turn his life around.  He swore off drugs and alcohol, got a new job, worked his way out of debt, and is now happily engaged.  It took him years to fully recover, and I know it wasn’t easy for him, but he did it.

We are fortunate to live in a world full of rowboats.  No matter how dark things get, there’s always hope.  Many people on this planet work to help people who need it the most.  But for some people even rowboats aren’t enough, and that’s when you might decide to…

Go

As a last resort, you can consider working one-on-one with the person yourself to help lift them out of their negativity.  For this to work, you must be very conscious of your own state and possess the ability to keep your energy positive even when surrounded by negativity.  Not many people are able to do this successfully.

As with trying to rescue a drowning victim, there is a risk involved with this approach.  If you try to rescue someone without being at a high enough level of consciousness yourself, you may very well be sucked down into his negativity.  Many abusive relationships begin this way.  You hear someone’s sad story and feel sorry for him, which hooks your energy into his negativity and gives him the means to control you.  Remember that you can’t help someone by drowning yourself in the process.  If you want to help someone who’s drowning in negativity, your primary responsibility is to keep yourself safe at all times.  This requires a delicate combination of genuine caring and detached awareness.

Remember that even Jesus had his Apostles to assist him.  I’d imagine that when you surround yourself with a 12-pack of friends who believe you’re the greatest thing since sliced manna, you can successfully deal with tremendous challenges without being sucked into the pit of despair yourself.

If you’re capable of directly helping the most deeply negative people one-on-one, then you’ve already earned the Lifeguard of Consciousness merit badge.  If that’s the case, then I don’t have any specific advice for you, except to say that I honor and salute the work you’re doing and hope that your life becomes ever more joyful, rewarding, and heart-centered.

Pray

If all else fails and you don’t have the capacity to help the person through human means, you always have the option of asking for divine help.  You can do this through prayer or through focusing your intentions on bringing help to that person, whichever you feel is more congruent with your beliefs.  The important thing is simply that you focus your thoughts on sending help.

Because we all have free will, you won’t always be able to help someone who refuses to accept your assistance.  It’s important to release your attachment to any particular outcome and remain open to all possibilities, even if the person is very close to you.  If you become too attached to specific outcomes, you’ll drag your own awareness down, drain your energy, and ultimately diminish your capacity to help.

Remember that you cannot help a victim by becoming one yourself.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is to let go with love and have faith that everything will turn out for the best.  Turn your attention to helping those you’re able to help.

As a consequence of the work my wife and I do, we occasionally receive pleas for help from people who are very depressed and occasionally suicidal… as well as from their friends and family.  We don’t have the capacity to help all of these people directly – that would take more energy than we have available to give.  But through our writing and audio recordings as well as our prayers and intentions, we do our best to help such people remember that we’re all connected, we’re all safe, and we always have the freedom to choose love instead of fear, regardless of circumstances.



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