Life is too short to be hanging out with negative people — even if they’re family. Sarcasm, pessimism, cynicism, one-upping, constant complaining, chronic discontent, blamey, shamey, judgey, negative influences. Most forms of negativity are trauma responses, vulnerability avoidance tactics, or some kind of maladaptive coping mechanism. Botched attempts at protecting themselves or getting their needs met by any means necessary.
People do this because they don’t know any better. It’s not your job to fix them, but it’s also not your job to tolerate their horse shit. The following is an exercise you can use to improve the quality of your relationships and thus the quality of your life.
Open a notebook or a word document. List the people in your life — friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, or anyone you see, talk to, or spend time with regularly.
Next to each name, indicate if your relationship is positive — you enjoy spending time with them, neutral — time with them is kinda meh, or negative — you do not enjoy spending time together. And remember to assess them now as they actually are in your life — not as the super great friend they were 20 years ago. It ain’t 20 years ago anymore. Get brutally honest with yourself.
Spend more time with the positive people, and for the neutrals and negatives, do the following as you see fit:
- Just spend less time with them. Make yourself less available. Miss their calls. Say no to their invites. Don’t reach out to them or make plans with them. Don’t put any logs on the fire, so to speak.
- Set explicit boundaries with those who are a liability. People who suck your energy, disappoint you, annoy you, or violate your boundaries in some way. Setting and reinforcing healthy boundaries is the mechanism for making any relationship feel safer, more respectful, and more enjoyable.
Three Types of Boundaries
You will most likely need to set some boundaries. When you do, they could take three forms, depending on the person:
- You kindly call them out on their shit because they’re humble and aware enough to receive constructive feedback. You share your feelings and needs and discuss possible alternatives to whatever shitty behavior. E.g., “Hey, that felt a little guilt-trippy, and that doesn’t work for me. I’d like both of us to feel safe and respected. What is the feeling, want, or need you’d like to share with me, and how could you express it in a more positive way?” Peaceful discussion ensues.
- The metacognitive inability of this person to recognize their own ineptitude precludes an explicit discussion of their shittiness, and you bypass the need for them to participate in personal growth by simply stating exactly what you will and will not tolerate from them. E.g., “I’ll be happy to respond to respectful requests, but I’m no longer entertaining guilt trips.” Mic drop. Nothing to discuss. They’ll usually say, “I wasn’t guilt-tripping you,” to which you can respond, “It certainly didn’t feel like a respectful request — why don’t you give it another go?”
- The person has demonstrated over and over again a flagrant disregard for your explicit boundaries, and being around them is literally not safe. For this person, you simply amputate them and stay behind a wall of cordiality. You don’t engage with them, spend time with them, invite them over, nothing. Boundaries without consequences are just suggestions. You have to minimize your exposure to such toxic people. E.g., “I’ve already got other plans, but thanks for the invite.” Even if your other plans are eating Taco Bell by yourself.
When Setting Boundaries Feels Impossible
Many people have a visceral sensation that speaking up for themselves will result in them literally fucking dying on-site. If setting a boundary feels entirely out of the question for you, there is a strong possibility that you’ve got some complex relational or developmental trauma that you’ll need professional help to heal.
Please find a trauma-informed coach or therapist to work with on this. “Try harder” or “Just do it anyway” may not be the solution for you.
Feeling like you’re not allowed to express yourself or have needs is typically indicative of toxic shame, self-abandonment, and unresolved trauma. Whatever the case, there’s some serious healing work to be done that goes far beyond simply setting stronger boundaries.
Trust me. No one just coincidentally has zero boundaries. Something happened to them. Usually some gnarly shit that they’ll need to unpack in a safe space with a skilled professional. Attempting to heal your childhood trauma all by yourself is like doing your own heart surgery. I don’t recommend it… even if you’ve read all the heart surgery books.