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Protect yourself from negative behaviour of others.

© Catherine Ripplinger Fenwick

Everyone is irritable at times, but some people are so difficult to be around that they make our lives at home and at work a strain. They are people who seem to find fault with everything and everyone. When they get something new they examine it in minute detail, find a flaw, and almost gleefully complain about the shabby workmanship, the lack of this, and the problem with that. This cynicism can be so pervasive that, given time, they can bring discouragement to even the most optimistic. They berate and criticise people around them to the point where they sometimes don’t know which way to turn. Regardless of the steps taken, they are criticised for not taking different steps. This is destructive to family life, inhibiting play and joyfulness. In the workplace they pick at and badger co-workers until colleagues shun them, for their own emotional survival. Cynical people live a rigid and demanding life and are usually very lonely.

Negativity and cynicism are symptoms of fear, insecurity and lack of trust. Cynics are often unhappy and dissatisfied and feel it is their duty to communicate this dissatisfaction. They look around for someone to blame. Some people are highly skilled at getting what they want by manipulation, by trying to place blame, or by trying to induce guilt feelings in others. They are determined to focus on what they see as wrong and seem unable to see or to feel gratitude for what is right and good in their lives.

People with negative attitudes have a keen sense of where to stick the knife. They seek out, and usually find, our vulnerabilities. They seem eager to "blow out our candles." Cynics often use sarcasm, then say you have no sense of humour when you don’t laugh with them as they make fun of you. The word sarcasm comes from the Latin root, meaning "to tear flesh." Sarcasm tears emotional flesh. Our usual reaction to someone who is "tearing emotional flesh" is to fight back, cry, or try to help them to see things differently. This does not always result in a change of behaviour. We cannot assume responsibility for changing the behaviour of others, but we need to protect ourselves from their negativity.

You can’t always avoid difficult people, learning to cope with them may be necessary. We may try to diffuse the negativity by standing up to bullies, showing concern for gripers, and communicating assertively with negative types. We may have to accept how they are and give up attempts to change them. But, negativity can be so infectious. A highly charged cynic can bring down a room full of people within a few minutes. I avoid them whenever I can. If I must interact with a person who is being very negative or cynical, I imagine an invisible tube connecting us. Then I take a pair of invisible scissors and cut the tube. In this way I protect myself from the loss of my own energy as well as the possibility of taking on their negative energy.

I try to approach the person with compassion because I believe the negativity comes from fear and insecurity. My grandmother used to say, "A bully is a bully because he is afraid," I think that is also true for negative and cynical people. Negativity destroys joy, often at times when we need it most. Negativity and cynicism are ways of trying to get control of situations and people. They are reactions to things that are out of their control, and can be a way to shut down emotions when a person is feeling vulnerable. The uncertainties of life seem too difficult.

I have an 80-year-old friend who when he was young spent two years in a tuberculosis sanatorium. There he noticed that patients handled their situation in one of two ways. Some were negatives and some were hopefuls. The negatives knew they had a potentially fatal disease. They remained angry, frustrated, bitter and depressed. Many stayed like this to the end. The hopefuls knew some people survived the disease. With this knowledge they moved through the anger, fear and depression. They fought the disease with determination. The hopeful's commitment to life was so strong that it seemed to mobilise a healing energy. Not all of the hopefuls survived, but they had a more peaceful death. People who accepted death peacefully found more joy in living each moment of life. My friend started a joke collection when he was in the sanatorium. Sixty years later, he still shares the joy by sharing stories from his collection.

Dr. Gerald Jampolsky, known for his work with critically ill children, author of Love is Letting Go of Fear, says that all emotions are based in either love or fear. Children, he says, are amazingly adept at recognising and acknowledging their fear. They often respond with love and compassion. If children are innately loving and trusting, when does the insecurity and fear develop? Must we persist in these fearful ways? Can we learn to live with childlike trust and compassion?

Fear creates negativity, cynicism, insecurity, frustration, bitterness and despair. You cannot change the behaviour of others. Some will choose to remain stuck in the cycle of fear and negativity. You can and must protect yourself from the negativity. You may be able to influence their behaviour with acts of compassion and kindness. I have seen many examples of changes in attitude when friendship and caring are offered to the fearful. We join the ranks of the hopefuls and the joyfuls when we face our fear with courage, compassion and hope.


Cathy Fenwick is a therapist, author and educator. She develops and delivers workshops and keynotes on how to get more healthy humour into your life.

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