Survive a Negative Friend

A negative friend can be a dark force in your life. On one hand, you may appreciate certain things about him or her, and you may want to help him/her be more positive. On the other hand, s/he can drain you and drag you into his/her world. Learn how to deal with a negative friend appropriately, so that you can begin to understand him or her and inject positivity into your friend's life.


Dealing with Negativity

  1. Avoid being critical toward your friend. Lecturing your friend about his negative patterns can make him feel even worse, and he may turn on you. Criticism is difficult for everyone, but it’s especially difficult for someone with negative thoughts and emotions circulating in his head.[1] Trying to vent to him about his own behavior may just escalate the situation and make him feel attacked. Provide a supportive environment to the best of your abilities.
  2. Take responsibility for your own happiness. If you let your happiness depend on a negative person, it will end in disaster. Keep your emotional distance from a negative friend. Avoid getting sucked into his world and then needing to solve his problems in order to be happy yourself.[1]
  3. Manifest your own positivity. One of the most effective methods for helping a negative friend, and helping yourself too, is to remain positive in the face of his negativity. This will keep you happy and show your friend an alternative to the way he sees things and acts in the world.
    • Take a break. Humans can "catch" emotions; in other words, the emotions of people around you are likely to rub off on you.[2] Even if you are a very positive person, if you are around negativity too much, it may make it harder to maintain your positive outlook. Take a break from your friend's negativity sometimes.
    • Another way to maintain your positivity is to stay in tune with your own emotional experience. If you're starting to feel negativity rubbing off on you, check in with yourself and remind yourself that that isn't something you want. For example, "I'm starting to feel angry at restaurant servers because my friend has been complaining for five minutes about ours. I don't have a problem with our server. This anger isn't mine." You'll be more able to sustain your own positivity if you focus on it.[3]
    • Use humor. Redefining a negative experience in humorous terms can help counteract the brain's natural impulse to focus on the negativity of a situation.[4] The next time your friend starts in on a rant, flip the situation humorously: "I'm sorry your car didn't start and you had to run for the bus. But hey, you did say you've been wanting to get more exercise, right?"
    • Remind yourself when your friend's negativity is irrational. It can be easier to maintain your own positivity if you disengage from irrational negativity. For example, if your friend is complaining that your night is ruined because you have to see a movie in 2D instead of 3D, remind yourself that this is completely irrational. You still get to see the movie, and you can still have an enjoyable evening. Disengage from your friend's irrational thought trap.[5]
  4. Avoid matching his negativity. It may be tempting to join your friend in negativity. Research shows that people would actually rather do an unenjoyable activity with friends than an enjoyable activity alone.[1] However, reinforcing the negativity will only make it worse. He will think that it’s acceptable and you may even push him farther into negativity.
  5. Be compassionate. Research on compassion suggests that it’s a “win-win” way to treat people.[6] There are mental and physical health benefits associated with being compassionate, such as buffering you against stress and increasing your social connectedness. Social connectedness has its own benefits, such as increasing your immune system. Compassion also helps others. Acts of compassion create compassion in the other person as well. Giving freely can cause the other person to want to give freely. Basically, compassion is a great way to keep yourself and the people around you healthy.
    • For example, look for ways you can help your friend. If his car dies, offer to give him a ride or jump start his battery. If he complains about a family member, offer to let him vent to you. These small gestures will produce a big effect in both of your lives.
  6. Protect yourself. It’s unpleasant to “break up” with a friend, but sometimes it’s the best option. It’s good to brush negativity off and genuinely accept a friend despite the cloud hanging over his head. However, sometimes the negativity is too much, and you may need to say goodbye. If it comes to that, feel good about the fact that you care about yourself enough to avoid the black hole of negativity.[7]
    • Sometimes, friends' negativity can trigger unpleasant or traumatic memories from our own past. For example, if you have recovered from a past substance abuse problem and your friend is constantly complaining that her family wants her to stop doing drugs, this negativity could trigger painful memories of your own past. If your friend's negativity continues to "push your buttons" or cause painful triggering, it may be best to step away.
  7. Consider seeing a therapist. This can be especially helpful if you really want to keep your friend involved in your life but are having a hard time dealing with his negativity. A therapist can help you learn healthy ways to cope, and help you learn ways to frame your thinking in healthy, helpful ways so you can stay positive.
    • If your friend's negativity is severe, such as talking about suicide or self-harm, talk to a trusted parent, teacher, counselor, or other authority figure. Your friend needs more help than you can offer.

Communicating Effectively With a Negative Friend

  1. Think about your words. The last thing you want is to add to your friend’s negativity by being too critical or hostile. If you would like to tell your friend that you think he is seeing a situation more negatively than necessary, think about the best way to say this.[8]
    • Use "I"-statements rather than "you"-statements. For example, “Quit being so negative” is going to have less of a positive effect than “I feel like there’s more to the situation than you’re seeing.” "I"-statements sound less judgmental, which can make the other person more open to hearing what you have to say.
  2. Be careful about delivery. What you say isn’t the only important factor. Tone and nonverbal cues are just as important.[8] Yelling or throwing your hands up in defeat are going to increase negativity in the room rather than work to fight the fire effectively.
    • Gentle eye contact and nodding along to what your friend is saying, if you agree, are great ways to create a positive interaction.
    • Maintain an even tone of voice. Staying calm when your friend blows up may help her realize that there's more than one way to respond to a problem.
  3. Watch your pace. Research shows that speaking slowly causes people to perceive you as “more caring and sympathetic.”[9] In order to communicate with a negative friend in a way that promotes positivity and keeps you from falling into the same negativity, pay attention to how fast you are speaking.
  4. Assert yourself. You want to be compassionate and positive in your approach, but that’s not the same thing as allowing yourself to be stepped on. Sometimes a negative friend may try to override your opinions. Maintain a firm stance when it comes to your freedom to express yourself and have a differing point of view. Assertiveness is about meeting the needs of everyone involved, not just one person.[10]
    • Clearly express your desires, wants, and needs. Use direct language that can’t be contradicted. For example, say “The way that you’re acting right now makes me uncomfortable. I’m going to leave, but we can talk later if you want.”
    • Include empathy. For example, “I understand that you want to keep talking about this, but I’m not comfortable with this conversation, so I’m going to leave.”
    • Set limits. For example, "I am happy to listen to your complaints for five minutes, but then I would like us to change the subject so we don't get too bogged down in negative feelings."[5]
  5. Change the direction of the conversation. If a friend is negatively ruminating on something, change the subject to something you know will cheer him up.[11] Injecting positivity into a situation can be a lot easier and more effective than trying to fight negativity.
    • For example, if your friend is complaining about a bad day at work, ask him if he wants to go bowling or see a movie. Offer to pay for his ticket.

Understanding Negativity

  1. Recognize pessimism. Pessimism is the orientation toward life of expecting that things will go poorly. Usually, people become pessimistic because things in their lives actually did go badly.[12] Pessimistic people often seem negative because they are quick to shoot down ideas and possibilities. Just remember that these people most likely have a history of bad things happening in their lives, so from their perspective, pessimism might seem totally reasonable.
    • People who have pessimistic views may see positive thinking as "sticking your head in the sand" or refusing to acknowledge life's problems. You can help encourage your friend learn to think more positively by modeling healthy positive thinking in your interactions.[13]
    • For example, a friend with a pessimistic view may say, "I shouldn't even try for that interview, because I'll never get the job." Someone who is refusing to acknowledge reality might respond, "Oh, you'll definitely get the job! There's no way you're not the best!" While this may sound positive, it isn't helpful because it's clearly unrealistic and doesn't acknowledge your friend's genuine concerns.
    • Instead, be positive but realistic: "Okay, maybe you might not be the most qualified person in the world for that job...but you won't know if you can get it unless you apply. You do have a lot of the qualities they're looking for. What would it hurt to apply?"
  2. Look for signs of depression. Depression is a mood disorder marked by symptoms such as feeling hopeless, an inability to feel pleasure, and extended fatigue. Depression is the source of a lot of negativity; understanding it will help you understand negative friends who may be depressed. Depression is caused by a lot of different factors outside the control of the person, such as genes, family environment, and peer environment. People who feel depressed have difficulty mustering the energy to do things. Because of how tired and “low down” depressed people feel, they may seem really negative and unhappy.[14]
    • People with major depression can't just "snap out" of feeling bad. However, depression is very treatable with therapy and medication.
    • Other symptoms of depression include: frequent feelings of sadness or teariness, angry outbursts, lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, changes to weight, sleep, or appetite, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and frequent thoughts of harm to self or death.[15]
  3. Talk to your friend about depression. Depression is a serious condition that makes it hard for people to connect emotionally and live a happy, healthy life. You can't "fix" your friend's depression, but if you've noticed signs that worry you, talking to her can be a good way to show you care and encourage her to get help.[16]
    • Frame your talk with "I"-statements, such as "Lately I've noticed you don't want to hang out as much. I'm worried about you. Would you like to talk?"
    • Ask questions. Don't assume you know what's going on. Instead, ask your friend some questions, such as "Have you been feeling this way for awhile? Did something happen to make you feel this way?"
    • Offer support. You should let your friend know that you care about her and are there to support her. Often, people with depression feel very bad or worthless about themselves. Let her know that you care for her and are there for her by saying something like, "I really value our friendship. Even if you don't want to talk right now, I'm always here for a chat if you want."
    • People with depression may respond with anger or irritation to your attempt to help. Don't take it personally, and don't try to force the issue.[16]
  4. Watch for signs of anxiety. Anxiety can cause frustration and irritability. People with anxiety may feel powerless in their own lives, or terrified of things that don't seem scary to others. They may spend so much time worrying about the fear that they have trouble thinking or concentrating on anything else.[17][18] People who experience a lot of anxiety may be snappy and lash out more than people who don’t, creating a lot of negative emotional energy in their lives.
    • If your friend constantly seems to worry about things or feel "out of control" of her own life, she may be experiencing anxiety issues.
    • Like depression, anxiety is a mental disorder that is serious but can be treated. You can't "fix" your friend's anxiety, but you can show her that you care about her and want to support her.
  5. Encourage your friend to seek treatment for anxiety. Many people with anxiety feel bad about their inability to control their worrying, which paradoxically leads to more worry. They may feel that seeking treatment is a sign of weakness or that they're "broken." Encourage your friend by reminding her that seeking treatment is actually a sign of strength and self-care.[19]
    • Use "I"-statements when you talk to your friend about her anxiety. Don't make her feel worse about herself by saying things like "You need to work on your anxiety." Instead, say something reassuring and kind, like "I feel like you've been really worried and stressed out the last several times we've spent time together. Are you okay?"
  6. Get a grasp on insecurity and self-esteem. Many times, people who feel insecure or inadequate have a difficult time being positive and responding well to positive events.[20] This can feel like an act of self-protection, since they are suspicious of being rejected or hurt more. As misguided as it may be, understanding the logic behind it can be useful in dealing with it. You can help build your friend's self-esteem in several ways:[21]
    • Give her positive feedback. Overcoming that self-protective instinct takes time. Whenever you see even the slightest hint of growth, tell your friend something positive about it. For example, "I'm so glad you decided to come out to the bowling alley with us today! I've really missed you."
    • Encourage her. Overcoming negativity is hard work, and she will have relapses. Keep encouraging her to try new tactics.
    • Listen to her. Many people may feel low self-esteem because they feel others don't listen or care about them. Take the time to listen to your friend, acknowledge her concerns, and share your ideas with her. This will make her feel involved in your life, and let her know that she's important to you.
  7. Realize that negativity is partly unconscious.[22] We tend to think of negative behavior as a choice, but it’s more complicated than that. Negativity, whether it’s coming from depression, pessimism, anxiety, insecurity, or something else, is something that no one has complete control over. There are steps people can take to reduce negativity in their lives, but judging someone for being negative can sometimes just make things worse.
    • Remember that you can't "fix" your friend's problems. However, you can be there to support her. Just remember to take care of yourself, too.


  • Recommend seeing a therapist if you think your friend might be having trouble with his/her emotions..


  • Avoid talking about your friend behind his/her back. This is unkind and unhelpful.
  • If your friend mentions harming him/herself or thoughts of suicide, call emergency services or ask your friend to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Sources and Citations

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