The pessimist complains about the wind;
the optimist expects it to change,
the realist adjusts the sails.
~ William Arthur Ward
The other day I was at the credit union, and after learning that I help people with habit changes, the teller asked me, “What do you think is the most common problem habit?”
What came up was “negative self-talk” — maybe because I’ve been pondering a question asked recently by a reader: “What can I do with someone who is always a ‘Debbie Downer?’ I have to interact with this person who walks around with a cloud over her head on a daily basis!”
It can be quite a drag being around someone who has nothing good to say about anything, can’t it? Here’s my response:
1. Trying to counter Debbie’s down with your up could backfire.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo looked at the effects of positive affirmations. They discovered that affirmations work for people who have high self-esteem already. People with low self-esteem are more likely to feel worse when they say things like, “I am loveable” or “My life is improving.”
Another study I read about a while ago discovered that if you tell a pessimist she’ll have a difficult time hitting the center of a bull’s-eye, she’ll hit the bull’s-eye better than chance. But tell a pessimist that hitting that bull’s-eye will be a breeze and he’ll do worse.
This should tell you that trying to cheer up Debbie Downer is likely to backfire. Better to acknowledge her challenges by saying, “I can tell you’re having a hard time right now.” Time frame is key, so I often encourage people who are in Debbie’s place to say things like, “I’m preparing myself to feel more loveable.” It’s not exactly in the frame of a positive affirmation, but it’s a start in that direction.
2. If you have been feeling resentment or guilt, resourceful compassion could help you both.
Debbie’s negativity might be a symptom of something physical that she’s not aware of. You might be a resource.
Dan Stradford, founder of Safe Harbor, says, “Most people who suffer from physically induced depression and anxiety, conditions that commonly bring about negative self talk, have no or little idea that it stems from a physical condition. This is because the negative self-talk may have originally formed because of psychological reasons (an oppressive father, for example).
“They manage to rise above many of these bad feelings as they get older, but a low thyroid, chronic fatigue, hypoglycemia, food allergies, etc. can weaken them, causing these old feelings to once again seem real.”
By the way, check out Safe Harbor, a group that supports people who want non-pharmaceutical options and support for mental illness.
You can also encourage Debbie Downer to consider Functional Medicine, an emerging hybrid between conventional and alternative care that is nutrient-based. At Stillpoint, our integrative health center in Lafayette, California, USA, we have a medical doctor who helps people deal with conditions that can be helped by Functional Medicine. If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, CLICK HERE to get more information about in-person services. Otherwise, you can search for a Functional Medicine professional here.
In these cases, of course, you can’t make Debbie get the help she needs, but you can ask if it’s okay to offer suggestions, which might sound like, “Is it okay to share some resources I’ve learned about?”
3. When all else fails, you can support Debbie – and yourself, by making boundaries, even if you can’t physically make yourself scarce.
• Let Debbie know, “I don’t like hearing this. I’m stepping away.”
• Separate yourself with a headset if necessary, or non-intrusive soothing background music if your work or home environment allows.
• Get support for your individual situation, as you may be making the situation worse without intending to. A mental health professional can help you get perspective and develop your options. To find out if the Habits Into Health perspective is a fit for you, CLICK HERE to request an application for a strategy session (online, phone or in person).