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December 2009
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the emotional effect: how to deal with others' negativity

The other day as I was sitting in a meeting I could, for the first time, fully appreciate the phrase "you could cut the tension with a knife." Everyone in the room was nervous, tense. There were anxiously rapid eye movements, toes tapping, and legs jiggling. There were people shifting in their seats and shifting the tones of their voices. It was intense -- and it was stressing me out. I thought to myself, "How in the world can I be positive in this situation when everyone in this room is so anxious?" I'd gone into the meeting with a perfectly calm, perfectly upbeat attitude, and suddenly I'd felt my good mood draining. I had to find a way to deal with the situation before I became a finger-tapping, voice-raising mess.

I'm sure you've been in similar situations -- situations in which everyone in a room is in a much different state of mind than you are. If the energy of others is negative, it can really affect you. I, for one, am quite prone to picking up on the tone and mood of others and I know it can change my mood completely when someone else is in a negative place. When I found myself stuck in this meeting, I realized that there had to be a way to stay where I was (I didn't have much choice at that point) while still staying calm. Here's what I did...

How To Cope With Others' Negativity

  • Focus on yourself. As I was I was sitting in that meeting, nearly going crazy from all of the tension I could feel floating around the room, I thought to myself, "How do I bring this back to me? How do I get away from the emotions of others and focus instead on my own emotional state?" I began asking myself the following questions: How are you feeling right now? How is your body reacting to the emotions of others? How do you want your body to react? What do you really think of the situation? How can you focus more on your own thoughts and less on the reactions of others? Once I started asking myself these questions and redirecting my focus to myself instead of to the others in the room, I began to feel a lot better. I realized that I was actually feeling just fine and that I couldn't let their negative energy take away from my pleasant mood.

  • Use a mantra or phrase. A lot of people find it very helpful to have a key word or phrase that they can use whenever they're feeling stressed out. I've found that this usually works for me. I try to focus on whatever I want to be -- such as calm or positive -- and repeat the word to distract me from whatever negative situation is going on around me. It can really help you focus on what's happening within you (rather than external factors) and gives you a way to center yourself. Another way to do this would be to take deep, calming breaths (though this is a bit harder when you're in a situation like a meeting; it's hard to take deep breaths in a board room without looking like you're hyperventilating...). Repeating a mantra (in your head) or taking deep breaths can really help you to focus and calm down, guiding you away from negative emotions around you.  

  • Remove yourself mentally. When you find yourself in a tough spot, sometimes you have to remove yourself from the situation mentally. While I'm not for avoiding negative situations all together (see Monday's post on the 3:1 ratio), I do think sometimes you have to give yourself a break and let your mind vacate certain situations. If you can remove the negativity from yourself by removing your mental state from the negative place you've found yourself in, you'll probably gain a lot more clarity about the situation and how it's make you (not others) feel. If you're tremendously bothered by a situation, sometimes it helps to remove yourself from it (even if you can't do so in a physical way) by doing your best to think of more positive things. I'm not suggesting you tune out every time you have to deal with something hard, but if the negativity of others is overwhelming you, sometimes it's okay to take a mental time out.

  • Realize it will end. In my experience, I've found that it's essential to remember that the difficult or negative situation you find yourself in will eventually end. As obvious as this might sound, it's so important to keep that in mind as you make your way through whatever the situation is. By reminding yourself that this situation will, at some point, be over, you're giving yourself the opportunity to keep the particular situation in perspective. When you're surrounded by negativity, it's very important to put it in perspective because, as you know, keeping it in perspective will help you keep your cool -- even if no one else in the situation seems to be able to.

Of course, it wasn't all that easy to do these things. It can actually be really difficult to remove yourself from the emotional states of others. I'm sure you've all heard of "the butterfly effect" and I think of this emotion transfer as very similar to that. One person's emotional state can have a ripple effect that travels from person to person. For example, let's say someone in that meeting I was in was very tense and then I became tense because of that. I could take my tense-ness out of the meeting and make someone else tense too. See how that works? It could go on forever that way if we don't make an effort to keep a safe distance from the emotional states of others.  

On the flip side, it's important to remember that you can also catch the positive emotions coming from others so if you want to be more positive, surround yourself with people who are positive! You can't always choose who you surround yourself with (for example, at work), but often you do have a choice. If people are bringing you down and making you feel negative, you need to really think about the purpose of those people in your life. If someone is an overall drain, you're probably better off without him or her. However, if you just find yourself in a bad situation or with a normally positive person who happens to be in a funk, look to the suggestions above and give them a try. Negativity isn't 100% avoidable, but there are definitely ways to deal with it that will make even the worst situations more productive and bearable.

What do you do when you find yourself in a negative situation?
Do you have any helpful tips for dealing with others' negativity?

make the 3-to-1 ratio of positivity work for you

What is positivity? Lately I've been thinking about this a lot lately because, due to my job situation, I haven't been very happy. I haven't been happy... but I've still be positive. So what does it mean to be positive? For the past week or so I've been reading Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, which I've been meaning to read for awhile. So many have recommended that I read it, but it took me a long time to actually buy the book and start reading. And from the first page in, I've been saying to myself, "Why did it take me so long to read this???" The book is fascinating, filled with real scientific research about positivity but put together in a way that's not dull and dragging. Before cracking open the cover of this book, I often thought that positivity was pretty simple. It was just a generally good attitude that seemed to, in my experience, make everything better. But positivity, I'm certainly discovering, is a lot more -- so much more! -- than that. The author responds to her own question, "And what is positivity anyway?" with this statement: 

"Let's start with what it isn't. Positivity doesn't mean we should follow the axioms 'Grin and bear it' or 'Don't worry, be happy.' Those are simply superficial wishes. Positivity runs deeper. It consists of the whole range of positive emotions -- from appreciation to love, from amusement to joy, from hope to gratitude, and then some The term is purposely broad. It includes positive meanings and optimistic attitudes that trigger positive emotions as well as the open minds, tender hearts, relaxed limbs, and soft faces they usher in. It even includes the long-term impact that positive emotions have on your character, relationships, communities, and environment." 

When I read that, it really hit home that positivity is so much more than it seems. It's not just that "Be happy!" attitude (one that I haven't mastered and doubt I ever will); it's more than that and it's more important than that. As Fredrickson writes, "Positivity doesn't just change the corners of your mind, trading bad thoughts for good ones; it also changes the scope or boundaries of your mind. It widens the span of possibilities that you see." If I were to have read that even one year ago I would have scoffed and thought, "Bullshit. Positivity is just something people who don't think much about life possess. Anyone who's really thinking knows there's nothing to be positive about." But now... Now I know first hand that these words are true. Having a more positive attitude and incorporating more positivity into my life has changed the scope of my mind. The possibilities of my life have changed tremendously since I decided to seek out positivity. 

One thing I've struggled with is the notion that I cannot be positive all the time. It's pretty much impossible to always have a positive attitude, but I've often wondered, "How much positivity is enough? How much do I need to have to generally be a positive person?" According to Fredrickson's research, we should "aim for a positivity ratio of at least 3 to 1. This means that for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience you endure, you experience at least at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift you." Reading this I breathed a sigh of relief. I don't have to be positive all the time and I don't have to deny negative emotions (which I've always know would be a bad, bad idea). 

As Fredrickson notes, "The beauty of the 3-to-1 positivity ratio is that it's large enough to encompass the full range of human emotions. There's no emotion that needs to be forever shunned or repressed." I've often grappled with how one can be a positive person and still experience negative emotions and reading about Fredrickson's 3-to-1 ratio has really helped me to realize that just because you want to be positive doesn't meant that you're not going have bad times or experience negative emotions. In fact, as Fredrickson suggests, you need those emotions. You need to have a balance. A 3-to-1 balance, apparently. 

At this point in the post, I'm going to have to highly recommend that you read the book if you're at all interested in this subject. Many people recommended it to me and I kept put it off for some reason and I'm sorry that I did because I was missing out. If positivity is something that interests you, definitely check the book out to gain a full understanding of what the 3-to-1 ratio really means. In the rest of the post I'm going to focus on how I've tried to make the 3-to-1 ratio work for me and how these tips might work for you as well. These suggestions aren't in the book and I have no idea if Fredrickson would agree with them or not, but I know that they've worked for me so maybe they can have a positive impact on you too. 


4 Ways to Make the 3-to-1 Positivity Ratio Work for You


  1. Take baby steps. Yeah, it sounds silly (and may even feel silly), but I've found that doing something positive, like smiling, makes a huge difference.  When I remember to take a few seconds to do a small, positive thing, like really smile at someone, it works. Though it seems like a tiny thing, little acts like this can make a big difference when it comes to being positive. 

  2. Accept the negative. It's hard when you're focused on positivity all of the time (as I try to be) to address the things that are negative. It seems sometimes like a better idea to ignore them to say, "Oh, I'll deal with those another time," but it's really never a good idea to do that. If you're feeling a negative emotion, go ahead and fully experience it. It will actually make you better at being more positive! 

  3. Listen and learn. Take a moment to listen to those around you. Are they looking for the good or dwelling on the bad? You can learn a lot from the people around you -- both from the good and the bad traits they possess. Listen to what others are saying and how they are reacting to learn how you would like to react. Take the good thoughts and leave the bad. 

  4. Do your research. If you want to make the positivity ratio work for you, look into it. Read the book if you can or check it out online and gather more information. There's even a test you can take to see what your ratio is right now. The more work you put into understanding yourself and your emotions, the more likely you'll be to find that awesome 3-to-1 balance. 

There are many, many ways to seek a 3-to-1 positivity ratio in your life but a lot of them will depend on you. Your personality, your lifestyle, your mindset -- all of these things can affect your ratio and some of them can even change quite frequently. I've provided the four things that really help me to be more positive. These four things might work for you, they might not. Everyone is different when it comes to understanding their personal positivity ratio so it's important to give it some serious thought if you're working towards this as a goal in your life. I'll leave you with one of the most powerful passages I read in Fredrickson's book because it is the one that, after a year of seeking positivity, I know for sure is true. Silly as it might sound, the possibility for positivity really does lie within you...  

"... the potential for life-draining negativity lies within you, just as does the potential for life-giving positivity. You have more say than you think about which you feel and when. The treasure for your own positivity is waiting." 

stop asking. start living.


"Have patience with everything that
remains unsolved in your heart.
Try to love the questions themselves,
like locked rooms and like books
written in a foreign language.

Do not now look for the answers.
They cannot now be given to you
because you could not live them.
It is a question of experiencing everything.

At present you need to live the question.
Perhaps you will gradually,
without even noticing it, find yourself
experiencing the answer."

Rainer Maria Rilke



Lately I've been asking myself a lot of questions. As I cruise through my twenties, I'm trying to figure everything out. I'm trying to figure out my career, my relationships, my likes and dislikes, and, most importantly, my place in this world. At times it can be overwhelming and I find my mind racing with questions, my thoughts filled with queries that lack answers.

Today I've decided to get to the bottom of these questions -- not necessarily by finding the answers to them, but by really thinking about them. As I find myself wondering and wondering, I have to ask myself the big question: "How much of this really matters?" When I reflect on what my overall goal is in life -- to positively live a life of purpose -- I realize that not all of the questions racing around in my head need answers. In fact, many of the questions I find myself struggling with don't even really need to be asked. Nonetheless, I often feel like I'm a little kid, still trying to figure out the world. I want to know -- always -- the big question: "Why?" I find myself pondering: Why do certain things happen to me? Why do others not happen to me? Why am I not experiencing the dream career I thought I'd have by now? Why am I so lucky to have great people in my life? Why am I living where I am, doing what it is that I do? Why do I love this and hate that? Why is my mind always racing with questions? Why, why, why...

There are so many "whys" in my life and sometimes it's very, very frustrating when I start questioning myself, my life, and the world around me. As you've probably found when you've asked yourself those big "life" questions, the answers aren't always easy to find (if, in some cases, there are even answers at all...). Being the impatient girl that I am, it's not always easy for me to deal with these unanswered questions. I want answers and I want them now. Sure, this is that living-in-the-moment attitude, but it's not really helping me to get answers -- or to be content with the fact that I may not always have (or ever get!) answers.

This week in therapy I found myself asking a lot -- and I do mean a lot of questions. It was that session that actually got me started thinking about questions. I was wondering a lot about my job and how I was going to either change it or change my attitude about it. I was wondering about my future, about my life, about this path that I seem to be heading down. As all of these questions were racing around my brain and popping out of my mouth, my therapist turned it around on me and asked me two questions, questions she's asked me before but that somehow struck me as particularly important right now. She said to me calmly as I was frantically spitting out question after question:

"What do you want?
How are you going to get it?"


Those really are the questions. What else is there? (Another question!) I need to know what I want from life (something I'm still unsure of at times) and I need to figure out how I'm going to go about getting it. I can narrow almost everything down to those two questions. When I think about my career, my relationships, my life in general, they can all be summed up with those two questions. What I want and what I'm going to do to get it are the two things I must focus on. They are the answers to all of the questions because they are, in essence, the culmination of all of the many, many questions I find myself pondering day after day. But even though I know I will need to focus more on these two questions, I also know that the answers aren't going to be easy. And, to be honest, I'm starting to realize that the answers aren't necessarily the point.  

I decided to take a look at the quote above and re-read this: "At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer." Reading that makes me realize that I don't necessarily need the answers to my questions. Rather, I need to experience them. I need to experience what I want and how I'm going to get it. As one of my favorite characters in the film Dazed and Confused says, "You just gotta keep livin' man. L-I-V-I-N."  Instead of simply asking myself questions, I need to start living them.


What questions do you often ask yourself?
Are you living your questions?