Almost everyone has a friend who isn’t happy unless she’s miserable—a Debbie Downer. And she could be bringing you down too.
In his book Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life, Trevor Blake cites studies by Stanford University professor and stress expert Robert Sapolsky that found that 30 minutes of exposure to negativity can result in a peeling away of neurons in the hippocampus, the problem-solving part of the brain. In other words, listening to someone complain about problems decreases your ability to solve them. On top of that, the study showed that being on the receiving end of a lengthy vent session puts you at risk of acting the same way.
Before you show the Debbie Downers in your life the door, consider these defensive moves that have helped me deal with the negative folks in my life.
1. Give the people what they want. My one friend often complained to me about her husband’s ex. I used to give her advice, but now I give her what she really wants: validation. Letting her know I understand how hard her situation is keeps her from feeling the need to explain it to me all over again, so we can talk about other things.
2. Ask the question. When someone has you button-holed you may be wondering, “Why me?” Go ahead and ask them, “How can I help you?” or “What are you going to do?” I tried this with a friend recently, and it really helped shift the topic of conversation from negative (problem) to positive (solution).
3. Be selective. The easiest way to ensure that you won’t get trapped listening to negative people is not to be around them in the first place. I try to fill my social calendar with fun friends who lift my spirits and put a smile on my face. My time is precious—it’s okay to be choosey about whom I spend it with.
4. Check the mirror. All of this advice works great, unless the Debbie Downer in question is you. I’m not judging—believe me, I’ve bent plenty of my friends’ ears with my “problems.” A new year is a perfect time to turn over a new leaf. Make a New Year’s resolution to cut out complaining. Tip: If you feel yourself slipping into old habits, take a deep breath and tell yourself you don’t have any problems, only challenges and minor inconveniences. And those are hardly worth complaining about.