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How to Get through to Someone in a Negative Frame of Mind, Even If It’s You

Some people are self-protectively negative all the time. Others succumb to negativity only when things fall apart, or when someone is standing heavily on their last nerve. But in these turbulent times, just about everyone is taking a turn toward the negative more often than they used to, and some of us even linger there, marinating in our own speculations about everything that can and will go wrong.

It can be useful to be self-questioning and to prepare for all kinds of potential challenges. But disproportionate or persistent negativity can eventually take a toll on our coworkers, our families, our psyches, and our long-term physical health. Negativity can stalemate entire projects and stymie whole teams. So how can you break the cycle for yourself or help someone else find a calmer, less disruptive path? Try these four approaches or share them with colleagues when it’s appropriate.

Put yourself on pause. Sometimes even conscious breathing isn’t enough, and you really need a change of venue. So if you can’t stop a cascade of negative thoughts, walk away from whatever you’re doing and take a break. Although this requires a combination of self-cajoling and force of will, it is possible to pause the action so you can think more clearly and realistically. A physical break—getting up and stretching, doing some silly dancing for a few minutes, or walking to the kitchen or breakroom to get a cold drink or make a cup of tea—is one of the quickest ways to separate yourself from the negative mind space you’re in. 

Focus on what’s working before thinking about what’s not working. When you feel yourself spiraling into having a sense of dread and realize you have a “but” for everything, tell yourself, “I’m going to worry about all that in a minute. First, though, I’ll look at everything that’s going reasonably well or is in the normal course.” Stop whatever you’re doing and just reflect. Start with the bad things that didn’t happen, and then try to find things that are slightly more positive: “I did not get a flat this morning. My child was not a little fiend when I was trying to leave the house. No one picked on me in the ops meeting. My annoying colleague was in a good mood today. My coffee was tasty. Oh yes, and the flowers are coming up in the garden…” Perhaps remind yourself to savor the flowers or your coffee a little more tomorrow, or to say something nice to your colleague. Over time, these reflections and nudges can set you up for a more positive frame of mind without your even noticing.

Check your expectations. If you’re holding yourself responsible for unrealistic, perfectionistic excellence, it’s no wonder you feel scared, negative, or hopeless about reaching your goals or satisfying others’ requirements. There’s nothing wrong with ideating about what would be “best” if it inspires you in your efforts. But if you’re feeling worn down by just how impossible your plans are, check in with your boss, a colleague, or yourself to see what would be a good enough result. Refocus on a result that would satisfy the requirements even if it is not perfect in every single aspect: What really needs to be happening and what is your expected part in it? What can you do to best serve the moment rather than enumerating all your inadequacies and feeling like anything you do will not be enough? Scale back your expectations instead of flogging yourself into a lather over things that are not truly necessary. Tell yourself, “This is as much as I need to do right now and it will be sufficient.” And encourage yourself to focus on how relieved you’ll be when you’ve delivered on the good-enough-for-the-purpose work.

Ask yourself what would be better. Negativity can be contagious. When you’re in a negative frame of mind, not only do you feel bad, but it’s also easy to project those negative feelings onto others. So as soon as you notice yourself doing that—or if someone points it out to you—act like an observer. Describe to yourself how you’re feeling and accept that your thinking has become negative. Don’t dwell on it, just put a few words to it: “I’m feeling down” or “I’m aggravated and wanting to let everyone know.” Then ask yourself—yes, as if you were two different people—“Are my thoughts helping me? Could I take a more beneficial approach? Because this current one is not helping me.” Give yourself permission to think differently.

It can be hard to contribute to a project or to be creative if you’re in the midst of a negative spiral. Using these techniques can help you get back on course. Of course you can always ask colleagues and friends for a reality check about the facts of the situation or to get support in shifting your own thinking. But please note, we’re talking here about garden-variety negative thinking, not clinical depression or anxiety. If you’re suffering from either of the latter, please get professional help, or at the very least, visit the website of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Onward and upward —

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