IT IS THE MOST natural thing in the world to dislike the people in your life who bring you down. We tend to feel angry and frustrated with them. But keep in mind that they aren’t born that way. Children aren’t usually born with genes that make them frustrate and anger other people — it is a learned trait. And it’s usually learned because it happened to them.
It happens like this: Let’s say I’m in a position of authority — a parent, for instance — and I bring you down. I make you feel sad or angry or sorry for yourself or whatever. Since I’m the one who’s winning all the time, you’ll start to think that the only way you can win is to be able to bring people down. In circumstances like this, you would quickly learn that to be a winner you need to bring people down.
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies,” wrote William Wadsworth Longfellow, “we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
THE OTHER KIND
That’s one form. The other form of people who bring you down are those people who are not deliberately trying to bring you down, but who bring you down because a) you love them, and b) they are miserable. Dealing with someone you love who acts against his own interests can bring you down. There may be psychological causes for this, or even brain damage that causes the person to act in a self-defeating way, but it can drive you crazy trying to save him from himself.
Either way, people who bring you down are not happy people. When you understand this, you will have some compassion for them. When someone feels good and likes what’s happening in her life, she’s not likely to bring other people down (except maybe by accident once in a great while). When you feel good about yourself, you don’t belittle others. It is people who have trouble and misery, people who don’t feel good who bring others down.
If someone feels bad about themselves, they can notice something bad about you and point it out, and they feel more equal to you, which brings them up a little. Or they are simply down or out of control and it brings you down because you love them.
It’s important to be cautious in dealing with these people, but I also want you to have a degree of compassion for them. I could probably take anyone and if I put him down long enough and hard enough, he would probably eventually start doing it himself.
At the same time, be cautious of these people. What they’re doing when they bring you down is very dangerous to you. It’s not lightweight. Later, we’ll describe a demonstration we do in our courses that illustrates what happens to you when someone brings you down. It’s something to take seriously.
HOW CAN YOU TELL?
There are lots of different kinds of people who bring you down. On one extreme is the very gruff person with an obvious chip on her shoulder, and when she comes in the room, she makes no bones about the fact that she is going to put you down or invalidate your ideas. You have no doubt who those people are.
On the other extreme, you have people who are very polite and gracious. And yet, after talking with them, somehow you’re aware of your faults and shortcomings, your limitations, the misery or danger of everything, etc. These people may compliment you and smile and do all the other stuff you associate with a friend, and yet somehow you feel bad after being with him or her.
Once upon a time there was a very powerful man. He was a really nice guy to a lot of people. He was a dutiful son to a very doting mother. He loved children and dogs. He was a vegetarian. He didn’t smoke or drink. His chauffeurs and secretaries loved him. He came to power in a country in the depths of a horrible runaway inflation and turned it around, making his country one of the strongest economic powers in the world. He had done so well, he was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938. His name was Adolf Hitler.
People can be gracious, kind and thoughtful, and still bring you down. Hitler brought down millions of people and completely destroyed millions more. Someone can bring you down with a smile. It can be somewhat confusing at times to know who is bringing you down. Appearances can be deceiving. Some people, of course, you know for sure, but what about the others? You can’t just say anyone who criticizes you is someone to look out for because some people can bring you down without making even the slightest criticism. Some can do it without even uttering a word!
On the other hand, people who love you and support you and make you stronger sometimes criticize you and it does you good. You might pay a racquetball coach, for example, to come onto the court and help you improve your game. What she will do is criticize you and tell you where you could be better and how you’re doing things wrong. But the criticism is designed to make better at the game, not to stop you from playing. It’s still a criticism; it might hurt your feelings a bit, but it makes your game better and that brings you up.
THE LITMUS TEST
The way to tell whether a person is someone who brings you down or not is to ask yourself a question the moment you disconnect from him. The moment you hang up the phone, the moment he drives off in his car, stop and ask yourself, “What was the result of my contact with him?” Do you feel inspired and more able to go on and get what you want out of life? Or do you feel doubtful now because maybe your idea is not such a good one after all? Do you feel confused? Have you been convinced your goal will take more of an effort than it’s worth? Or that your chances are very small? Do you feel in a worse mood because he talked about all the bad news in the paper or his did he talk about his own personal miseries that he somehow won’t do anything to solve?
If you feel less motivated, if you feel worse about yourself, if you’re more aware of your faults, then regardless of how smiley and friendly that person is, he has damaged you and brought you down.
Start being aware of how you feel after you’ve been in contact with people. And cut some slack because we all have bad days and we’re all grumpy sometimes. Try to detect who chronically or consistently brings you down. Every time you’re around that person, you come down. Is there a person in your life who brings you down almost every time you interact with him? Think about that now.
HOW THEY DO IT
There are some common ways people use to bring you down. Knowing their methods will make it easier for you to both detect it and to cope with it. Understanding alone can sometimes ease or eliminate pain. But be aware there are thousands of ways to bring you down, so we won’t spend a lot of time trying to get you to understand about different “personality types”. We’re not going to give labels like, “gruff,” “whiner,” “sad sack,” etc., because the best way to deal with people who bring you down is to concentrate on the way you handle yourself, not them. That’s not to say it’s your fault. It is a simple matter of pragmatism. But we’ll get into that a little later.
Right here we will give you some clues about how they do it, so you can recognize it when it’s happening to you. One of the things they do is talk to you about negative things. They might tell you about some bad news they heard or read or saw on TV. Or they’ll tell you about something bad that happened to someone else. They are likely to talk to you in a certain way about things. They tend to use what is known as a “pessimistic explanatory style”.
Here’s a breakdown of how a pessimist thinks:
1. Good things don’t last. Good things are only temporary. This way of explaining things (as well as the other two below) tends to put the pessimist himself in a bad mood, and when he shares this pessimistic point of view with you, it tends to bring you down too.
2. Good things are small and unimportant and don’t influence much of your life.
3. If a good thing happens to you, it is a fluke — you had nothing to do with it. You don’t deserve much credit for it. The economy changed in your favor, or it was mostly luck, etc.
That’s what a pessimist does with good news or when good things happen. Here’s what they say and think when bad things happen:
1. It’s going to last. It is a permanent change. A bad thing happens and they say, “It’s going to be that way forever. It has always been bad, it will always be bad; people are never going to change, etc.”
2. The negative event has far reaching consequences. It will “ruin everything.” Bad stuff is perceived to be even worse than it is. Exaggeration is the name of the game. Blowing it out of proportion.
3. If a bad thing happens to you, it’s your fault. And they’ll make you feel responsible for it.
This breakdown of pessimistic ways of thinking and talking is from the excellent research by Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. After 25 years of ground breaking research, Seligman and his colleagues created the most effective form of psychotherapy known today — not in the opinion of the therapists themselves, but as shown by controlled experimental studies. It is called cognitive therapy. In his research, Seligman and his colleagues discovered that people learn to be optimistic or pessimistic, and that it can also be unlearned. And further, that optimistic people are happier, have better health and make more money than pessimistic people.
The people in your life who bring you down are probably pessimistic, and their ways of thinking come out when they talk to you, which can effect the way you think about events, making you more pessimistic (at least temporarily) because everyone is susceptible to suggestion to some degree. And that’s not all they do.
THE SOURCE OF HAPPINESS
Out there in the future somewhere is a goal of yours. You are always headed somewhere. That’s human nature (for mentally healthy people), and I’m sure it’s true of you. There’s something you want, some condition you are aiming for or trying to move towards in your life. You have a goal, maybe many of them. You would like to be in better shape, you would like more money or a more secure future, you’d like to have a better relationship with your mate, or maybe there is something you’d like to create, some deed you’d like to do for no other reason than it feels right.
Regardless of what you’re aiming for, the point is that we’re never really satisfied with where we are (for very long at least), and we’re always trying to get to someplace better, and that’s a wonderful part of life. Lucky stuff happens now and then, of course, and it can make you happy, but you can’t count on it. The only happiness you can count on is the kind you create with your own effort. This kind of happiness comes from the process of progress.
We think we’ll be happy when our goal is attained, but that’s not so. A great example of that is Christmas. Christmas night, when it’s all over, people often have a feeling of sadness. You got all those presents, but you’re sad because having what you want doesn’t really make you happy. Getting it is where all the fun is. And no matter how many times we hear that and agree with it, it almost always feels like we’ll be happier when we arrive. But that’s part of the game. Human nature.
The happiness that you can create comes from the process of progress. If I want to lose ten pounds and I get on the scale and see I’ve lost one pound, I’m not where I want to be, but I’ve made progress, and I’ll feel pretty good about that. I’m moving in the direction I want to go. If need to save $3000 to achieve my goal of vacationing in Greece, and I’m saving a hundred dollars every week, I will feel good about it each week when I put that hundred bucks away. I’m making progress toward my goal.
We want to move toward our goals. People who bring you down do things that make progress more difficult or more painful. They’ll remind you of the barriers in the way (“You’re too young”), or they become the barrier (“I forbid you to go”). Or they’ll try to hold you back or put your attention on what holds you back (“What about the children?”).
Another way to slow your progress is to distract you: “You can do that later; come on, let’s go to the show.” Distraction is the hardest to fight. It is like enticing you with temptations that you yourself enjoy. Like the person who is trying to lose weight and her spouse cooks her favorite (fatty) meal. People who bring you down tend to minimize the importance of your goals, and keep bringing up other (more immediately fun) things to lure you away from your purpose, slowing your process of progress. You will experience a short term enjoyment and a long-term misery. You might not feel any worse immediately, but it will begin a subtle depression as your goals lose out to entertainment or socializing. This is distraction.
Another form of distraction is to occupy your mind with unpleasant thoughts — reminding you of your “obligations,” or telling you things that you worry about or things that make you angry. Fuming and fretting are not good uses of your mental resources. They slow your progress and bring you down. When you are worrying or angry, your mind is not being used to further your goals. And it’s bad for your health and relationships.
Someone who brings you down might also tell you you’re doing too much or too little, and in this way mess with your own rhythm and pace, tripping you up. They can make you feel bad by telling you you’re doing more than you ought to, or make you feel bad by telling you you’re not doing enough. An insidious way of keeping you distracted is for someone you love to be sick or out of control (drinking, for example) or in some way making it necessary for you to take care of him, effectively erasing the time you would otherwise work toward your goal.
BAD MOODS ARE BAD FOR YOUR BODY
A bad mood effects your body. Anger, frustration, worry and depression all impair your body’s ability to heal itself. They weaken your immune system. The scientific evidence for this is overwhelming. As Dr. Howard Friedman (professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine) put it, “Depressed, anxious, angry or hostile people are twice as likely to suffer from heart disease, asthma, arthritis and headaches as are happier, more relaxed individuals.”
Researchers have been finding that what makes people “catch a cold” is not what we thought. When they measure the amount of virus in the blood stream, it seems to have nothing to do with whether the person gets sick or not. Some people with lots of virus in their system did not get sick, and some with very little did get sick. One factor that was related to getting sick was stress. If the person experienced negative emotions, it was a good predictor of upcoming illness. The more negative feelings a person had during a given week, the more likely they were to “catch” a cold.
Apparently bad moods weaken your immune system enough to make your body a nice place for a virus to raise a family.
But your body is not the only thing impaired. When I bring you down, I make you less able to access your intelligence. Have you ever noticed when you’re upset or in a bad mood or depressed that you feel confused and can’t sort your thoughts very well? When someone brings you down, she literally makes you less able to use your intelligence. When you’re upset, it’s like looking at your life through a carnival mirror. In other words, you can look at your life, and you know it’s your life you’re looking at because when you move your arm, the reflection moves its arm, but your head looks enormous, your body is elongated, your feet are gigantic. It’s your life, but it’s distorted.
Just like a carnival mirror, bad feelings distort your perception. Big things seem small and small things seem big. For example, sometimes when people bring you down, they make you angry. When you’re angry, you treat little things like big things. It is commonly known as ‘blowing things out of proportion.’ Sometimes you can argue for quite awhile and the next day not even know what it was about because it was so insignificant — but it was a big deal to you at the time.
Your state of mind and emotion changes how you perceive things. You are still perceiving the world — you’re not hallucinating or seeing things that aren’t there, but the emphasis has changed. You interpret an innocent remark as an attack. You remember all the times what’s-his-name let you down, and you forget all the times he did you right.
We distort in the direction of the state. Anger biases you to see more trespass. Sadness biases you to see more loss. Fear biases you to see more danger. Let’s go back to the course room for a demonstration of this principle.
“[Klassy says to the audience] Look around the room and call out loud and point to everywhere you see the color red. [People start pointing to other people's clothing, notebooks, pens, jewelry, etc. It keeps going as people notice more and more things with a red color.] Okay. There’s quite a bit of red in this room. Now find all the blue in the room. [Again people call out and point to all the things in the room colored blue.] You can see more of what you’re looking for, can’t you? Well, our state of emotion colors our world, changing our perception so that we look for and find all the aspects of our world that match our state, that match what we’re ‘looking for.’
“The same thing happens when you buy a new car. You never noticed before how many of them there are on the road! But there are no more on the road after you buy than before (well, there’s one more — yours!) It’s just that your attention is more drawn to that kind of car now, so you notice more of them. And the same thing happens to your perception, depending on what mood you’re in. If a person is worried, she will notice much more danger than someone who is not worried. She’ll see more knives and fast moving cars and poisonous things. She’ll remember news about danger with much more clarity than other pieces of news. The state she’s in focuses attention in a certain way, and it distorts her world by causing her to miss a lot of non-dangerous things and to emphasis and pay closer attention to even the smallest chance of danger. Just like when you were all looking around the room for the color red. At first you noticed the big things, the obvious things, and it didn’t seem there was very much red. But as you looked, you saw more and more. You noticed smaller and smaller things that were red. Some of you even pointed out red pieces of lint in the carpet! Your emotional state does the same thing.
“Fear and worry are bad feelings, and they influence our perception. Fear tends to focus the mind so much on the threat that we overlook some good options. It’s like the man who fell to his death because he had a left-handed parachute on. Did you ever hear about that tragic accident?
“The man’s parachute worked fine, but when he couldn’t find the pull-cord where it normally was (on the right side), he panicked and frantically focused on pulling that cord, ripping to shreds the right side of his jacket and even his own skin trying to pull the cord.
“Had he been sitting on the ground, no doubt he would have quickly realized the pull cord was on the left side. Instead, he was in the air, and his fear focused his mind so completely that perfectly good options became unavailable to him.
“Apathy distorts your perception in a different way. Important things seem unimportant. So you have something big and important and you know you ought to be getting to it, but you just don’t care. You don’t do things you know you should do.
“Bottom line: When someone brings you down, it distorts your perception of life and impairs your ability to get an accurate view of the world, and further, it impairs the access you have to your own intelligence.
“In a bad mood, you’re looking at your life through a carnival mirror. Yes, it’s your life you’re looking at, but it’s so distorted, when you try to make decisions or come up with solutions, they don’t work very well because you aren’t seeing things truly. It would be like wearing glasses with the wrong prescription. You would be seeing the real world, but it would be distorted. You’d have a tendency to misjudge distances and run into things.
“If you look at the world through a bad mood, any solution you create will likely be inappropriate for your life. And a bad solution tends to cause more stress. First, the stress causes the distortion. Then the distortion causes more stress. It’s a counter-productive cycle: Stress leads to more stress.
“Bad moods also effect your ability to think. You aren’t as intelligent when you’re in a bad mood, and you’re prone to do irrational, counter-productive things.
Stress may even do damage to your brain. Recent research by Robert Sapolsky (a neuroscientist at Stanford) exposed rats to prolonged stress or injected them with the same hormones their bodies produce in response to a threat. In both cases, the rats lost brain cells in a vital region of the brain (the hippocampus). Dr. Sapolsky points out that although humans haven’t undergone the same kind of direct experimentation, there is indirect evidence that humans also lose brain cells in the same way rats do when they experience prolonged stress.
“Bad moods also damage your character. You don’t act as well when you’re down as when you’re up. When you’re down, you’ve brought your worst into the world. I’d be willing to bet most of the things you wish you hadn’t done, you did when you were down.
“Researchers Eliot Aronson and David Mettee wanted to see what influence (if any) put-downs have on a person’s level of honesty. They took a group of students and gave them a personality tests. Unbeknownst to the students, the researchers didn’t even look at the test results. Then they told the students they had checked all the tests and now they were ready to reveal the findings. They split the students at random into three groups. The students thought the split was based on the test. One group was told. ‘The test showed you to be very mature, interesting, deep, etc.’ These people felt good about this.
“The next group the told, ‘The test showed you’re shallow, immature, etc.’ These people got shot down.
“The third group was told nothing about the test results. Then they were all told the experiment was over, and thank you very much. Now they were going to do another experiment. The two experiments were related, as you’ll find out, but the students didn’t know it.
“The students had to learn a card game. But the game was rigged so they would lose unless they cheated and if they cheated, they could actually win a lot of money.
“The people who got shot down in the earlier experiment cheated more readily than the other two groups.
“What does this tell you? When you get brought down, it is easier to do unethical things. You don’t have as much courage to tell the truth. When you’re down, you behave in ways you’re not as proud of. You aren’t as likely to keep your commitments or accomplish what you wanted to accomplish. You are more likely to participate in malicious gossip. You’re more likely to be mean to people. Most of the things you’ve done in your life that you’re ashamed of are things you’ve done when you feeling negative emotions.
“People who bring you down weaken your character and impair your self-discipline.
“They also harm your relationships. You come down and bring your worst side into your relationships. Someone at work brings you down and you come home and snap at your spouse. Do you like being around someone who is down? No. People have a tendency to pull away from someone in a bad mood. Relationships are about being close together. When you’re down and in a bad mood, people don’t want to be around you, so you have a tendency to weaken your relationships. Plus again, you probably don’t do anything bad to your relationship when you’re in a good mood. Probably most of the damage you’ve done to the people you love and care about was when you were in a bad mood. You weren’t feeling good and you said something mean to them. Or you acted less ethically than normal. Or you were more selfish. You hurt the people you love most when you’re in a bad mood.
“When someone brings you down, you’re not as healthy, you’re not as capable of thinking straight, your character isn’t as strong, and you damage your relationships.
“That’s the bad news.”
Bad moods also influence your level of energy. You’ve noticed this, haven’t you? When you’re in a bad mood or really stressed out, there are times when everything seems just too much effort.
So the stress drains us and we don’t get as much done. And when we don’t get as much done, we’re not as capable of meeting our challenges. Once again we have a snowball effect: When we feel bad and we don’t have enough energy and our bodies are down, we can’t get as much done and we’re sick more often, and that, in turn, causes more stress in our life.
How can you handle people who bring you down? The first principle is BE VAGUE.
A Little Black Pen