Sitting through dinner with a friend who oozes negativity is challenging.
Often this mindset is symptomatic of a bigger issue, said Thema Bryant, the president of the American Psychological Association. Bryant is a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and did her post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical Center’s Victims of Violence Program.
Irritability, self-defeating talk, and statements that are “over-generalizing their own unworthiness,” are all signs someone is not in a great place mentally, she said.
If you feel like your friend is having a tough time, you might want to have a more serious conversation with them. There are also steps you can take to deflect negativity in the moment, including this No. 1 way:
Don’t let the negative comment ‘sit there as truth’
Let’s say a friend moved to a new city and is having a hard time meeting new people. This might lead to them feeling isolated and lonely.
They might say, “Of course I have no plans this weekend, because no one likes me.”
If they are in a really negative frame of mind they might transpose those views on to you or your friend group.
You might start to hear: “Of course no one likes us. We are terrible at making friends.”
If comments like this increase in frequency, it’s okay to push back, Bryant said. Just don’t do it in a “hostile or argumentative way.”
“When they say something that is putting you down or putting the whole group down, in one sentence refute it,” she said. “Counter it so it doesn’t sit there as truth.”
In this situation you could say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, we are so fun!”
When they say something that is putting you down or putting the whole group down, in one sentence refute it.
Have a bigger conversation
While it’s okay to redirect in the moment, you might want to offer more substantial support to your friend later.
“When people talk about depression, what they say is ‘how did nobody notice,'” Bryant said. “As opposed to thinking it helps to ignore it, it is actually harmful to the person and the friendship when we talk about them behind their backs.”
If you want to check in on your friend, but don’t know where to start, Bryant offers some pointers:
- Make sure you can handle a deeper conversation. Take stock of your own mental health and only approach your friend if you have enough in your tank, Bryant said.
- Ask specific questions. If you start with “What’s up?” you’ll get an autopilot answer. Instead, ask questions that signal you want a real response. Bryant suggested “How has your week been?” or “How are you managing everything on your plate?”
- Consider pace and timing. Slow down while asking questions. This indicates you don’t want a canned answer. Also make sure you have the time for a full conversation.
- Strike the right tone. “Full compassion, no judgment,” Bryant said. You want your friend to feel safe divulging. It might also help if you confide in them about a point in your life when you were struggling.
- Follow up. If they say, “Oh, I’m fine,” ask again, Bryant said. If they insist they are content, let them know you’re available to talk if they change their mind.
‘A friend is not a therapist’
It’s also okay to let your friend know your limitations, Bryant says: “A friend is not a therapist.”
“You can say to them, ‘I really value our friendship, but, to be honest, I’m in over my head and I hear what you’re saying and I’m not really sure how to help. I don’t know if you’re open to talking to a therapist because it seems like what you’re going through is huge.'”
Suggesting professional help might feel like overstepping, but it is better than not addressing your friend’s suffering.
“A real friend, when they see you’re struggling, will come to you to offer some support or will help you get to the resources you need,” Bryant said.
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