Diana Kelly Levey

How to Defeat Happiness Saboteurs

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June 12, 2018 | Categories:

You’re patting yourself on the back for all the work you do to keep yourself as happy, present and aware of others’ feelings as often as possible. Some days, you’re doing so well you’re convinced you’re on the path to enlightenment! (Almost.) Then, that sunshine-sucking vampire in your life appears with his negative attitude or her cutting words. What’s worse is that you can’t always walk away from these people for good—they’re your romantic partner, family, boss, colleague, or friend. Oftentimes, we love them but their attitudes grate on our last perky nerve. What’s a happiness-focused person to do with these saboteurs? We talked to relationship experts to learn how to handle these naysayers in your life with as much grace as you can muster while keeping your own outlook positive.

Here are habits of couples with great relationships.

Situation: Your partner is constantly stressing about money.

“Try to take it away from the partner, and instill a ray of sunshine in this situation,” suggests Carrie Cole, M.Ed., LPC-S, Center For Relationship Wellness, Master Certified Gottman Therapist at The Gottman Institute. It may be productive to be empathetic with your partner, she suggests. Identify the emotion in their negative statements. Say something like, ‘It seems like you feel hopeless about the situation,’ or, ‘You seem so disappointed…that there’s not as much money as you hoped there would be at this point in time. What’s the worst part in that for you?’ Acknowledge your partner’s feeling, stay focused on them, and get curious about the situation, Cole suggests. You might ask, ‘What does this mean to you that there isn’t enough money?’ or ‘How would having more money improve things for you?’ “I think when we define emotions, it sort of shrinks them down to size,” says Cole. Here’s how to get your financial goals on track.

If you and your partner are arguing frequently, whether that’s over money, responsibilities, or other factors in the relationship, reminder your partner that you need to feel successful in the relationship, advises Cole. “Consider saying, ‘I need to hear some appreciation for what I am doing in this relationship,’” she suggests.


There’s a tendency for nitpickers to speak a lot in the abstract, says Errol A. Gibbs, co-author of Discovering Your Optimum Happiness Index (OHI), with his wife of 40 years, Marjorie G. Gibbs. “The way to slow down someone who’s sabotaging is to bring facts to the conversation to get them thinking,” says Gibbs. When your partner exclaims, ‘We’re broke!’ or ‘We’ll never be able to pay off debt!’ those are emotional statements, says Gibbs. Try looking over your finances together and getting a clear sense of what the situation actually is. This way, you can have discussions based on facts and information, instead of emotions like fear. “By bringing facts to the [circumstances] you’re able to better explore opportunities to assess the situation,” suggests Gibbs. Once you have facts in front of you, discuss a solution, like putting a budget together or coming up with a plan to pay off debt, advises Gibbs. 

Situation: Your mom is nitpicking your weight.

Many of us can relate to a loved one making a comment about a new hairstyle we tried, something we’re wearing, or whether we’ve gained weight. Family members seem to know how to pinpoint our most sensitive touch points and press directly on those buttons. If you know you’ll be in a social situation with a relative who nitpicks you about a sensitive subject, like you’re weight, prepping yourself with self-talk beforehand. Or, have some phrases to tell yourself in the moment to guard against other’s negativity. “If they don’t like the way I look or the way I dress or whatever, whose opinion of me matters more, mine or theirs? I’m doing the best I can with what I have to work with right now, and I don’t need to let other people define me. I can define myself,” suggests Cole.

She also suggests limiting the time you are with that person who focuses on your flaws.

Here are 14 ways to boost your mood in 5 minutes or less.

It’s important to focus on self-care, says Cole. Whether you’re feeling tensions rise with a family member, partner, or child, it might serve you well to put yourself in “time out” to take a break, go on a walk, or do something that soothes you. “Make sure you say something like, ‘I’m not leaving you, or this conversation, but I need to take care of myself for a few minutes,’” suggests Cole. “Let the person know how long you’ll be gone and when you’ll be back so that they don’t feel anxiety about you leaving.”

“Try not to think of people as saboteurs,” says Gibbs. “They may be seeking attention or validation for their own inadequacies.” He suggests maintaining a relaxed disposition about your situation. If you can muster the patience, consider asking questions of the saboteur, like ‘What would you do if you were me in this situation?’ Make them the expert, suggests Gibbs.

Situation: Your father finds the negative in every situation.

Parents can be great at comparing how their own children run their lives, including how they raise their children, fix their homes, and manage their finances. You might have a visiting father or in-law who points out the overgrown shrubbery, the leaky faucet in the bathroom, as well as all the traffic in your neighborhood and how their home, neighborhood, and community are far superior. While this might just be that person’s way of communicating, it can sometimes feel personal and grind on even the happiest bluebird’s last nerve.

“There are times when someone is really trying to be helpful, but they just don’t know any better, and they might actually use language that isn’t optimal for your happiness,” says Melanie Rudd, PhD, Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Houston, C. T. Bauer College of Business. Rudd and her colleagues recently submitted research to the Journal of Consumer Research about how one’s cultural background can influence their mindsets to be optimistic about recovery when facing a health challenge. “Remember that advice is often well-meant…and sometimes it’s a nice idiom, but it’s not going to be optimal for you,” Rudd says. Her team’s latest research found that some people are more optimistic when they prepare for a difficult situation by imagining ahead of time what they’ll do when faced with that challenge. You might prepare for your father’s visit by doing a meditation that day, having some time to yourself, and telling yourself that you’ll be calm and collected no matter what he says. Remind yourself, “He’s trying to be helpful.” Other people might find they better handle a situation by responding to it with behaviors and activities in the moment. You might tell yourself that you’ll get up and clear dishes when your father starts picking on something. Or prepare to thank him and change the subject. “Thanks for your advice, Dad. Can I get you a drink or dessert?”

Situation: Your boss is constantly getting on your case.

According to an American Institute of Stress report, 40 percent of Americans reported that their job was very or extremely stressful. If you feel like your boss is sucking the happiness right out of your soul, you probably find your workplace stressful. While you can’t avoid this happiness saboteur—unless you’re willing to change jobs—you can try to reframe your employer’s nitpicking as “constructive criticism.” When a boss is nitpicking, he or she might be doing that because of your work speed or the quality of what you’re producing. “You can always go back to the boss and ask for more specifics about your role. Say, ‘Please share a few steps that I can do to improve my performance,’ or, ‘Can you give me some tools that would help?’” says Gibbs. Look internally at the work you are doing and try to understand…what the requirements are in the context of that work.

Keep in mind that while you think you boss is harping on you because she doesn’t like you, or that she’s in a particularly bad mood, problems could be coming from pressure above, like from her bosses, or a status report, says Gibbs. “Try to change your attitude at work,” suggests Gibbs. “Engage in a discussion with your boss and look for common ground.” Don’t make these mistakes on work calls.

Situation: Your colleague won’t stop complaining.

All of us have probably experienced a whining coworker at times. It’s normal to gripe about work occasionally, but there comes a point when those moanings feel like they’ll never end, and you dread being anywhere near that coworker or even going to work. Nip the colleague’s complaints in the bud by not commiserating with them. “Say, ‘I’m sorry you’re struggling with that. I would love to be supportive of you, but I’m probably not the best person to talk to. I don’t have the tools or skills to help you through your particular situation. Perhaps it might be better if you went and spoke to somebody who did,” Cole suggests. While that might sound a bit formal, you’re letting them know that you don’t want to hear their negativity and they’ll have to find someone else to yammer to if they want support. Never say these phrases to your boss, colleague, or client.

Situation: Your friend is always down in the dumps.

Some of us have that friend that we’ve known for decades that you love, but when you see their name pop up on caller ID, you think, ‘Oh no, what now?’ or, ‘I can’t handle their drama today.’ Then, you might feel guilty, like you’re a bad friend.

Remember, this person is coming to you because they value you, says Gibbs. He suggests setting boundaries with this person about how long you have to talk to them, or waiting to call them back at a time that’s better for you, when you’re in a better frame of mind and relaxed and ready to help.

When that friend goes down that rabbit hole of all the things that are going wrong in their lives right now, you can empathize and say something like, ‘I’m sorry that this is a very difficult time for you,’ suggests Cole. You could also ask them, ‘What would it take to make things better for you?’ and then, ‘How can we form a plan to take some action and make things better?’ “Try to get them to problem solve for themselves,” says Cole. “

“When you suggest something like, ‘Why don’t you try to do this?’ sometimes the person will shoot holes in your ideas and strategies. It’s a ‘Yes, but…’ situation. Then you end up feeling worse, because you’ve invested time and energy and everything you’re offering to help gets shot down or sabotaged in some way. Try to keep the focus on them,” suggests Cole.

This is another place to reflect back to the person what they’re feeling, says Cole. You might want to say, ‘It sounds like you’re very disappointed about that,’ or, ‘It sounds like you’re very sad,’ or, ‘It sounds like you’re depressed.’ Perhaps followed up with, ‘I wish that I had the tools and the skills to help you through that, but I don’t. I would suggest that you talk to somebody who does. There are many qualified therapists. Would you consider reaching out to one of them?’

At some point, tell the friend, “I’ve really enjoyed hearing from you, however, I need to go now,” says Cole. Then make sure you take a break for yourself.

Remember to use the other tips and tools in this magazine to build up your happiness reserves after spending time with people who drain you. Make it a point to take care of yourself and surround yourself with as many positive people as you can.


This article originally appeared in Centennial Publishing’s fall 2017 print magazine, The Secrets of Happiness.

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