Dealing with Negative Nellies and Neds


One of the side effects of being a happy person is that unhappy people sometimes attach themselves to you hoping that a little of your sunshine will rub off on them. I’ve attracted people like this to me for as long as I can remember. I used to call them hangers on.

But really, they are more accurately described as Negative Neds and Nellies. These are people who need help and who are looking towards anyone who will listen to rattle off their complaints about all that is wrong with the world and with them and with other people who just don’t understand.

If you are a loving and giving person, as you most surely are if you are reading the Spiritual Naturalist Society blog, then your instincts are to be as helpful as possible. The problem with giving these sorts of negative people your time is that they are emotional vampires. They just drain you of energy and time and really, nothing changes for them. They are still miserable. And slowly, so are you.

So what is a kindhearted person to do?  How do we keep ourselves open, while still protecting ourselves from the emotional drain these negative people can cause?

I’m sure you all have your own strategies, none of them very satisfying. I know that one time when I was quite young I moved to another state in an effort to shed about 6 people who had attached themselves to me who were taking up so much of my time but not making any improvements in their lives. Part of my reasoning for the move was that these folks weren’t going to improve if they continued to rely on me for support. It was time to make them go cold turkey.

But, the move didn’t really help. I just picked up so new hangers on and the cycle started again. Fast forward to where I am now in my life. I am a Humanist life skills instructor. As you can imagine, I get troubled people coming to me all the time. Suicidal people. People with schizophrenia who have gone off their meds.  In short, people who need professional help who are attracted to the promise of how Humanism can help them.

The thing about Humanism though, is it is a philosophy about personal responsibility. Yes, it’s also about caring, but I don’t teach how to empower themselves by allowing them to remain dependent on others for their emotional support.

Also, I am a philosopher, not a professional therapist. I am well aware of the limits of what I can do for people. And understanding and knowing my limits makes all the difference in the world. It has literally changed how I think about and deal with negative people.

Our society has a stigma against seeking out mental health care. People who are troubled are looking for help everywhere they can find it. And yet, they rarely seek out the professionals who could truly help them.  This is true of people in grief, people with neurological conditions and people who are in general need of preventative mental health care. In fact, if you think about it, you know you are guilty of this exact same thing. There are times you probably should have sought out a professional but instead went to extreme lengths to help yourself so that you didn’t have to go to a professional.  We all have.

For me, part of being a Humanist is reminding myself that I need to be rational, skeptical, scientific and effective in my problem solving. I need to be honest with myself that there are in fact things I can’t handle on my own. Things I need help with. It’s hard to admit, but a relief when you do. It is at that moment that you stop struggling and start seeking REAL solutions to your problem. .

Throughout the course of my life I have learned one really important lesson. When I am not coping well with something, I need to seek out a professional who can help me. Whether it is a medical doctor for a disease or injury or a mental health professional to help me with overwhelming stress or the FBI to help me deal with a stalker.  The fact is, there are things that you need professional help to overcome.

Which brings me back to how we, as well meaning and caring individuals can best help the negative people we encounter throughout our lives without succumbing to their negativity or being over burdened by them.

If I were to try and help them myself I would be doing them a disservice. All I can do for people who need help is point them to the help they truly need. And I can attest to the fact that strong reality based people like me rely on professional mental help when they need it!  I can testify to the efficacy of professional mental health assistance and assure people that seeking out a professional really will help.When I am approached by people who need more help than I can provide, I refer them to professionals. I encourage them to seek professional help. I give them names, addresses, phone numbers and links so that they can get the help they need directly. I will drive them to appointments if necessary. What I won’t do is act as their de facto therapist. Why? Because I am not a professional therapist! I am a philosopher.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.The biggest hurdle I’ve found people have that makes them resistant to seeking the professional help they need is fear. They just needed a little push, a little encouragement and the assurance that it is ok to seek out professional help. This is the caring compassionate, responsible and rational way to help the troubled people in your life. To continue to enable them without truly helping them is cruel. To ignore them and avoid them is also cruel. Helping them to help themselves? That’s a truly Humanistic approach to solving the problem.

The good news is that this approach is not only the most humanistic thing you can do, it is also the most effective. Pretty much everyone I have referred to a professional counselor has gotten the help they need and is recovering. So the next time you find yourself dealing with a negative Nellie or Ned, do everyone a favor. Be compassionate and caring and encourage and enable them to seek out a professional who can help them.


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4 thoughts on “Dealing with Negative Nellies and Neds”

  1. I work as an addiction counselor and often spend a good deal of my time referring my clients to other professionals that are more able to help them then I can. It is vital for all people to understand that they are doing the best thing for themselves and their families by getting professional help. However making them accept this necessity can be challenging. The helpers also need to make conscientious efforts to take care of their own physical, spiritual and mental health as well. I have seen too many counselors burn out from giving too much of themselves away. We must keep a balance and be re-energized too.

  2. I'm not sure if therapy is helpful or not. I went to therapy briefly many years ago after my divorce. Seemed like I was paying a lot of money just to "have a friend" who, of course, wasn't really my friend.

    The other problem with therapy for some people: cost. It's easy to say go see someone when you have the money or insurance covers it. If you have no money or don't have insurance that covers it: lots of luck. For many people, food and rent come first.

  3. Laura – I suspect that for some people who just need a little help coping, that it might not do much good to see a professional because they don't need to be trained how to cope, they just need support while they cope. But for people who are really really struggling for prolonged periods of time for whom run of the mill advice isn't going to cut it or be helpful, it absolutely does help to have someone teach you how to cope with things that are beyond your ability or knowledge. For instance, if I have a friend with agoraphobia, they need professional help. Nothing a lay person without training can do to help someone like that aside from helping them find the courage to seek professional help.

    I don't encourage friends who are struggling temporarily to go to a counselor, but for people who are REALLY struggling and can't seem to get past things on their own, I absolutely do and I've only had one person get mad at me for suggesting they would benefit from professional help. Everyone else has been grateful. The person who got mad (btw) is off her schizophrenic meds and decided I was part of a conspiracy to attack her, so … yeah, did my best, it didn't help. But I do know that I absolute am not in a position to help her either. But I was encouraging her to see a psychiatrist, not a psychologist.

    However, you do raise a good point. Cost is prohibitive and mental health coverage is sorely lacking. And of course, seeking help is also stigmatized and routine mental health care isn't available. I am a supporter of a local girls school and they take girls who are being referred out for behavior problems and in addition to schooling, provide them with active and daily mental health assistance and training on things like how to deal with anger and it's amazing to see these girls turn around. So, we need to make this more available.


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