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The Cost of Surrounding Yourself with Negative People

The Cost of Surrounding Yourself with Negative People

I recently read Rachel Hollis’s runaway bestseller Girl, Wash Your Face, and in my review pointed out a number of concerns with the author’s understanding of what it means to live a good life. Her conviction is that the good life is a happy life, and every woman is responsible for pursuing happiness. What stands in the way is lies, and the very first lie Hollis exposes is that “something else will make me happy.” She believes women are prone to believe that their happiness depends on someone or something else—another person or another set of circumstances. Yet Hollis is convinced, “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”

In the book’s opening chapter she offers a list of practical tips that helped her become a happy and self-satisfied person—one who is confidently the “hero of her own story,” whom other people look to and conclude, “Your life seems so perfect.” Here is one of those tips:

I surround myself with positivity. I cringe even writing that because it sounds like a poster you’d see taped to the wall of your eighth-grade gym class—but cheesy or not, it’s gospel. You become who you surround yourself with. You become what you consume. If you find yourself in a slump or feel as though you’re living in a negative space, take a good hard look at who and what you see every day.

Hollis insists that a key to a successful life is deliberately avoiding people and places that generate negative feelings or attitudes. When she says, “it’s gospel,” I don’t think she means, “It’s the good news of hope for humanity,” but rather, “It’s a crucial principle for a successful life.” She is hardly the first person to make this claim, as it’s a well-worn mantra of the New Thought or Positive Thinking movements. Joel Osteen says it like this: “Life is too short to waste your valuable time with the wrong people. To reach your highest potential, you have to surround yourself with eagles, with people that push you forward, people that make you better, people that help you to soar.” The point is clear: If we want to become successful, we need to surround ourselves with successful people. If we are unsuccessful or “in a negative space,” we ought to evaluate the people around us and remove or avoid any who are holding us back.

There is an element of truth to this. The Apostle Paul warns, “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33), while Solomon counsels, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). We are responsible to guard ourselves against certain negative influences. But even a brief analysis shows that the Bible’s warnings do not concern people who may put us into “a negative space” or keep us from soaring like eagles, but people determined to lead us into sin. If we do not have the convictions or maturity to stand firm against temptation, we need to avoid situations and even people who may tempt us into sin.

But what Hollis and Osteen and others teach goes far beyond this. They teach that we need to reject and avoid people who cause us to feel negative emotions or think negative thoughts. Why? Because according to the principles of positive thinking, our thoughts are the power that change and shape the world around us. To get ahead in life we need to get rid of anyone who holds us back. I am convinced this principle is abhorrent and will offer three reasons why.

First, it’s narrow-minded. It is the kind of platitude easy to repeat and enact when you’re firmly established in upper-middle class America. It assumes you can determine whom you will be surrounded with and remove anyone who may be having a negative effect on you. It also assumes you have the ability and income to change your surroundings–to move homes, to renovate the office space, to buy some new furniture–if you determine yours are not fostering positivity. Yet if a principle is true, it is true in every time and every place. This principle is simply not true as we elevate our gaze from wealthy California suburbia to third-world slums. It tacitly indicates that only the privileged few can be successful because only they have the power, authority, or means to replace negativity with positivity.

Second, it’s selfish. It assumes you have the right and ability to judge other people primarily by whether they help or hinder your success. It pushes away the very people you may be best positioned to help. It diminishes the humanity of people you’ve determined to be negative influences by giving you permission to reject them. It assumes that you are a positive influence on others and always have been. Looking at your own life, how many people who were godlier, more positive, and more successful invested in you even when you were weak and immature and full of negativity? This principle is horrifically self-centered.

Third, it’s unbiblical. The very heart of the gospel is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This perfect God became man and came to dwell among hopeless, angry, negative people; he left the perfection of heaven to dwell on the broken, negative space called earth. Let’s adapt Hollis’s words and apply them to Jesus as if he decided to take them to heart:

Jesus knew he would become who he surrounded himself with. He would become what he consumed. So when he found himself in a slump or felt as though he was living in a negative space, he took a good hard look at who and what he saw every day. So he rejected all those negative people and influences and surrounded himself with positivity by going straight back to his Father’s side.

Or Osteen’s:

Jesus knew life was too short to waste his valuable time with the wrong people. To reach his highest potential, he had to surround himself with eagles, with people who pushed him forward, people that made him better, people that helped him soar.

It was by surrounding himself with negative people that Jesus Christ lived the best life.

Nonsense! Jesus deliberately surrounded himself with people who were less than him, who were more negative than him, who did nothing to help him soar like an eagle, who offered him no path to self-improvement. Why? Because he loved them! Because he knew he had something to give them! Because he was living his life for their good, not his own! Some insist that if you surround yourself with negative people, you will fail to live the good life. And yet, it was by surrounding himself with negative people that Jesus Christ lived the best life.

It turns out that there is something far more costly than being with negative people: The cost of avoiding negative people, and thus, avoiding the kind of life that Jesus calls us to. After writing and rewriting a concluding paragraph, I realized I can do no better than quoting the precious words of Philippians 2:5–11 and pointing to Jesus as the one who exemplifies the truly successful life:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

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