What do you do about chronic complaining?

Everyone Is Gay just solved a full 20% of my inbox.

You can have compassion for your friends, listen to them, give them room to vent and think out loud, be their sounding-boards and secret-keepers.

But you don’t have to do it endlessly. It doesn’t have to form the basis of your friendship or the only activity you do together. It doesn’t have to happen 100% on their schedule. You get to set boundaries around it. Sometimes complaining becomes a self-perpetuating habit where we’re dwelling on the subject instead of getting it out of our system, and we need someone to say “YO THAT SUCKS I AM SORRY BUT ALSO WE NEED TO CHANGE THE SUBJECT TODAY WOULD YOU LIKE GELATO /PUPPIES/A MOVIE/TO GO ROLLER SKATING” to break the bad cycle in our brains.

A lot of the questions I get ask “How do I ask someone to ______________ without hurting their feelings?

There’s no magic way, you guys. There are ways to be tactful when you have to be. There are ways to make sure you’re not derailing things. But sometimes the choice is:

1) Don’t say anything. Let the thing that is making you nuts or hurting YOUR feelings continue. Suffer in silence until you either EXPLODE or FLEE.

2) Speak up. The person might be taken aback and hurt and the conversation might be uncomfortable. But there is a chance that they will stop doing whatever it is around you and you can move forward in some way.

I so would much rather have a close friend say “Hey. Knock. It. Off.” and talk things out, even if it’s really embarrassing and weird, than do a slow fade from me because they are too scared speak up. Wouldn’t you? If you were making an ass out of yourself, or stomping on someone’s feelings without meaning to, wouldn’t you rather be told clearly and compassionately “Hey, I’d really like it if you didn’t do that anymore around me,” than have someone you care about dread your company and flee your life?

You can’t control other people’s feelings, and it’s actually dangerous and destructive to take them on and worry about them so much that you abdicate your own needs. So be brave and trust that the bonds of affection that hold you together can survive a little awkwardness.


108 thoughts on “What do you do about chronic complaining?

  1. Great advice…and you totally just answered the letter I sent you (never mind the 99%, I am part of the 20%!)

  2. …be brave and trust that the bonds of affection that hold you together can survive a little awkwardness.

    New cross-stitch. So true.

    1. Seconded. I think the “You can’t control whether people like you” mantra cuts both ways, fortunately. It’s hard to make people like you when they don’t, but it also takes a lot to make someone really dislike you if they already have warm fuzzies for you.

  3. I still have a vivid memory of a friend telling me she was sick of hearing me complain about grad school. She finally snapped and said it fairly harshly, and I was hurt at the time. I realized that she had been bored or annoyed during our conversations, and it was hard to hear. I felt terrible for the rest of the evening. But it did work, because after that I made an effort to not talk about grad school unless she asked.

    If you’re the friend who wants to vent and complain, I think it’s best to seek out people who also want to vent about the same topic, and save your venting for them. For example, every graduate program has a few very bitter individuals who complain constantly. Nothing is ever their fault, the program sucks, they treat us terribly, etc. When I need to get some venting out of my system, I schedule a drink with one of those people, and we complain all night, and it’s great. I also have my friend who was going through a very similar relationship situation while I was going through something. We decided to save our complaining for each other, since we were both obsessing and had an endless appetite for talking about these people who were making us crazy. But we didn’t talk about our situations much with other people, since we knew they would probably judge us, and also not want to hear about it at length.

    If you don’t have anyone going through what you’re going through, you can always vent to your journal. Your journal will never, ever tell you that it’s sick of hearing your endless obsessive complaining. It’s a great way to get those feelings out of your system when you have so much to say, and nobody who wants to listen to you talk about it all night (understandably).

  4. Is it all right for us to ask for somewhat-related advice here, or should I save that for a letter?

    1. (To clarify, in case that changes the decision, my issue isn’t with the volume of my friend’s complaints– it’s that when I try and be and listening ear and say things like, “well, everyone makes mistakes, I don’t think [minor error at work] is going to be held against you,” she comes back with “well I still feel [x] so saying [my words] isn’t helpful/comforting.” Or, on special occasions, twists my words to have a negative meaning so she can come back with, “WELL NOW I FEEL WORSE.” It’s not that I want her to fall on her knees and praise my GOOD FRIEND!! abilities, I just don’t want to be blamed for not being able to fix her bad feelings.)

      1. Maybe stop trying to fix her bad feelings? They’re not yours to fix. Additionally, when you do try to fix them, you can send the covert message, “The way you are feeling is wrong, and you are wrong for feeling it.” It’s just not a method guaranteed for success.

        A suggestion: try empathizing, instead. Empathizing means, precisely, “articulating with words that you understand what she feels”. It means being able to be there, and not asking her to change.

        Friend: I did [minor error at work] and I feel [x].
        You: Oh, I’m sorry. [x] is an awful way to feel. I know what it’s like.

        I have something of a magic phrase. It’s minor magic, not lifechanging, but it’s done a lot for me. That phrase is:

        “What are you going to do about it?”

        Friend: I feel so embarrassed that I did that! It’s so awful.
        Me: Yeah, I feel you. What are you going to do about it?
        Friend: Dig a deep dark hole and hide in it forever.
        Me: Dig a deep dark hole and hide in it forever? Damn. So, are we off for lunch on the weekend?

        The question reinforces: 1) My friend is the expert here, 2) They have the power to change things, and 3) This is not the end of the line; they get to choose where to go from here. And I tend not to jump on negative stuff (“No, you can’t disappear forever, people love you and want to be around you! Let me save and fix you!”) because sometimes, I just need to say, “I’m okay with your ridiculousness, and I’m not going to do the I’m Awful/No You’re Not tango here.” It lets me stay stable and centred, while they figure it out.

        1. Speaking as someone who likes to be allowed to have FEELINGS (big, dramatic feelings that I know perfectly well will dissipate eventually but right now I need to feel them, feelings), both of those responses would work great on me. In particular, I love having people reflect back to me what I am feeling in an accepting way, and I also like doing that for others.

          I also really like your second technique, which is one that I don’t need to use on others (I’m happy with the first one), but which would also work really well on me if you’re one of those people who doesn’t want to listen to me mope. By all means, ask me for solutions, listen to my dramatic responses, don’t take them too seriously, and then change the subject.

          1. Same here. I like sympathy and empathy, but I often know my emotions are ridiculous and I value the people who will listen, tell me I’m being ridiculous and let me laugh about it, and move on to other things.

        2. These are good scripts, thank you! It’s still a little hard because she doesn’t really say things like “I made a mistake at work and I’m embarrassed :(” but rather, “I made a mistake and god I’m so stupid what if I get fired I can’t afford to get fired right now” or “no one replied to my Facebook status so nobody likes me.” BUT I guess in those situations it’d still be appropriate to just say something like “ugh, yeah, that’s stressful :(” or “oh yeah, I hate when that happens, it feels so awkward” rather than address the truth of the situation, which is that she’s not going to get fired and everyone doesn’t hate her? I’ve had a hard time with that because it feels a little like– hmm. Enabling her maladaptive thinking, I guess? But like you said, it’s not really my job to fix it, I know I don’t have the power to do so anyway, and she snaps at me about not being helpful when I try, so it’s maybe in the end it’d still make us both happier.

          1. If it helps, I have anxiety and depression and when I’m ill tend to think and GENUINELY BELIEVE things like ‘nobody liked my status, they all hate me, I should just live in a giant hole in the ground and stop inflicting myself on people’. Having someone say ‘ugh, yeah, I totally get that, it’s horrible’ or ‘man, really? Can I come live in your hole too? Because that happened to me last week and man it was awkward’ actually really helps. It reminds me everyone feels rubbish about themselves sometimes, it’s not just me. And often hearing someone else repeat the ‘crazy-sounding’ phrase back at me helps me realise that I’m overreacting and letting my jerkbrain out. So you may actually help her more with this tactic.

          2. That does help! I know my friend struggles with anxiety and depression as well, which I think might have actually contributed to my botched handling of the situation. I have family members in the psychology field, and I think I took away a little too much from their talking about CBT and reality-testing and maladaptive thinking– somehow I turned it into “challenging maladaptive thoughts is how you handle anxiety!” rather than “challenging maladaptive thoughts can help with anxiety if fielded by thoroughly trained professionals regarding a client they don’t have a close friendship with.” Consider me schooled!

          3. A little therapist-inside-baseball, but I’ll risk it: a lot of therapists criticize CBT for too much emphasis on telling the clients they’re wrong and need to change, and not enough emphasis on being caring and respectful. Challenging maladaptive thoughts needs to be done in a caring, respectful manner that emphasizes the client/friend’s autonomy.

          4. This is really enlightening to me, because I’ve been taught you just *don’t* agree with someone when they something like ‘Ugh, I am feeling really ugly right now’ or ‘I made a mistake at work and I am a failure!’ It seems counterintuitive to me personally to say ‘That really sucks’ or something, instead of ‘No, you’re awesome and nobody liked your status because they probably didn’t see it and Facebook is weird!’

            So it’s good to know that in some cases, that is actually a helpful thing to say.

          5. And often hearing someone else repeat the ‘crazy-sounding’ phrase back at me helps me realise that I’m overreacting and letting my jerkbrain out.

            My boyfriend and I have a thing between us where we don’t just repeat, we exaggerate:

            “Nobody liked my post, they all hate me :-(”

            [in a sympathetic, non-sarcastic tone] “You’re right, they totally hate you. In fact, they’re all getting together right now to plot your demise. Laser-mounted sharks are involved.”

            The goal is to use humor to break us out of our cycle, to make the other person go “haha, that’s ridiculous–oh, wait, maybe my original thought was ridiculous too.”

            It’s maybe not a great approach without making sure the other person is okay with it first–it’s important to come across as empathetic, not mocking–but it works really well for us.

          6. Yeah, my best friend and I do the exact same thing. “I’m so fat” gets a reply of “jesus, I didn’t notice but you’re basically enormous. My god”. It does only work when the other person knows you’re kidding though, or else it could really not be helpful. Maybe Don’t Call Me could try asking their friend what they’d like to hear?

          7. I once spent half an hour trying to talk a friend out of her worry over an upcoming test. She knew the material, she freaked out before every test and always came back with As… nothing helped. Finally I said “There’s a lot riding on this, isn’t there? That would stress me out too.” And suddenly she decided to go to bed because that was the most helpful thing to do at that point.

        3. I like this, but it’s a YMMV sort of thing. I have anxiety issues, and sometimes I will say to the husband, “I’m anxious and I need you to talk me down.” And I will say anxious, anxious things, and he will talk me down, and it really, really helps.

          So: don’t offer fixes to people who don’t want them, but feel free when they’re requested.

          Also works for me when my husband replies to the “Everything is awful and everyone hates me, and I am getting fired for being horrible” with, “We will have to become brigands together and we will haunt the high road and drive cattle onto the pavement in order to stop minivans with Texas plates and then we will steal their jewelry and cowboy hats which we will sell on eBay and possibly also their kidneys, but I don’t know how to remove a kidney, do you?”

          1. OMG, can I join your gang? I don’t know anything about herding cattle, but I can fail at herding cats really, really well!

          2. Well, do you know how to remove a kidney? Obvs a skill my husband and I lack, and potentially HIGHLY PROFITABLE. Or maybe we should just rustle the cattle. Or possibly buy a food truck, which lacks something in originality and criminal enterprise, but does involve yummy, yummy muffins.

            In any case, welcome aboard.

          3. Oh, oh can I join too? I actually do know how to remove kidneys. Not human ones and not for any purpose but cookery, but it’s a start.

            (FIRST COMMENT EVER. I’ve been lurking for MONTHS. OMG)

          4. That sort of story telling was such a lifeline to me in my recent horrible time. I am so grateful for the friend who started doing that with me so that when the regularly scheduled horrible shit happened, I could tell her shit happened: let’s run away and colonize a desert island instead. I needed to talk about the bad things so I could let them go, but she gave me a way to talk about it, then move on to something happier.

          5. I love your husband. I don’t know how to remove a kidney but I’m sure there’s a video on Youtube where I could learn.

        4. Two hopefully unnecessary cautions on the “I know what it’s like thing:” (1) I had a friend who used to say “I know what you mean” a lot. And most of the time she probably did — maybe not exactly, but close enough to sincerely empathize. But every now and then it would totally rub me the wrong way because I knew she really didn’t. It felt belittling, like trying to take something uniquely unpleasant and trivialize it as a common experience. Don’t do it so reflexively that you wind up saying it when you don’t actually know what the person is going through. Better an honest “I can’t imagine what that was like for you. It must have been awful!”

          (2) I had another friend with a tendency to one-up or use “I’ve been there!” as a way to segue into talking about her own troubles, even if her corresponding incident was over and done with long ago… anything to make the conversation about her again. That was the *worst!*

          1. Oh god #2. I’ve seen that in action. “Aha! A chance to spring into action with That Story About The Time My Grandmother…”

            Not very helpful, no.

          2. Yeah — the first friendship became past tense because the person died. The second one because a conversation about what’s troubling you should not feel like a competition for airtime!

          3. I knew somebody like that in college, except that it didn’t have to be about him so much as led by him. One time he literally said, as three people were discussing a science fiction movie he hadn’t seen, “I saw a movie once that was really good! It was called The Usual Suspects, have you heard of it?”

            One of the feats of sheer will that I am proudest of having accomplished is not bursting out laughing at him.

          4. Omg I *lived* with that person in college! We are no longer friends because he literally couldn’t understand that not everything was about him. He told me that all of our arguments (largely over him being an inconsiderate douche, but sometimes about politics or movies) weren’t about any disagreements we had but were instead me “using him” as an “emotional punching bag.” Like, he quite honestly couldn’t understand that he had ever done anything wrong and/or that people could just plain disagree with him. Unreal.

          5. #2! There was a friend of mine who did this all the time. I generally don’t open myself up to others (social anxiety among other issues), and I was just starting to warm up to and trust him. However, every time I would try to share something that was going on in my life, he’d start talking about his troubles, which we’d talked about multiple times before. Once during a fight, I confronted him about how he made everything about himself, and he told me that no, he wasn’t doing that, he was just trying to show me that he sympathizes and is going through something similar. I told him that this wasn’t helping me, it just made me think that he didn’t care at all about what I had to say, and, whoa, was he underestimating the gravity of what I was telling him. (If anyone’s curious, dude in question is a Nice Guy (TM).)

      2. While Staranise is right that not trying to fix things is the solution, I feel for you on how hard that can be. I have a friend who is extremely high stress/a complainer, and I often find myself trying to convince him that things aren’t that bad because just empathizing feels like I’m validating his over-the-top reactions — and also because I find it really, really difficult to sympathize about how much something sucks and he feels bad when the thing he has described sounds totally ridiculous to me. My (admittedly imperfect) solution is to err on the side of just saying “ugh, that sucks” or saying it and then changing the subject. It still feels rude to me to do that, but I figure it’s less rude than arguing with him or spending a bunch of time sympathizing before eventually blowing my top about how the things he is describing are NOT A BIG DEAL OMG CALM DOWN.

        *Ahem* Short answer: fight the impulse to reassure. Just say “that sucks” or “ugh, I’m sorry.” Repeat as necessary.

        1. In those situations, I tend to go for loving snark. “I just got my car detailed, so if you’re going to murder him, ask someone else for help disposing of the body” or “Do you want me to feed your cat while you’re in exile in your deep dark hole?” HOWEVER, if done in an insecure relationship, it comes across as mean, nasty, and dismissive. It’s for old friends who know I’m always in their corner.

          1. Ah, the problem with that tack – at least in my particular case, with my particular Complaining Friend – is that you run the risk of becoming your friend’s snark vending machine before you realize it’s happened. The (delicious, if I may say) snark becomes a cookie given in exchange for complaining, and then you have this whole other THING there to deal with.

          2. I love doing that with friends who I know take it the right way, but I’ve found that the more high stresss and prone to overreaction my friends are, the less likely they are to see the humor in it.

        2. Haha, this is tonally exactly what I just commented with to Staranise, yeah! It’s just so hard not to say, “…but you know you AREN’T going to get fired, right?” when she’s stressing over (maybe) (possibly) (potentially) having made a mistake that she’s seen her happily still-employed coworkers make a million times, especially when just saying “oh, that sucks” feels like I’m saying that she MIGHT ACTUALLY GET FIRED. But yeah, I’ll just have to start biting down on that impulse to correct and start being reassuring and empathetic instead, since trying to fix her anxiety is just making us both unhappy. Thank you for the comment!

          1. I have the exact same tendencies you do in those situations, and it helped me a lot to realize that those friends are somewhat counter-intuitively the *least* likely to be negatively reinforced by what I say. Basically, they’re already so determined to get worked up about every little thing being The End Of The World that if I say “yeah, it sucks that the world is ending,” it has absolutely no effect because they had already definitively decided that the world was, in fact, ending. Whereas my less stress-prone friends are the ones where I find it sometimes helpful to give them (or for them to give me) a “I know you’re upset, and I totally get why, but things are going to be okay” — because they/I need some reassurance from a neutral source that things actually *aren’t* as bad as they’re worried they might be.

      3. Well, there are a few sides to this dice. I mean, from what you say, your friend sounds … not really rewarding? But I also see your stock responses as potentially dismissive and corrosive. I know, for example, that if you were talking to my husband, he would say:

        Him: … and so that’s why I MIGHT have ended my career an eensy-weensy bit.
        You: well, everyone makes mistakes, I don’t think calling him a “self-serving duckbuggering twatwaffle” is going to be held against you.
        Him: Oh my god, are you not listening to me? Have you just been completely tuned out this whole time?
        You: it just doesn’t seem like that big of a problem?
        Him: well, maybe it isn’t, but that’s not what I was talking about and now you’re dismissing my FEELINGS.
        You: Well what do you WANT me to do?
        Him: Rage a bit with me? Or maybe say “Yeah, that sucks” and change the subject? Tell me to come up with Three Positive Things that came out of it? Tell me about your day? OH MY GOD I AM DOING ALL OF THE WORK HERE.

        Because he hates the sort of vague placatory not-really-listening things that people pull out of their back pockets to make their friends shut up – he’s telling you a story about his day at work in a complainy tone, and he would read your response as “oh, whatever, your so-called problems are insignificant, stop boring me with them” and he would deliver the same response as your friend. (I used to automatically placate – blame social conditioning – but he, and some other friends, pointed out that it’s not really listening.) The sentence you used in your example is pretty dismissive and negative! It implies that what she’s talking about “isn’t a big deal,” that her reaction should be “dismiss her unimportant problem already”, and that your desired endgame for the conversation with her is “she stops bitching about whatever and goes the fuck away.”

        Women, in particular, get this kind of dismissive/placatory response a lot, and one reaction is to become increasingly loud and frustrated, until someone says “Oh my god, Crazy, stop overreacting!”


        “All I’m saying is, now you’re making a HUGE deal out of nothing, can’t you ever stop complaining? GOD. And now you’re all shout-y.”

        Aaaand that’s gaslighting. Placatory behavior like you describe using CAN make you feel worse! Basically, communication does not consist of throwing the right words at each other until everybody does what you want. With your complain-y friend, you are under no obligation to be her scapegoat, and she does indeed sound difficult. But her behavior is showing you that your definition of “being a listening ear” is NOT the response she wants. And it’s not the best response to begin with.

        Better responses, should you choose to have these conversations:

        “So what’s your plan? / How are you feeling about it? / Do you want me to bring you soup after work / lend you gas money/ buy you a drink? / Do you think you need to talk to somebody? / Do you think it would help to talk to him? / So what happens now?”

        1. I can’t figure out which comment you’re responding to, but YES to everything you’ve outlined, especially this:

          “Because he hates the sort of vague placatory not-really-listening things that people pull out of their back pockets to make their friends shut up…”

          I think sincerity is critical. I’d much rather a friend just tell me that they’re bored/overwhelmed/upset with my complaining than try to placate me by going through the motions. There are few feelings I find more crushing than realizing a close friend is being insincere in their response to me when I reach out to them in a vulnerable state.

      4. Ooooh, yeah, I feel you a lot on this one. I have a friend whose complaining always concludes with, “…and therefore I’m a worthless human who nobody will ever love.” Like, explicitly, in those words or words like them.

        And while I’m pretty good at the “I’m sorry, that sucks” response with most people, it’s really hard with him because it feels like I’m validating (or, worse, agreeing with!) his self-assessment as a valueless person. But arguing with him (“Yeah, you forgot the milk, but that does not make you worthless….”) doesn’t actually help. For one thing, it doesn’t actually seem to make a dent in the self-hate. For another thing, it’s kind of… incentivizing him to keep hating on himself, because then he gets soothing praise? That sounds really cold, but it’s kind of true.

        I wish the guy would get therapy, but in absence of his being willing to do so (he has an extremely negative response even to the idea), I have to keep reminding myself that I can’t be his amateur psych expert. And since I am not capable of attacking the root of his problem (the self-loathing), nor is it really my place to do so unasked, all I can do is say something generically sympathetic (“I’m sorry, that sucks”) and then talk about something else so at least we don’t dwell on it.

        But it is still hard to let those statements go by. So, yeah, I sympathize.

        I realize that anxiety isn’t the same as self-loathing, but hopefully this may help.

    2. I can’t guarantee I will ever get to the letter, so keep it to a paragraph and knock it out here where the commenters can see it.

  5. I am one of those people right now. I can’t stop. I’m either falling deeper into depression or coming out and everything looks awful. Everyone has suspicious motives, everything is bad and wrong and it spews out of my mouth like a gushing toxic waste pipe I can’t control. I see people getting pulled down by this and I can sort of stop but then I can’t again. The answer for the ones it annoys is definitely not to hang out with me, but how do i stop this cavalcade of negative in my own head, in my house, in my bed, in my life? I’ve been through this before and it has stopped – usually after I’ve alienated most of the people I know and I have to make social connections again. It’s either that or I cut everybody off and stay alone because I don’t want to be like that around them. Exercise isn’t working, it may be time for anti-depressants but I am broke and just can’t afford the expense. I have omega 3s and vitamin Bs… I can’t do anything but work 3 or 4 shifts every two weeks and ride my bike and complain and hate everything. I’m stuck. Again. So how do I stop?

    1. Sarah, I’m so sorry you’re going through that.

      Four things:

      Write morning pages in a notebook or using something like 750words.com. Vent all the crap out there.

      Ask your friends to set a 10-minute venting limit with you when you do see them. Respect the limit. Then you get some support but your time with your friends is fun time and not more time with your problems.

      Look into low-cost mental health care. A hotline. Something. Some kind person who is trained to absorb whatever you have, who can give you a safe space to leave it.

      Keep riding your bike.

    2. Everything the Captain said = gold. Honestly, if I had to, I would pawn my grandmother’s heirlooms for antidepressants.

      Maybe this might work, maybe it won’t. But in my family, we had a rule: you got to complain about something three times before you had to act on it. My mom got to curse the pothole she drove over three days in a row before she wrote a letter to the municipality. (Then she got ANOTHER three complaints. The clock always resets) It doesn’t have to be big and it doesn’t have to fix the problem, but it has to TRY.

      1. Gosh but I love that rule. I might check into instituting it in my own house. Right now it’s “I get to complain halfway home and then at *cross-street* it is your turn but no complaining in the house.”

        Of course, I live in California so I’m into energy and all that stuff.

    3. Wow, do i know that feeling. How about a gratitude journal? The world is totally black and awful except… that summer tomato, the time you just made the bus, the one funny thing a friend said, your favorite TV show/ movie/ book. Sometimes I can find little things to savor in the moment, and sometimes I have to dig into things I liked as a kid, or fun times with friends.

      In terms of friends, I think it helps if you tell them to take control. “tell me when to shut up” and “feel free to make fun of my Eeyore routine” and “please, please tell me something fabulous or funny or happy-making and I will try to notice how fabulous it is.” Your friends might also know you well enough to know what makes you happy, to point out the moments when you laugh – I suspect there are more of them than “never”. It’s also like procrastinating on work, I don’t promise myself I’ll stop procrastinating forever, I just promise to do small work increments and reward myself therein. So if you can “sort of stop” for half an hour, you’ve earned a 10 minute vent/ journal entry, and tomorrow you promise to “sort of stop” for 35 minutes. It’s okay to have a 40 minute coffee date with someone and only allow the last 5 minutes of complaining.

      I also let myself play fairly idiotic games that distract my brain. On a related note – bicycling doesn’t “work” as well for me because it’s too easy to zone into all the stuff I hate. A class like zumba might be more distracting; I also like kickboxing because I can channel that anger into punching the person of my frustration. Or what about a cycling class where you’re constantly changing the speed etc? Personally, when I’m depressed I can’t push myself to get into my endorphin zone the way that an instructor or a machine can.

      1. I do a lot of cooking these days. It helps me to focus on something because I have to pay attention or things get messed up.

        1. Sometimes I love cooking when I’m getting into a slump. You get the pride of having created something and you also get food. Maybe as a bonus you even get to give some to your friend or partner or roommate, for extra feelings of generosity and opportunities for praise.

          1. One time I had the most amazing time because I was cooking to distract myself and my roommate came downstairs and said, “That isn’t how you make an omelet!” and proceeded to show me and then we had an OMELET PARTY.

        2. If I am depressed, I usually don’t have the energy for cooking. But the idea is still good: if you are like me, you can ask a friend, if they want to have a cook-something easy-and-talk about-nice-stuff date (or you set the time limit from above: 10 minutes venting, rest pleasant). If you cook together, you can discuss who does what/how much and you get something to eat without the same amount of stress.

  6. Yes!

    I think there’s a tendency, too, for people to feel that venting is a useful/necessary thing, and that it’s therefore a duty of a good friend to let people do it as much as they need. But if I remember correctly (and I am not a social scientist or a psychologist, so disclaimer), there’s evidence that brief, limited bouts of venting can be helpful… but that extended, or repetitive, venting about the same topic is actually detrimental to a person’s mental health and happiness. In other words: you’re often not actually helping someone by letting them complain endlessly. So not only is it annoying for the listener, it’s not even actually helpful for the complainer, and might be hurtful.

    The linguist Suzette Hayden Elgin introduced me to the maxim, “What you feed will grow; what you starve will wither and die”–and the idea that this doesn’t just apply to plants and children but also to behaviors. If your friends know that they’ll get your attention and sympathy and other good responses if they complain… they’re gonna keep complaining. It’s working for them. And if a complainer gets a rush of righteous indignation from venting, they’re going to keep venting, even if it’s not productive at all. Whereas if they get a brief, fairly neutral response followed by a change of subject (“I’m sorry, that sucks. So, how’s Jane/how did your marathon go/have you seen the latest Game of Thrones?”), that’s less likely to “feed” the behavior.

    (Obviously, this is more appropriate if the complaining is of the whining/endless venting variety. I mean, if a good friend had a real, acute crisis–like grieving over a recently-deceased loved one, say–the neutral-response-followed-by-change-of-subject tactic would be pretty cold. But for the endless cycles of complaining about basically the same topic endlessly, it’s really useful.)

    Granted, some people will stop being your friend if you cut them off from the attention/sympathy they get by endless, repetitive complaining. But if that’s the case, then there’s an extent to which your friendship was mostly valuable so you could be their emotion sponge–which is, in itself, not particularly healthy.

  7. This is great! My fiance and I have figured out that setting the timer on venting makes for a more enjoyable time together. When something is the normal quotidian sucky, we get 5 minutes to complain about that thing (bad day at work, annoying social interaction, failed attempt at a new recipe, irritating wedding planning setback, etc) and the other person listens. Once those 5 minutes are up, the complaining stops and we move on to other things.

    As someone who loves to pick apart and overexamine every unpleasant thing that happens, this has been a huge kick in the pants to focus on the good instead of wallowing in the bad and avoid falling into that role of “chronic complainer friend.”

  8. The most difficult is someone who not only complains often or constantly, but who complains about the same.damn.thing while belittling others and asking people to explain the real world and not believing anyone when they do.

    I have a friend like this, online. He’s basically a good guy, but life has not been what he wanted or expected. He has driven away people, and is deeply unhappy. We have tried to explain things to answer his questions; we have tried to explain how what he says hurts people; we have mostly unsubscribed from the forums where he has these conversations. In person, he’s pretty fine to have around.

    I’m pretty sure he needs therapy and a diagnosis. He doesn’t bother because it’s not going to change anything, you know? It’s impossible to explain to him that yes, reality is what it is, but you can choose how you react to reality and those choices influence your happiness. It’s amazing that anyone still engages him on this stuff, but at heart he really is a kind of wounded innocent.

    I think a big part of why people stick around him at all is that in person he is chill, if often confused at the behavior of other humans, and that he is cluelessly well-meaning. He doesn’t cross boundaries or do other behaviors that our social circle doesn’t tolerate.

    If you can get your local McWhinyPants to leave their whination to specific locations or forums, you might have a win. When you’re able to handle the badness, you can go to that place and talk to them; when you aren’t, you can just skip it. So perhaps the best thing you could do would be to get your friend into whining on LJ or on a blog or something like that. Or paper letters! Then you could have Burning Rituals.

  9. I’m dealing with exactly this right now. My BFF is in the middle of a very difficult part of her grad program, and I have spent the last six-eight months spending at least a half hour, usually more, per hang out listening to her troubles. We get beers once a week, sometimes more, and it’s a given that the first half hour is going to be about how hard her situation is, how sad she is, how depressed, how hard it is, how sad she is, there is no happiness in her life, etc. repeat.

    I want to be supportive because I love her, and I also know that there is an actual deadline after which this will no longer be a problem, because she will finish the hard project. But until then? I’ll pay 30 minutes worth of yes-we-talked-about-this-yesterday-and-last-week-and-last-month admission to 4 hours’ worth of great friend time. There’s no way I can ask her not to talk about it/to talk about it much less without hurting her really deeply; we could be looking at permanent relationship damage if I did that. The project seriously stresses her out and she doesn’t need more anxiety piled on top of the mental anguish she already has. Whereas I don’t think being annoyed at her for an hour or two a week for a few limited months is causing permanent relationship damage, so I opt for that instead.

    But, and I feel so bad saying this, boy oh boy am I all of the fucks tired of hearing about terrible fucking grad school. And I was even IN grad school! I know it sucks! Which is why I left before I got to the sucky part she’s in right now. Grad school is so hard to listen to people complain about because almost nobody ABSOLUTELY HAS TO BE IN IT OR ELSE. It’s not like helping your friend through an unemployment situation or a break-up or a grieving process; you’re basically listening to someone say this expensive and prestigious thing they’ve chosen to do is waaaaahhhhhh the woooorrrrrsssssttttttt.

    I’m not saying people don’t have a right to complain about (whatever) just because it’s not (cancer/aids/other horrible thing), but I don’t really know what to say in response to this grad school brand of complaining besides “I’m sorry this is hard right now, but there’s a lot to look forward to in your future as a professor, right?” and I can’t even say this to BFF, because then I get a lecture on the crappy academic job market that I’ve heard 50 times.

    The elephant in the room (well, the bar, usually) is that if I suggest maybe she could ditch school or take a break and work in the private sector for a while, BFF says that’s not what she wants to do or that’s impossible because Reasons, and then it’s like well, does that mean grad school isn’t exactly as bad as you’re making it out to be? Because if so, maybe you could cut down on the complaining?


    1. I just realized I left a really long, complainy comment that is complaining about complaining.

      1. INCEPTION.

        But I will sit with you and hear you out. I personally would not be able to be the friend that you are being, so thanks for being such a good citizen.

        That being said? I’m a research tech, so I’m immersed in academia, and I do the work that PhD students or postdocs do. Listening to grad students rage and whine about how haaaaarrd their projects are really gets to me. “Oh, but you’re not in grad school, so you don’t knooooow.” (No, I’m just doing the exact same work for the exact same people, often at a higher level, but I get paid slightly more, get slightly less credit and won’t get a degree at the end. Research, in fact, is the haaaaaaard part.) So I agree that there is a knee-jerk negative reaction to somebody complaining about their privilege. “I have so much good fortune, it’s giving me carpal tunnel to hold it in one hand. I need TWO hands to hold all this! Oh, how hard it is to be me!” while you feel like you’re chugging along quite competently with a piece of good fortune that fits quite neatly in your palm.

        So let’s sit with these feelings for a bit, Boots, and then think of Three Positive Things. Here are mine:

        1. Neither of us are in grad school! DODGED THAT BULLET, CHUMPS.
        2. We are aware that we are being complaining bastards! SELF-AWARENESS AND PERSPECTIVE ROCKS.
        3. We have friends to have drinks with! GO US, BOOTS. FOUR FOR US, BOOTS.

        1. I was going to reply because I feel you, boots- but then this was perfect. ❤

          I have been struggling to find a job for over four years (I ended up going back to school because of it) but I respect my friends too much to wallow in it (besides the fact that wallowing in it reminds me of my job woes, oh noooes!) so when people ask me how I am doing I try to find three things I am happy about. Even if one of them is "I read this article yesterday and it was cool."

          It actually helps me anyway not to fall into a deep pit of depression, which I have fallen into before and therefore know is sticky and kind of smells like mildew and rotten dreams (depressive episodes always make me into a bad poet!). So therefore, not somewhere to wallow in.

          But yeah, I sounds relentlessly cheerful and ableist here. I'm sorry, because I know that clinical depression is very very different. I would never pretend to know what that is like.

        2. Thank you for this thoughtful reply!

          Now that I do sit with the whole thing, I think my issue with BFF’s grad school complaining less about the privilege-complaining than it is that she has very significantly not “been emotionally able” (her words) to be there for me w/r/t two things I needed her help for — the first was my wedding. She was my MOH and missed 100% of every wedding related joy/problem I had because she was So Stressed Out, You Don’t Even Understand, and had absolutely zero involvement beyond showing up to the rehearsal dinner/actual event. More recently it was an upcoming stressful/painful medical test related to a condition (that we both have! that she understands how horrible it can be!) that I had told her about, and she just totally forgot I was having it. A couple of weeks after the test, she finally remembered and said, basically, “Oh, did you ever go get Test? By the way grad school is still awful, commence sad rant.” And yet she’s dating and exercising and traveling and otherwise functioning as a perfectly normal human, but anything that requires any emotional effort from her whatsoever is out of the question.

          I actually never spelled out those two issues for myself before, and when I go back and read them, I am truly amazed that I’m not more frustrated with her than I am at this point.

          Do I still get to think of three positive things, though? One of them is suspiciously like one of your positive things.:)

          1. I recognized that grad school was bad for me and left before it could eat my soul SUCKAZ
          2. I have many awesome friends in my life who were fully and totally able to help me with wedding mire/medical stress throughout these months that BFF was not available to do so
          3. Awkward Army!!! The most awesome of all armies!

    2. Having just finished grad school (I *still* cannot believe that that is a factual statement), I hear you. Sometimes I can’t hang out with my own colleagues because of this. This may be completely untrue of your friend, but for me it actually always helped to be reminded that I was allowed to quit. Every grad student has fantasies about quitting, as I’m sure you know well! But for me, at least, talking about the actual possibility of quitting calmed me down about the fear of failing at it, probably because it reminded me that I had chosen this path for a reason, and I was allowed to change my mind if it wasn’t working. Maybe I was just freakishly unconcerned, though. Whatever happens with your friend, you have my sympathy, and I wish I could send out non-complainy vibes to grad students as a superpower.

    3. The analogy to finishing a PhD or writing a thesis is running your first marathon. The thing is, running a marathon will probably suck. But, having run it, you will be better prepared to run your next one and the one after that. Or maybe decide to quit running and cycle a century. But, still: if someone was on mile 19 of a marathon and had that debilitating “I hate this, why did I start this, I can’t stop now, I ran 20 miles 3 weeks ago but this is so much longer, my feet hurt and I’m hot and I feel like throwing up and…”, would you be able to empathize? Trust me, they know that leaving grad school is an option.

      1. Yeah, and at the same time, you can find other things to talk about. I just finished my (big whoop, I know) undergrad thesis, and my sister just ran her second 1/2 marathon. Nevertheless, we find other things to talk about. I think if you are in a situation where your friend knows what your advisor said yesterday (or how many miles you ran and which foot might need surgery) and you don’t know what movie they saw last, how their family is doing, or what they want to be in five years, you need to do more listening and less talking.

        1. Well, I vehemently disagree with that. Would it be better if I compared to the first 6 months of having a newborn? There are times in one’s life when all I can do is put that foot in front of the other and if you need me to give a rat’s patootie about the last movie you saw, you should go rejoice in not doing a PhD/ running a marathon/ having a baby with someone else. Possibly forever.

          1. There’s a difference between someone who doesn’t especially care what the last movie I saw was (… I’m actually not sure what the last movie I saw was), and someone who wants to talk endlessly about the Same. Damn. Thing. Every. Time. without doing much listening. (Truthfully, I’d rather listen to someone with a newborn, because they have different things to say on a pretty frequent basis, whereas a grad student with a bad advisor generally always has the same problems.)

            The key is some degree of reciprocity, and I’m not saying it has to be exactly fifty-fifty, just something. Are you showing signs of interest in me as a person and a friend, or could my part of our conversation be filled by an Other Becky Robot programmed to make sympathetic sounds?

          2. Man, what are my friends doing wrong? Some of them have 6-month old babies; some run marathons; some are in grad school. And they manage to have awesome, stimulating conversations with me on a NUMBER of topics. Should they be spending more time complaining?

        2. I had this mental image of being on mile 19 of my marathon, and you leap out to run a mile with me. But instead of saying encouraging words, all you do is pout that I didn’t ask you how your date went last night, and gee you walked for Breast Cancer and everyone was friendly and chit-chatty there, maybe I should quit and grab a burger? And actually, I did hear that kind of ridiculous analogy at the time – my Mom compared my PhD program to her completing high school, so big whoop indeed. It’s not a half marathon or a 5K or a really long term paper, it is Brand New Research, on which your future potential will be judged. Just like having a newborn is not like going on an all-night road trip.

          The thing is, most rational people know that having a newborn sucks, and they don’t tell you you’re not meant to be a parent or you’re a bad friend who doesn’t listen enough. Yes, there’ll be one self-absorbed friend who expects that you’ll still hold her hand through a first date story, but it’s easy to ditch those friends. With grad school, ditching the stupid would leave you with about 5 other friends. The worst part is the ones who don’t listen to any story and also punish you for ditching them for 6 months. Any attempt to explain “sorry, I’m out of commission until this gets turned in” results in what a terrible friend you are, blah blah blah.

          1. I had a really strong negative reaction to this (background: I’m nearing the end of writing my dissertation), and I think it may be because you’re combining two groups of people/reactions. If I’m incorrect in this, let me know. First, there are the people who are really dismissive of your work and expect you not to talk about it at all. And I totally agree that they’re toxic and (regardless of their general worth as human beings) not good friends for you at this point. But it sounds like you’re also objecting to people who expect you to take an interest in their lives (over a period of months, as opposed to on a few awful nights or for a particularly crazy week). I’d say the analogy for the situation most people have been talking about is less “mile 19 of the marathon” and more “three weeks out from the marathon, when you’ve already spent half an hour complaining about training and the other person wants to talk about something that’s important to them.” And I’d say that’s an entirely reasonable request.

            I also think that “This seems to be making you really unhappy. Are you sure it’s worth it?” is a useful question when asked from a place of genuine concern. Much like the Captain wants people to remember that they make a choice to stay in an imperfect relationship. I do think grad students tend to get into spaces where we believe the only options are finish or be a total failure.

          2. I had the same reaction as you, so there’s that. For just about anyone, I’ll be willing to have some hangouts that are All About My Friend’s Issues, be it because they went through a breakup, are having a hard time with school, *anything* really. But it’s the idea that because someone is having a rough time means that they shouldn’t be expected to think about others ever, that is sitting badly with some people I think.

            Regardless of the situation–nobody wants to listen to someone venting 24/7, and if that’s all that conversation ever is, it’s really not a two-way street anymore. Obviously, there are times in one’s life where it should be all about them and what’s happening with them. But sometimes friendships can become one-sided this way. One person is the listener, the other is the venter. And often, it seems like when the listener friend has their *own* tough issue, the venter is suddenly too busy, or is really dismissive. I know I’ve been in that equation, and it really makes the listener feel used.

            There’s a statute of limitations on how long it’s OK to be *all* about venting about *the same thing*. If you have a rough breakup, of course when we get together the next week I’m going to expect we’re going to talk mostly about that. It’s when, six months later, you still are only talking about your ex and can’t even spare me five minutes to talk about something important to me that it’s less cool.

          3. Isn’t it more like you’re on mile 19 of a marathon, and your friend who is also running their own marathon decides to run next to you for a bit, and then you expect them to give you a pep talk but don’t have any interest in pumping them up in return?

            I mean, yeah, there are some times in your life when you hit a wall and need a friend to just sympathize and support you and you can’t give anything back right at that moment. But I don’t think that time can be “grad school,” which can last anywhere from 1 to 10 years. Everyone is dealing with shit in their lives, and even someone with a dissertation or a newborn needs to make an effort to ask about their friends’ lives, too.

          4. I really like this perspective. I think it’s really easy (for everyone, not just people in high-stress situations like having newborns or being in grad school) to forget that everyone else is running their own marathon too–and you may not know what hills they have coming up, so it’s also all too easy to assume that your own marathon (whose course you know intimately) is harder, or more important, or more impressive.

            It’s completely natural, especially since many life difficulties are private, hard to explain, or sound trivial from the outside. But it makes it easy to fall into the trap of thinking (or, worse, saying), “But no, see, my problems are *important*, unlike yours.” Which is pretty much friendship poison, IME.

          5. I’d also say — sometimes, your friend really might only be running a 5K when you’re running a marathon. But it’s still mean to sneer about how easy a 5K is when they ask you for some support, especially if you still expect them to give you pep talks while you’re training and turn up to cheer when you cross the finish line.

            (Of course, everyone has times in their life when they really aren’t able to give back the support they’re getting from friends — that would be the “mile 19 of the marathon” scenario, where maybe you just have to say “You know I love you, but I just can’t [talk/listen/support] right now, because I have to focus all my energy on finishing this marathon.” But even a marathon ends eventually. If you can’t ever manage to be the supportive one, or you get mean about it when your friends do ask for support, then there comes a point where you can’t really fault them for getting drained and disengaging.)

          6. Wow. This comment rubbed me so the wrong way.

            Grad school is life. Life (yours and other people’s) doesn’t stop just because you’re in grad school and need to turn that thing in. Like a new parent (or anyone doing anything hard and new) you might be up in your own issues for a while or less flexible for a while, but first date stories are not inherently “stupid” or less important than Very Important Academic Subjects.

            It is annoying when you’re struggling with grad school and people remind you that it’s voluntary, just as I imagine it’s annoying when you’re struggling with being a new parent and people are like “OH WELL YOU HAD KIDS SO THAT’S THE DEAL, WHINER.” But reciprocity in friendships pretty much rules.

          7. But what if I only have an ounce an a half of compassion to last me the whole year and my struggles are inherently Worthier and more Impressive than yours?

          8. Well, it is a rule that my problems and problems that look better on a resume are “real problems” and other people’s problems are automatically more trivial. It is awfully self-centered of you to think your problems are at all important next to my graduate work!

          9. I keep trying to come up with some clever quip about an ounce and a half of compassion being a great addition to some particular cocktail recipe, but I can’t come up with the right cocktail name. Sigh.

        3. Congrats on finishing the undergraduate thesis! It can be a bitch (which is why I ended up researching only those grad programs with no thesis requirement), but you did it!

          1. “which is why I ended up researching only those grad programs with no thesis requirement” Ha, I did the same! Instead of a thesis we had to do Master Projects and while it’s lot less intense than a thesis, the fallout after turning in the Master Project was 5 days of Planet of the Apes marathon (I had no idea there were 4 more movies after the Charlton Heston one) and eating nothing but popcorn and rice krispie treats.

      2. I think part of what you’re trying to say — which I agree with — is that graduate school can be legitimately painful / horrible. It depends heavily on your program, your advisor, and your mental state, though. For some people it’s just the typical experience of feeling stressed out, overworked, and underpaid, while others end up in much more twisted situations due to the power dynamics, and/or more fragile mental places because of the effect it’s having on them.

        Many people do leave, but the ones who stay have reasons such as it being the only path to their dream (you don’t hear “well, if medical school is so bad, why don’t you quit” as often as you hear people say this with academia) — or when it’s not what they’re meant to do, feeling despair at the thought of “failing” at it, or being too depressed to get out, etc. Some comments have dismissed grad student complaints as “privileged people whining about problems that aren’t that bad” — and it’s not like I don’t see where this is coming from, but I don’t think it’s fair because I’ve seen Ph.D. programs drive people to some really bad places.

        However, I also think that everyone who is having a hard time for an extended period, whether it’s because of grad school, a bad relationship, or whatever else, has an obligation to limit venting to a reasonable length of time, and then ask how their friend is doing. Grad school can be just as bad as most of your friends’ problems, but usually it’s not worse. The marathon of dissertation writing doesn’t mean you can’t be considerate of your friend’s feelings, problems, and need to have a relaxing night out.

        1. Totally co-signing this. I just finished up my PhD and the last couple months were legitimately horrible, as a lot of Major Life Events happened at the same time as the defense. I also went through some very difficult times with an advisor who tried to take my funding away a year before I finished up. So, yeah, I had a lot of legitimate reasons to need to vent.

          But *still*, when I was out with my friends, I made a point to never vent about it for more than maybe 10-15 minutes, tops. Heck, even I get bored of talking about the same thing all the time – and I’m with my friends to have fun and catch up with them, not just wallow in My Life Sucks!!1! (even though my life did suck for a while).

          Now, I did have a friend who would disappear for weeks/months at a time then pop up at the Worst-Most-Critical-Stressful-Time-Dissertation-Is-Due-Next-Week-OMG!!!11! and expect me to drop everything to hear her talk for hours all about her latest problems, which were the same problems she’d been talking about non-stop for the last 2 years. That was problematic. Then when she got upset and defensive when I asked her “please can it wait til next week?”, and then she “forgot” to show up at both my defense and the celebratory event she planned? That friend got an African Violet.

          Then there was the friend who just disappeared off the face of the earth when things got rough, even after I Used My Words to tell him I could use a friend right then. And who never once asked me how I was or how things were going, because he was too depressed about his own problems, which he’s been wallowing in and steadfastly refusing to do anything about for the 6 years I’ve known him. That too was legitimately problematic, but I was able to talk everything out with him.

          Bottom line, in my book I think it’s fair to vent to friends when you’re having a difficult time – and to expect friends to be there for you, even if they also have problems. But for everyone’s sake it’s best to limit the venting so it doesn’t take up the whole night, or go on for years without any attempts to change the situation. At least grad school eventually ends.

  10. Yes indeed.

    As a sometime-complainer and a sometime-sympathizer, I’ve been constantly grateful that my peer group has developed a habit of conversational consent. If a rant is going to get heavy or repetitive, we ask: “Is it okay if I vent about X for a little while?” And we answer, “Of course” or “Okay, five minutes!” or “Okay, but then let me change the subject.” It’s a five-second renewal of our unspoken contract as friends to be kind to each other–which means both listening and not overburdening one another.

    Sarah and other worriers: maybe try this, maybe it will both place a manageable cap on your impulse to tell All Of The Bad Things and reassure you that your listening friend is a willing listener, because he or she just told you so. Yes, it does involve trust–that the listener means it, that the ranter will stop when asked to–and sometimes that’s hard. But for my peer group it’s worth it.

  11. Sometimes it can help to encourage people to focus on what they *can* do instead of what they *can’t* do, through a combination of active listening and directed questioning. So you can listen to someone complain for a while, draw out the details so they feel fully listened to, and then ask them the following questions:

    What about this situation would you like to be different?

    What is your plan for trying to make it different?

    Someone in the depths of complainerdom will likely keep reverting back to terrible events/situations/people who are out of their control, but you can try to redirect things by noting, “I hear you saying how terrible those things are, but those things are out of your control”, and asking, “What can *you* do to try to get closer to what you want?”

    Of course, some people are just too far gone to be reached in this way. I have had on occasion to say to some people in my life, “I understand you are in pain/discomfort about these things, but I can’t listen to you talk about them any further. If we can’t talk about something else, I’m going to hang up/go home.”

  12. I sometimes try using some coaching techniques if a friend is stuck in a negative loop – which means listening, reflecting back what the person says and asking open questions. The principle is that the other person already has the answers – you are helping them get to them. With very dramatic people, sometimes just reflecting back their words and getting them to talk through why they think what they do defuses their reaction and calms them down enough to get over it.

    Also, I often find it helps if I ask if the friend wants advice or just wants to vent. If they need to have a rant and just throw it all out there, then I will listen and be sympathetic, but at least we’ve established up-front that this is a rant and I’m not going to try to solve the issue for them.

    Friend: Oh my god! I made X mistake at work and they’re going to fire me!
    Me: oh dear, that doesn’t sound good. Do you want to talk about it or do you just need to get it off your chest?
    Friend: I want to talk about it! I’m really worried I’m going to be fired!
    Me: That does sound worrying. What makes you think you’ll be fired?
    Friend: [REASONS]
    Me: Has anyone else ever done that before? What happened to them?
    Friend: Yeah, Y did it last month and they got shouted at and had to redo the work. So I guess I probably won’t be fired. I still feel like an idiot, though.
    Me: I hear that – it really sucks. You’re not alone: did I tell you about the time I sent a confidential client offer to our main competitor*?
    **Cue normal social interaction**

    [*Tragically, this is a true story. I found out when they messaged me back to say “Thanks for the heads-up”. 🙂 ]

    1. I just want to highlight: “ask if the friend wants advice or just wants to vent”. YES. This is such a great thing, because it prevents you from turning into The Fixer What Fixes Everything and being an overhelpful ass, and lets your friend figure out what they need at that moment. I personally have had it work really well, though it’s important to do the asking in a caring and not-condescending way that expresses that both options are totally valid.

  13. I totally broke up with two friends because basically they lacked the capacity to say “hey, dude, you stepped on my toes,” and so I blundered around like humans do and stepped on their toes for some time, all unawares. They were increasingly difficult to get together with or just feel emotionally safe with – after the fact it seems it was a slow fade. It came out one day with them making fun of me – to my face – about being such a big toe-stepper, and I am like, SERIOUSLY? Is this why you have been doing a slow fade and being, frankly super-not-there for me during some MAJOR LIFE BULLSHIT? Especially when I drop everything to support you all the time? Because if, three years ago, you had just said, “Ow, hey, my toe!” I would have immediately stopped and apologized and we could have enjoyed our time together.
    There’s more to it than this, of course. But my god – if you’re not mature enough to tell me “knock it off, already” then we will have some problems. Because I AM mature enough to say it. And I say it and said it kindly and assertively, not aggressively, and they couldn’t handle it. They thought I hated them because I asked them not to force me to take sides in their divorces or told them that I was jealous of their teeny weeny waists. Little stuff! As if they had no idea that I loved them like sisters. So this kind of conflict can end friendships.

    I learned about African violets too late, or I totally would have formally dumped them.

    We all need a safe place to vent, and our vent targets need a safe room to listen. So let’s just be aware and kind and keep each other abreast, yeah?

  14. I have a related problem. I have a friend who has severe depression, and over the past few years, our friendship has become all about me listening to her problems, and there’s no actual friend-time left, just therapy (only without the time limits and the schedule and the pay and the training and qualifications.) I’ve decided to see if I can salvage the friendship before it gets to the African Violet stage, by ruthlessly redirecting every conversation to fun things we can share, like books and TV shows and the internet.

    My question is: should I say anything to her about this? On the one hand, I don’t like that I’m unilaterally making decisions about the course of our friendship without her knowledge. On the other hand, if I tell her what I’m doing, that’s going to be another occasion for angst and drama and what a terrible person she is to ruin her friends’ lives with her problems, quote unquote.

    What, if anything, should I say?

    1. I think it is good to tell her…. But maybe only once. And maybe without being quite explicit that you are going to use a tactic to manage her. Maybe just say how it makes you feel to hear the same problems all the time.

      Also, if she is not in actual therapy, you might be helpful to gently steer her towards that, and help her if she has problems doing it. I needed my friend to literally write a script for what to say on the phone to therapists. This bit is totally optional, of course.

      1. I have actually been really blunt with some friends, and just straight up told them that I am not a licensed therapist and while I am happy to listen to them vent I cannot actually help and may even make things worse. I do not necessarily recommend this.

    2. Oh! Oh! I know! I was the Selfless Helper for almost ALL of my relationships when I was a teen. I can weasel the woes out of anyone with a few sentences. And my therapist pointed out that when I was doing it to EVERYONE IN MY LIFE, it was unhealthy.

      Because if you’re listening to her woes all the time, you are the Selfless Helper. You have all the knowledge. You do the fixing. She is the Eternal Victim, who is always in trouble, who always needs help. It cuts both ways.

      So what *I* say in these situations is: “I’ve been thinking about something lately, because it bugs me. I love you and always want what’s best for you, but I’ve noticed all out conversations are me listening to your problems, and I catch myself getting kind of know-it-all and condescending, and pretending that I never have any problems. This isn’t fair to you and I don’t like it. I’d like for us to try a different pattern, that isn’t just the two of us taking on roles of Helper and Helpee. They’re okay sometimes, but it’s not fun to be stuck in them. Sometimes I need help from you, and sometimes I just need someone to hang out and have fun with. Does that sound okay to you?

      1. Oh god, I was the Selfless Helper for so long that I actually developed depression from it. I was so busy Healing The World that I thought my own problems were small and insignificant by comparison, so I should shut up and not complain(which I was actually doing a ton of without realizing it). I never asked for any help with my issues, and by the time I finally realized something was really wrong with the help of my wife, it had nearly broken me in half.

        The lesson being, having the attitude that you’ll bash your head against a brick wall until the wall breaks or your head does is really unhealthy in the long term. Sometimes you need to look out for number one, and if that means not playing Unpaid Therapist, then that’s what you need to do.

        1. I only had one friend who made me the Selfless Helper, but YES. So what if it made me feel uncomfortable and afraid to be in her presence after months of listening to my friend’s problems and becoming her weird love-hate punching bag and hand-holder? That must be nothing compared to her depression! Eventually it was causing me so much anguish on a day-to-day basis (we sat next to each other in all our classes and were friends with the same people, so I got no relief) that I had to employ African Violets, which made things sucky and awkward and guilty and for which I’m still experiencing blowback.
          Moral of the story: the minute something seems unbalanced or uncomfortable, figure out what boundaries you need for your own mental health and then enforce the hell out of them.

        2. I got depression from Selfless Helperdom too–there were about six months there I’d barely give someone the time of day. (The way to really break the habit: have three friends with Borderline Personality Disorder in a row. I rode the rollercoaster from Best Friend/Only Person Who Ever Really Cared all the way to Awful Poisonous Bitch a lot of times before I learned to stop accepting a place on the pedestal.)

          These days, learning to be a paid therapist has actually really taken a hatchet to my Helper urges in my friendships. Being more deliberate about when I am helping, I realize that other times there’s a real value in kicking back, not trying to fix anything, and just being there.

      2. You’re so right about it cutting both ways and being unhealthy in both directions. Avoidance is my besetting sin, and preoccupying myself with other people’s problems is such a wonderful form of avoidance: it lets me avoid my own problems AND feel superior! Two for the price of one.

        I’ve been both the Selfless Helper and the Victim in different relationships, and they both suck, but Victim sucks worse. Last big friendship breakup I had was because I drew a boundary with the Helper, and she was all “Giving you unasked-for help and condescending advice is HOW I SHOW I CARE! Telling me not to do that makes me feel unwanted!” The day after she defriended me, she sent me two job links, both for jobs I’m unqualified for and physically unable to do, I suppose to reassert that she’s still the Helper even when we’re not longer on speaking terms. I am proud to say that I did not reply.

        I’m not sure that your script would work in this particular situation, but I’ll keep it in my back pocket for if I end up in this situation with another friend. For this friend, well, I’ll think of something to say, I just needed the clarity that yes, I should say something.

    3. I am in a similar situation, but I was lucky enough to recognize the risk at the beginning of the friendship, and set boundaries. Even with that history, it takes over more and more, but some things that have worked for me:

      Time limits. You can call me between these hours, before and after that I have to focus on other things.

      When I’m getting over-stressed, you can’t call me at all. Text me if you want to hang out, but my life is just too full right now for stressful phone calls.

      At the beginning of friend time, I get that you want to vent, so I set a time limit, which I make about me too: I’m stressed, you’re stressed, let’s talk for ten minutes about that and then ban it, so we get to keep a real life outside of stress, and talk about girly things like warfare and politics

      Don’t respect these boundaries, I enforce them. Phone calls do not get answered and do not get returned if they are not within hours. Talk about stressors after the ten minutes gets met with a firm “Hey, how about them Red Sox?”

      This friend really likes the response of someone talking her through making a plan for how to cope when she vents. I do that to a limited degree, and when I feel like it’s happening in a way that makes me therapist instead of friend, I say, this sounds like a serious problem, and I think you need to talk to a therapist about it, not just me. If that doesn’t work, I’ve been very clear with friend and on a few very uncomfortable occasions have actually been forced to say that I felt like friend was talking to me more for therapy than friendship and I wanted to be friend, not therapist.

      It’s not easy. Friend is mostly good about this, but always goes back to pushing boundaries, and trying manipulative behaviors. I have to be very firm on boundaries, be explicit in them, and be willing to disappear until friend respects boundaries. But friend and I can still have friend time that we both enjoy, and when she is not being mad about the boundary she ran into, she appreciates that I am clear with the boundaries and stay outside of the whirlpool of her current problems.

      1. I like this even more and wish I had read it before I pressed *send*. Anyway, very very good advice, esp. the script for “this sounds serious and I think you need to talk to a therapist about it.”

      2. and talk about girly things like warfare and politics

        I love you. (I want to emphasize that I don’t think nail polish or shopping would be a bad topic.)

      3. Talk about stressors after the ten minutes gets met with a firm “Hey, how about them Red Sox?”

        But what if the cause of my stress IS the Red Sox? 🙂

    4. Oh geez. I have/had that problem, but it’s a family member. And I inadvertently stuck myself in that role when I was eleven, and when I finally got some physical distance between us and gained a little maturity (almost twenty years later, sadly), I realized how SNAFU our relationship is.

      The good news is, things are slowly improving! And if I can do it, so can you!

      Basically, here’s my technique:
      1)Have a time limit for all interactions. I’m lucky because she’s long-distance most of the time. If this is a close-by sort of friend, do the “I have to do X at Y time so let’s meet for a couple of hours before-hand, ok? Or take them to things with a set start and end time- like a movie or to a concert.
      2)Get really good at changing the subject.
      Family Member: *sigh* Things are really hard at Job. I’m not sure what’s going on.
      Me: Sorry to hear that. Hey, by the way, thanks for the book recommendation. I enjoyed it. Do you have any others?
      FM: Oh, I just love _______. Have you heard of her?
      Me: No. Tell me about her!

      And then I keep the conversation moving like a ball I’m keeping in the air, and then I hang up when my self-imposed time limit is up, no exceptions.

      3)This one is helpful for number 2, as well- people who like to complain like to talk about themselves, period. Ask them about something positive that involves themselves. Do they have an awesome partner? Do they have a wonderful kid? How’s that boat-racing going? Etc. I have also found it helpful to ask for book/movie/music recommendations as a conversational tactic (in general, really), even if I have no plans on follow-through.

      TL;DR, but hope this helps.

      1. Hey xenu01 this is off-topic and completely random but . . . did you used to be active on the Off-Beat Bride Tribe, in 2010? You remind me of someone who posted when I was an active lurker there . . .

  15. This is an awesome reminder, Captain. Thanks.

    I’m in the middle of trying to salvage an important friendship where I wrecked things by taking Option 1 rather than Option 2. I suffered in silence and then fled. For a year. Now I am trying to swallow my pride and accept her apology whilst also apologising for not speaking up and ignoring her as punishment for my wounded trust and hurt feelings.

    What a mess.

    Here’s hoping that carefully worded words will allow us to mend bridges.

  16. Something that I think I learnt from this blog is to say (in a compassionate way) “When you complain about X, what do you want me to say to you?”

    I had a friend who was constantly worrying about the fact that he’d put on weight, and I’d no idea if he wanted “you still look lovely” reassurance or “lets try to work out how to be healthier” discussions. In the end I asked directly and it had the double benefit of letting him realise that he had been complaining about this a lot at me, and now I can help and reassure him in the ways that he needs.

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