Molly constantly complains about her husband. He spends too much time at work, they never do anything together. He’s always too busy, doesn’t listen, doesn’t seem to care. So her friends give her advice--“Make his favorite meal,” “Do things you enjoyed when you were dating,” “Set up a regular date night.” “Have you thought of couples counseling?” But Molly says, “I tried that but it didn’t work,” “Yes, that’s a good idea, but he’s too busy,” or “he’d never go to counseling.”
Jim was laid off from a job he hated and his unemployment is running out. He worries about paying the bills, complains about not being able to find a job. Yet when his friends try to help—“Have you started networking?” “Applied for jobs?” “Checked out LinkedIn,”—he answers, “Yes, I know I should, but I never get around to it,” “Yes, but I don’t want another awful job.”
Molly and Jim are stuck, their friends are frustrated, and nothing seems to help. Their “Yes, but. . .” pattern keeps them stuck in the mire of negativity. Taking one small step could begin a positive momentum, but they won’t do it. Do you know someone like this?
Psychologists call it “the unsolvable problem” (Shapiro, Peltz, & Bernadett-Shapiro, 1998), unsolvable because people like Molly and Jim keep externalizing, wanting other people and situations to change but not doing anything about it. Our well-meaning advice won’t work as long as they keep complaining, focusing on what they don’t want.
To help friends like this get unstuck, don’t try to “fix” their problem. It’s hard to see someone you care about wrestling with a painful problem, hard to refrain from giving advice or trying to fix it, but it just doesn’t work. They’ll only continue to dump on you, getting temporary relief by venting but staying stuck.
These people need to develop a sense of agency. Help them focus on their feelings by saying things like “This must be hard for you,” or “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.” If they don’t say anything at first, just wait. For example, Veronica Vitale, LMFT, says, “When Jim keeps talking about what happened and you've connected with him in the land of emotions rather than the land of fixing his problem by saying ‘I'm sorry that's happening to you,’ or, ‘You must feel angry,’ etc., that's the period of time when the silence is the best counselor.” She adds that “this time of emotional connection may help to clear the way within Jim to solve his own problem.”
Once your friends have connected with their feelings, you can help them find hope by asking what they want--“How would you like it to be?--helping them shift from complaining to taking positive action Then ask them about small steps they can take to get there (Snyder, 1994). Remember, don’t try to fix the problem by giving them the steps. They need to discover them for themselves. Ask, “What’s the first step you can take?” and encourage them to take it.
Helping your friends become more aware of how they feel and focus on a goal builds a positive momentum, moving them forward in their lives.
Shapiro, J. L., Peltz, L. S. & Bernadett-Shapiro, S. (1998). Brief group treatment: Practical training for therapists and counselors. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Snyder, C. R. (1994). The Psychology of Hope. (1994). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Vitale, V., personal communication, October 2013.
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.
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