We’ve all been there: a crying dog left alone for too many hours, a cranky toddler demanding a toy, a colleague complaining endlessly about anything and everything. Too much whining can set our teeth on edge and make us want to get away from the sound—as fast as possible. And because it’s such an unpleasant experience, many of us try to control our own “kvetching,” as my grandmother used to call such grumbles. Except in our therapist’s office, where complaints and self-pity are supposed to be accepted with kind sympathy and understanding.
But that may be about to change. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal reports that some therapists have decided that complaining clients have actually had too much sympathy. They need something else from the “helping profession.”
“Some therapists are refusing to let clients complain endlessly … offering up Tough Love in place of the nurturing gaze and the question ‘How does that make you feel?’ They're setting time limits on how long a client can stay on certain topics and declaring some topics off-limits altogether. Some are even taping clients so they can hear how they sound and firing clients who can't stop complaining,” writes Elizabeth Bernstein.
I had mixed feelings when I read this article. Every therapist has worked with “help-rejecting complainers”—people who complain, get advice, and reject it for one reason or another, and continue to complain. Eventually, even the most sympathetic of listeners starts to feel both helpless and angry at these individuals. A scene in the movie Analyze This captures the feeling: the therapist played by Billy Crystal is listening to a weeping young woman going on and on and on about her breakup with her boyfriend. He has a glazed-over look on his face—obviously, he has heard this before. Eventually, it dawns on her that he isn’t saying anything, and she tearfully asks what he thinks she should do. He says, “Well, what I think you should do... is stop whining about this pathetic loser!” Then he stands up and shouts, “You are a tragedy queen! ‘Oh, Steve doesn't like me! Steve doesn't respect me!’ Oh, who gives a sh*t? GET A F*CKIN' LIFE!”
I wonder if the therapists advocating “Tough Love” are suffering from the same problem—that they didn’t set limits gently, earlier in the therapy. I actually think that limit-setting with non-stop whiners—whether they’re friends, colleagues, children, parents, siblings, puppies or clients—is important, in part because it prevents exactly that kind of outburst.
But I also think it’s important to understand what goes into the whining behavior. Help-rejecters and whiners are often caught in a vicious cycle: they feel hurt, rejected and misunderstood by someone else, so they complain about it; but their complaints become so irritating that they end up being hurt, rejected and feeling misunderstood by the very people they expected to make them feel better.
The danger with threatening to “fire” a complaining client is that it can reinforce that vicious cycle. Setting reasonable limits with them can, paradoxically, help protect them from rejection. Think of the toddler whose crankiness means he is hungry and tired. He really needs to be fed and put to bed. His whining may eventually get him what he needs, but how much better for everyone if he had gotten it before his parents “lost it” with him.
Over the years, I have come to believe that there are three major reasons that people whine:
1. They are deeply distressed by something that they feel powerless to change.
2. They feel simultaneously angry and sad about the situation and worry that it is their own fault.
3. They do not know how to soothe themselves.
Although whiners may ask for advice, what they really want is for someone to acknowledge that their feelings make sense and to help them manage their sadness, anger, and guilt about the situation. Yet offering soothing or sympathy alone seldom helps them feel better, which is why therapists and friends eventually get fed up. A better way to deal with these situations is actually to combine empathy and limit-setting from the beginning.
Here are five simple steps that often help whining clients; and they work with colleagues, friends and family members, toddlers and teens, and puppies as well.
1. Acknowledge to them that you understand both the distress and the feelings of helplessness and frustration. With a colleague, this may mean saying something like, “I know how you feel. And it’s worse because there’s really nothing we can do about it.” With a toddler and/or a dog, it may mean offering physical soothing. A pat on the head for the animal, a verbalization and physical contact for the child: “I know you’re hungry sweetie, but I don’t have anything for you right now. Can you hold my hand for a few minutes til we get home?”
2. Recognize that you cannot change their feelings. They are trapped in a painful situation, and your advice—and even your soothing—will not be enough to change their experience. They will continue to whine until they develop more of a sense of competence and internal strength, which will not happen overnight.
3. Try to let them know that you know that it is not their fault, or at worst, it is not completely their fault. They are already silently, often unconsciously, blaming themselves for their difficulties. But because they are feeling guilty, they are going to keep asking you for the absolution they cannot give themselves. In the end, it is not you who can let them off the hook.
4. Set firm, clear limits on how long you can listen and what you have to offer. With an office mate, for example, you can say, “I know this is really bothering you, and I’m so sorry about it. But unfortunately I can’t sit and talk any longer. I have to get back to work.” With a friend or family member, limit the amount of time you can stay on the phone. Introduce other topics. Tell them about something that is happening in your life. In other words, distract them (which, by the way, is often one part of my advice for parents and dog owners as well). Paradoxically, by setting limits you are also letting them know that you believe that they can deal with a little frustration on their own—and as long as the frustration is not overwhelming, this will help them begin to develop the internal strength they need to stop whining.
Finally, remember these two things:
- Whining generally reflects a person’s inability to change either a situation or their own feelings.
- Their relationship with you is more important than your solution to their problem. Things will not get better if you allow them to run rough-shod over you. Setting limits may feel unkind; but rejection will be worse. If you can find a way to empathize with their situation, set limits that they can tolerate, and protect your own space and sanity, you will have done them a tremendous service.