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What's the Best Way to Deal With Help-Rejecting Complainers?

What you can do for someone who feels sorry for themselves all the time.

Adrienne* is basically a nice woman. But she seems to feel that bad things only happen to her. Or when bad things happen to her, they’re worse than when they happen to anyone else. For instance, when her upstairs neighbor’s water pipes burst and leaked into Adrienne’s guest bedroom, Adrienne was sad about it for weeks. She talked about all of the terrible consequences of the disaster, including all of the money she would be spending on re-painting the damaged wall and ceiling in the room. During that time, a friend had an accident and broke her arm. Adrienne was very kind to this friend, even taking time out of her own schedule to visit, shop, and run errands for her. But soon the friend had tired of Adrienne’s ongoing chatter about the leak, the terrible struggle to get the walls repaired, and how terrible things always seemed to happen to her.

Is there is someone in your life who seems to always feel sorry for him or herself? Do you find yourself offering advice that never gets accepted? And do you feel guilty, because instead of sympathizing with their difficulties, you frequently feel frustrated with them?

If so, you are not alone. While Adrienne has some good friends who genuinely like her and feel that she does often get a raw deal in life, she sometimes irritates them. And she has difficulties at work because, although she is good at her job, she appears to drive her supervisor crazy.

Why does someone like Adrienne, who so clearly wants us to feel sorry for her, end up irritating us? And what can you do about the Adrienne in your life?

Let’s be clear here. Most of us are totally sympathetic with friends, family members, co-workers and even acquaintances when they feel sorry for themselves on occasion, whether the reason seems big or even almost insignificant. We are also ready to intervene, if we can, to protect someone who is being hurt or abused by someone stronger or more powerful. What we are talking about here is someone who feels sorry for himself almost all of the time, and who wants us to join in his self-pity.

So what makes someone feel sorry for themselves all (or a lot) of the time? And what makes it so hard for us to feel genuine sympathy for them?

The need for mirroring. Although it appears that Adrienne and others like her are looking for help, that is often the last thing that they want. This need to have our feelings recognized is sometimes called a need for “mirroring.” Peter Fonagy, a British psychologist, is one of a number of people who have been looking at the importance of mirroring from others. According to him, in order to know what we feel, we need someone else to reflect our emotions back to us. Another way to put this is that we need to have our feelings validated by others.

Unfortunately, people who feel sorry for themselves on a regular basis often have the opposite experience. Other people try to get them to look on the bright side of things instead of validating or affirming their internal pain. So they reject the advice and continue to dwell on their own suffering, and people get irritated with them instead of feeling sympathetic. This becomes a vicious cycle that is very difficult to get out of.

A need to feel special. You would think that expressing genuine sympathy would be a way out of this trap, but it doesn’t always work like that. People who feel sorry for themselves on a regular basis often want to feel special, and only know how to do it by presenting themselves as the most damaged, mistreated or victimized person they know. My colleague Vicki Wurman and I wrote about this kind of “one downsmanship”—that is, a kind of reverse competitiveness in which the winner is the one who is suffering the most.

Help-rejecting complaints. If you find it hard to be genuinely sympathetic with someone who regularly sees themselves as a victim, you’re in good company. We tend to be more readily sympathetic towards someone who we consider mentally strong, who has had an unfortunate experience and is trying to move on from it. As blogger and clinical social worker Amy Morin writes, mentally strong people don’t “waste time feeling sorry for themselves.” Most of us admire this trait and hope that we can be considered in that group ourselves. So it can be hard to empathize with someone who seems unwilling to try to get themselves into a better place. And the Adrienne in your life may reject all suggestions that would help. They may seem to get more pleasure from complaining than from trying to improve things.

Feeling undeserving. No matter how desperately someone like Adrienne longs to have her pain recognized, they may also unconsciously feel that they deserve to suffer. This is not usually something they recognize or can communicate to others. They may even genuinely appreciate it when someone recognizes how much they are suffering. But because they feel guilty or undeserving of that recognition, they need to reject it.

Failing to acknowledge positive events. What often seems even worse is that Adrienne never acknowledges when good things happen to her, or when she actually seems to have a stroke of good luck. For instance, months after the leaking pipe incident, she was upset because the painters had never come back to clean up the paint they had dripped on her carpet. The carpet she was talking about, however, was in the master bedroom, not the guestroom where the damage had been done. It turned out that the workmen had, on their own, offered to paint both bedrooms for the price of one, so that Adrienne had ended up with two newly clean and painted rooms. But she had not told anyone about her good fortune, and it did not seem to have changed her sense that she was always a victim.

And finally, what can you do to deal with this person in your own life?

Understanding. Sometimes it helps simply to understand, as we have just tried to do, something about how self-pity works. (I’d love to hear from you about whether or not this is true for you.)

Sympathize. I have found that while a simple expression of sympathy can sometimes help, it is often not enough to stop the onslaught of feelings. But it can help to give a more expressive, emotional response, like, “Oh, that sounds so terrible. You must really be suffering! I’m so sorry to hear about it.” Adrienne also responds really well to the comment, “You poor thing.”

Advice. If you must give advice, do it with the awareness that it will probably not be accepted, and if it is accepted, it will probably not be followed through. Knowing ahead of time that there are reasons that the best of advice may not work for this person in your life can help you feel less frustrated by their behavior.

Recognition. It’s useful to recognize not only the pain, but the feelings of helplessness and frailty that your Adrienne may feel. Although help rejecting complainers may appear strong, they may be much more vulnerable than they seem. It’s not easy, but if you can acknowledge both their strengths and their sense of being mistreated, sometimes that really can help them move forward.

Please let me know what else has worked for you in this kind of situation.

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.