Assay: Several months ago, during the Q-and-A period at a book event, a woman raised an issue that had many people nodding in agreement: “My eighty-year-old mother lives with me, and she’s a very negative person. She’s always complaining. I try to be positive and helpful, but nothing I say helps. I suggest all sorts of things to help cheer her up: ‘Why don’t you take a class?’ ‘Why don’t you go for a walk?’ ‘Why don’t you call your old neighbors?’ But she just say no, no, no. What should I do?”
I didn’t have any great insights to offer, but I recently read an article that got me thinking back on that conversation.
In a paper called “Complaining” by Robin Kowalski and Janet Erickson, in a fascinating volume, Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors (I read these books so you don’t have to), I read a description of “help-rejecting complainers.”
A “help-rejecting complainer” complains as a way to seek help and support, but then rejects any help that’s offered. Whenever anyone tries to make a constructive suggestion
-- “Why don’t you try…?” or “Could you…?” -- the help-rejecter insists that the advice is useless. In fact, help-rejecting complainers sometimes seem proud to be beyond help.
People often find help-rejecters annoying because first, the help-rejecter wants constant attention and two, it’s very frustrating when attempts at help are constantly refused.
If you’re facing a help-rejecting complainer, it can be useful just to realize this category of behavior. If you’re dealing with a help-rejecter, don’t expect to make any headway by dreaming up creative new suggestions. Don’t wear yourself out!
The paper suggests responding by acknowledging that you’ve heard the complaint and asking what the complainer intends to do – that way, the complainer is put in the position of coming up with a possible solution. If no solution is possible, just acknowledge the complaint and move on.
Of course, you should try to help a person who needs help. But sometimes efforts to help will just drain and distress you, without benefit to anyone else.
I'm pretty sure I'm not a chronic help-rejecting complainer, but I’ve been on the other side of this kind of situation -- complaining about something, getting a series of impractical suggestions from someone who then gets annoyed when I don’t immediately follow that unhelpful advice.
As always, with happiness, the secret is mindfulness. Whether as a help-giver and help-getter, it’s useful to step back from any particular conversation and to look for broader patterns of behavior, especially when interactions with a particular person always seem to end unhappily.
Do you know anyone who fits the description of a help-rejecter? How do you handle it?
* If you're interested in scientific studies that touch on the issue of happiness, check out Brain Blogger -- "topics from multidimensional biopsychosocial perspectives."
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