You think of yourself as a caring and sympathetic friend. But when it comes to your long-time friend—let’s call her Margot—you hit your wit’s end every time you spend time with her. Whether it’s the mailwoman who supposedly loses every important bill, the coworker who keeps taking her parking space or the son who doesn’t call enough—any time you’re with her, Margot is complaining about something.
And so, you offer advice, “Update your mailing address, drive to work a few minutes earlier, put some time on Billy’s calendar.” To these (highly reasonable) suggestions, she usually brushes them off and mutters something like “that’ll never work.”
If you have a Margot in your life, you’re not alone. Think of all the TV characters who complain relentlessly—Olivia Soprano, Hannah Horvath, Ross Geller, Joffrey Baratheon, to name a few.
In fact, there’s a term for the Margots out there. Coined by psychiatrist Jerome Frank, these people are called help-rejecting complainers, or HRCs. Typically, they complain relentlessly as if their problems are insurmountable (they’re likely not); they reject advice or guidance; and because they usually have no intention of problem solving, the behavior becomes toxic to your relationship—there’s only so much negativity a person can take. Here are signs you have a HRC in your life and also how to deal with them.
Signs your dealing with a help-rejecting complainer
1. You feel like you’re constantly walking on eggshells
You have that general, all-encompassing feeling that no matter what you do, you will upset this person, which in turn affects how you act around them. This might mean that in order to “keep your HRC happy” (which, spoiler alert, is impossible) you capitulate to their every need only to be met with negative reactions. This causes stress and anxiety.
2. They dump on you
From the moment you sit down for coffee with Margot she’s going off about how long it took her to get there (um, you were stuck in traffic, too…) and how gross the lattes are (uh, you’re actually enjoying yours…). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For the next 45 minutes you listen to a Greek tragedy involving a faulty air-conditioning unit and a bimbo on a customer service line.
3. They engage in “one-downsmanship”
The term, dubbed by F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W. and Vicki Wurman, is the inverse of one-upmanship. You thought you had a rough day? No surprise here, your HRC friend probably had it wayyyyy worse.
4. They refuse help
The thing is, you do feel bad. You want your friend to be happy. So, you hope that you can help solve her problems. That’s why you offer advice, advice that you yourself would take. But she poo-poos you almost immediately.
5. They 'accept' advice only to self-sabotage
Or, if she does accept your advice, it’s almost as if she enacted the weakest version of it just to prove that it wouldn’t work. Ugh.
In short, they create a catch-22 for the person listening to them: If they offer advice, it won’t be taken and if they get frustrated, it feeds the HRC’s worldview.
How do you deal with an HRC that you care about?
1. Ask them if they actually want your opinion
Aimee Barr, LCSW, clinical social worker, writes, “it might be uncomfortable at first, to be so direct. However, being honest is a great way to allow someone to know where they stand and also set boundaries for yourself. If what you said isn't well received, the help rejecting complainer will eventually realize you aren't aligned with their viewpoint and may move onto someone else.”
2. Avoid telling them to 'to get over it'
After having all of your thoughtful advice chewed up and spat in your face, you may really feel like telling your friend to get over herself. But try avoiding this because it will only feed their belief that everyone is out to get them.
3. Ask them their plan to solve this problem
Psychiatrist Eric Berne suggested this as an effective method. “Yes, that’s a problem. How do you plan on solving it?” You acknowledge their pain, which is important, but you don’t play into the typical feedback loop of offering advice only to be shot down. Instead, you put them on the spot to think about their own issues. Well, that, or at least they’ll change the subject.
4. Validate their feelings, then move on
Remember that as blown out of proportion as the situation may be, your friend is probably truly feeling these negative emotions and, like any human, could use some kindness. So sympathize—but don’t overdo it—and then change the subject.
5. Set boundaries
“While loving other people, it's also equally (if not more) important to remember to love and be kind to yourself,” Barr writes. “Set limits to how often you will listen to chronic complaints. Additionally, set boundaries on how you will be supportive. Ask yourself: Can I agree to listen without feeling obligated to solve others’ problems and/or offer advice?” If the answer to that question is no, give yourself some easy outs—tell your friend you can only meet up for 45 minutes or you have to take the dog at 4 p.m. Cutting your time short might save your friendship in the long run.