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Life frustrates or disappoints everyone from time to time. When friends and loved ones experience hardship, they may come to you to vent. Supporting someone when they express negative emotions can be a healthy part of a relationship because it helps the other person relieve stress and shows them they can trust you with their emotions.

On the other hand, some seem to get stuck in negativity, constantly complaining about this person, that situation, the obstacles they face, the unfairness in their life. Being friends with, related to, or in a relationship with a chronic complainer can be emotionally draining — you may slip into their orbit of pessimism and find yourself emulating their attitude.

Yet with the right balance of curiosity, patience, compassion, and connection, you can find mutual understanding and interrupt the negativity spiral.

Brie Vortherms, MA, LMFT, a Minneapolis-based family and couples therapist and the director of Life Time Mind, has some practical suggestions for relating to habitual complainers while caring for your own mental and physical needs.

Stress Sources

You want to help the other person. The constant complaining indicates that this friend, relative, or partner is habitually unhappy. Because you care about them, you’d like to help ease their burden. But you aren’t sure where to start — and you might not be qualified.

You’ve complained to them in the past. Maybe they listened to you sympathetically, backed your complaints as only a habitual complainer can — and the two of you bonded over this gripe session. It seems hypocritical to call them out now, when you’re on the receiving end.

It feels easier to listen to the complaints than risk upsetting the complaining person. After all, nobody wants to become the next object of a chronic complainer’s complaints, and it may not feel worthwhile to express your frustration.

You may be ­nervous about ­establishing a boundary. ­Establishing emotional boundaries without wounding or alienating the other person isn’t easy, and the stakes are even higher with someone who plays a significant role in your life. (If you struggle with setting healthy boundaries, see “How to Set Clear Boundaries” for expert advice.)

Success Strategies

See the complaining as a bid for connection. “The first thing that we have to do as a listener to a chronic complainer actually happens in our own head,” says Vortherms. “And that’s understanding that complaining is usually an attempt to connect. Most often when people are complaining, they’re sharing in order to be known, and that’s one of our deepest human needs.

“The complainer clearly has enough of a trusting relationship with you that they’re bidding for your attention, and that’s kind of an honor.”

Remember that you’re in charge of your emotional reactions. Vortherms points out that our discomfort listening to a chronic complainer partly stems from concern that their negativity might overwhelm us.

“But no one can really make you feel anything without your permission,” she says. “We can decide to let in certain elements of what they’re saying and to keep out other elements. It starts with the thought Hey, this isn’t mine. They’re having feelings about it, but I don’t have to. I can just listen.” (Find more strategies at “How to Deal With Constant Complainers.”)

Use empathy, but beware of entanglement. You don’t have to share the complainer’s emotional reactions in order to empathize with them and affirm their feelings, Vortherms explains. “You can simply mirror back what you notice: ‘Yes, you sound frustrated; you sound let down. I get how you’re feeling; I’d be frustrated too if I were in that situation.’ You’re not joining the emotion; you’re not saying, ‘Yeah, me too.’ But you’re not mentally dismissing them either.”

Don’t assume that they want or need help. The same self-protective measures apply to the issue of help. “You don’t have to waste life energy in trying to help this person unless they ask for aid,” Vortherms says. “Because, for the most part, when you start offering solutions or trying to fix someone’s frustration, they’re just going to keep complaining. They don’t feel like you’re hearing them.”

You can ask whether they want your perspective, she says. If they do, you can share something that you’ve done in a similar situation. But more often than not, they’ll tell you, “No thanks. I’m just complaining.”

  • Set the first verbal boundary: Do you need help? In many cases, the complainer may tone down or cease the complaints if they feel you hear them and realize you’re not going to join in their negativity.

If they continue, you can set up a boundary peacefully and lovingly by asking them to own the problem, says Vortherms. “You might say, ‘I think I’ve actually heard you talking about this before, and I’m wondering if you are looking for some type of solution or if it’s an ongoing problem in your life. Do you need help solving it?’ Sometimes this will stop complainers in their tracks.”

  • Set the second verbal boundary: This affects me. If the complainer persists, Vortherms advises that “you can reinvolve them in the problem more forcefully by letting them know — again, without anger — how the complaining is affecting you: ‘I think I’m stuck here and I’m having a hard time. Because I’m on the receiving end of what you’re saying about your problems, I get really worried about what you need, and it kind of leaves me feeling crappy.’”

This way, you aren’t taking on their negativity, but you also aren’t fighting back or running away, she adds.

Make a shift. If maintaining a relational moment just isn’t working or is too much of a strain for you, you can shift the topic or the scene. “Suggest that you talk about something else, or walk into another room or an outdoor space,” Vortherms says. “Neuroscience tells us that a shift like this may break up a thought pattern that the complainer is stuck in.” (Also see “How to Gracefully End a Conversation” for additional tips on extricating yourself from the conversation.)

Take a break. If all else fails, she says, you can go beyond a boundary and take a break. It doesn’t need to be a forever break; it can just be a break from the conversation.

“You can do this mentally, simply by remembering that you don’t need to engage, or verbally: ‘I work really hard to keep my own happiness. I love you, but sometimes it’s really hard to listen to you when you are in a complaining mood, and I think that I have to give myself some space right now.’”

Use lovingkindness meditation. To support these strategies and avoid getting angry, Vortherms recommends formal or informal lovingkindness meditation: “When you’re not with them, you visualize them in front of you, and you send them a mental message: I hope for some healing and joy for you. You send some positive, healthful, relational energy from your heart to theirs.” (For more, see “How to Practice a Lovingkindness Meditation.”)

Clear the slate. Vortherms recommends doing an energy cleanse after being on the receiving end of negative energy. “Literally shake your body off, put your bare feet on the ground, visualize it rinsing off of you in the shower,” she says. She also recommends a more formal practice, like emotional freedom technique tapping.


For more inspiration and strategies to overcome life’s challenges, please visit our Renewal department.

This article originally appeared as “The Stress of Chronic Complainers” in the January/February 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Jon Spayde

Jon Spayde is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. I wish I had read this article sooner! So much practical advice on how to handle these situations. I see now where I was constantly trying to ‘fix,’ but what the other person really just wanted was to voice their issues. I will learn to do better.

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