I have a friend, “Sara,” who is driving me crazy. We are both married, in our 30s, and have several children. Although we have a lot of fun together and socialize as families quite often, she has a habit of complaining about her life in a way that I find excessive. She complains she is overweight (she’s not), her kids are difficult (they’re not), her house is too small (it’s not), etc. How do I respond when she says these things? I want to be a good, empathetic friend, but this drives me nuts. Please help!
I can totally see how this would be massively annoying to have to deal with on the regular. The next time Sara says something like, “I am so upset I had to get a size 2 instead of a 0,” you can sanctimoniously say, “Eyzeh hu ashir? Ha’sameach b’chelko. (Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.)”
Psych! No way! I totally do not recommend this. She will probably be super angry.
As a friend, there are a few things you should do:
The first is to listen. That’s right; just listen when she is complaining. It could be that that’s all she wants. Back in September, I attended Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s annual pre-Rosh Hashanah lecture about teshuva (repentance). This is exactly what he spoke about. Caring for others is the essence of Hashem, he said; he suggested that when someone comes to us with a problem, one of the most important things we can do is just listen. This can be annoying and difficult in your case, because from your point of view she is complaining about trivial things. When she complains to you, however, she is trying to communicate something.
Which brings me to my second suggestion: Dig a little deeper. Are you familiar with the saying you never know what’s going on behind closed doors? Well, guess what? You never know what’s going on behind closed doors. Maybe she is having marital difficulties. Maybe one of her kids is struggling in a way that you can’t see. Often, people will complain about something sort of pareve, something uncontroversial or insignificant, when really they are deeply upset about something of which they are ashamed or otherwise feel like they can’t discuss. So, for example, if Sara says, “I hate that my six-bedroom house is so cramped,” she could be saying, “I am really worried about my son, his teachers are telling me he might have a serious learning disability.” Only a deeper conversation will reveal what is genuinely troubling her.
Third: If, in fact, you empathetically listen, and she keeps up her complaints or ramps them up because you are such a great listener, and you have gently tried to figure out if there’s something bigger going on and you can’t seem to, you have one more thing to try.
You can say, “Sara, it seems like you are complaining a lot. Is there something that’s bothering you?”
Simple, right? This may create an aha moment for her, or it may make her mad (see above). If it’s the latter, then you have a decision to make. Is her friendship and your fun times together enough to mitigate the complaining and annoyingness? It’s really no fun to keep hearing about (real or imagined) problems. It can really bring you down. If it gets to the point where you feel like fleeing every time you see her, you’ll know that the time has come to put a little distance between you. You don’t have to make a big ceremony of it, just focus on spending time with more positive people and see Sara a little less. When she’s ready, she may come to you with a new attitude or for advice on a more serious issue.
And keep being empathetic, both to others and to yourself. That’s what Hashem wants from us.
All the best,