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How Words Help: the ‘Help-Rejecting Complainer’ (LSP #213)

How Words Help: the ‘Help-Rejecting Complainer’ (LSP #213) October 11, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Not long ago, I discovered a very useful term in dealing with difficult people: the help-rejecting complainer. Sure, it gave me flashbacks to my time in the trenches doing tech support, but it also gave me a framework of perception that’ll help me in the future. I thought y’all might also find it useful. So today, Lord Snow Presides over the unique way that descriptions help us frame problems — and solve them.

just stop
(Drew Hays.)

(NOTE: Today’s post is just about a neat psychology thing I ran across this past week. It is not a vaguepost. There is nobody like this in the commentariat.)

Encountering the Help-Rejecting Complainer.

Many years ago, I worked at a call center doing tech support for cell phone owners. I was very good at this job. In fact, I was exactly the person you want answering your call whenever you need to contact such places for help. (“Oh please, oh please, let me get someone who actually knows what’s going on here…”) 

One day, I had an encounter that completely confused me. The caller suffered from a scorching case of MustAlwaysBeRight-Itis. I recognized his phone’s problem immediately as a software issue. His phone needed to be completely reset to factory defaults. Dude had done something to it that had messed it up. That part was fine. Lots of people did that with this particular kind of phone. The phone reset just took a little time. It’d be fine afterward.

However, MustAlwaysBeRight-Lad insisted that his phone was physically broken. Unfortunately for him, the manufacturer refused to replace a phone unless it’d been reset. And he refused to do it. He only had this one phone, he said, and could not be out of pocket even for the amount of time it’d take to perform this reset. (Naturally, he was unconcerned about the days it’d take to mail him a replacement.)

I went around and around in circles with this guy. I even found nearby brick-and-mortar stores he could visit that would happily help him — and even get him a loaner phone.

Nope. No good. For everything I offered, he had a snide reply about how that would never, ever work for his unique situation.

In the end, I had to kinda tell him that his phone would not be replaced till it’d been reset. It was up to him to figure out how to make that happen.

He hung up on me in a fury (and with something new to complain about, no doubt).

I’d encountered a help-rejecting complainer.

But I didn’t have the words to frame this encounter, so I didn’t understand what had happened.

Defining the Help-Rejecting Complainer.

The term “help-rejecting complainer” has actually been around a long time. Gretchen Rubin first encountered the term in a 1997 book, Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors. But it’s older still than that! On p. 105 of that volume, we find this info:

In 1952, Jerome Frank coined the term help-rejecting complainer to describe certain individuals who were difficult to treat, particularly in psychotherapy. The help-rejecting complainer is notorious for complaining as a means of seeking help and advice and then rejecting any and all help that is offered. [Source]

The book also describes help-rejecting complainers as playing “the ‘Why don’t you…yes but’ game.” In this game, the complainer raises a problem they’re having. Naturally, the listener seeks to help by offering suggestions. But the complainer rejects every one of the suggestions. The book concludes:

[I]ndividuals who play the “Why don’t you…yes but” game have as their goal to “demonstrate that no one can give them an acceptable suggestion.” [. . .]

[T]hese individuals have a tendency to exaggerate their problems to the point that they may appear insurmountable, feel their problems deserve more attention than others’, adopt a position of hopelessness toward their own problem, and are passive in attempts to alleviate their dissatisfaction.

That last bit, in particular, mirrors an assessment I saw from another psychology site:

[H]elp-rejecting complainers sometimes seem proud to be beyond help. [Source]

That definitely sounds like MustAlwaysBeRight-Lad!

Why Some People Turn Into a Help-Rejecting Complainer.

I found a couple of different explanations for why some people turn into a help-rejecting complainer. The Atlantic thought depression could cause it:

Many people who relate in this way suffer from an underlying depression, and depression distorts their thinking and makes them feel helpless. People who are depressed also tend to feel lonely, unheard, or unseen, particularly in their pain. They want to connect with others, but if they are also help-rejecting complainers, that can create a vicious cycle.

Psych Central thought that help-rejecting behavior functioned as attention-seeking. It also might help a passive person feel validated in feeling hard-done-by. They even suggested that such a complainer might feel “overwhelmed by bad feelings,” with help-rejecting becoming their way of lashing out against others. At the end of their article, they helpfully stress that a help-rejecting complainer is not someone who’s actually experienced a traumatic problem, but rather:

[S]omeone who has become bogged down in the role of perpetual victim and complains repeatedly, without real reason or improvement.

I think that’s a very useful distinction. Psych Congress Network also excludes groups that use complaining for “a bonding purpose.”

Dealing With a Help-Rejecting Complainer.

I also found some suggestions for what to do if we find ourselves trying to help someone who shoots down literally every suggestion made. From Psych Congress Network:

First, of course, the therapist should bring the pattern to their awareness. Many people are not aware that they do this and will be surprised and even disbelieving.

Second, agree with them. For example, if your patient, who is in a new relationship and says her dream is to get married and have a family, then goes on to say, “I’ll probably scare away this guy just like the last one,” say, “Yes, I can see that with that idea in mind, you just might.”

The most important way to work with someone who complains but doesn’t make any changes, though, is to resolve not to offer advice or solutions, and not to try to solve the person’s problems. [Source]

The Atlantic, meanwhile, suggests going over-the-top with “over-validation.” (Relink.) They think it’ll help the complainer feel heard and understood — or perhaps lead the complainer to admit that things aren’t really that unique and awful for them.

Personally, I don’t advocate any one-and-done approach to anything much in psychology. Decide what will work for you in your situations.

For instance, when I finally put my foot down with MustAlwaysBeRight-Lad, that’s something I would have done way earlier in the call — had I understood what he was doing.

Having the Words.

What’s just remarkable to me about finding this term, help-rejecting complainer, is that it perfectly describes something I’ve encountered many times in my life and never understood.

Most of us want to be helpful toward those in pain or in need. Ex-Christians may feel that desire even more strongly than others — especially ex-Christian women. Heck, I even joked about having been a “purple Christian people pleaser!”

So when I encountered people who simply refused all help offered, who shot down all suggestions, who presented themselves as so terminally unique that nothing whatsoever could ease their pain, it always flummoxed me.

Having words to describe this situation has put a lot of things into perspective for me. Words give us a framework for understanding ourselves, others, and our world. Without them, we can still muddle our way through, but it’ll be harder and incomplete.

But then someone says a few words and it strikes us like a hammer hits a gong: understanding, clarity, crystallized knowledge suddenly appearing.

A Framework for Understanding.

I think these ideas particularly apply to people seeking to unpack and untangle toxic religious indoctrination. A lot of that indoctrination lurks in a preverbal state, deep down in our psyches. It isn’t exorcised till it’s understood. Language is a big part of how we make that exorcism happen.

Most people who’ve left toxic religious groups know how powerful words are for understanding what happened to us there. And I’m here to say it’s not just helpful then. Words can also help us to understand — and address or avoid — unpleasant interpersonal situations too. They can help us to recognize bad patterns that have just started playing out (like immediately recognizing a sealion showing up in the commbox).

I’m just gobsmacked by the sheer power of language.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over the way words can heal us and give us a framework for understanding the stuff that happens all around us.

NEXT UP: A massive report about Catholic priests in France reveals widespread sexual abuse of children over many decades (330k victims). We’ll check it out on Wednesday — see you then.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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