016: Ask David — How can I cope with a complainer? How can I help a loved one who is depressed?

In this episode, David and Fabrice bring the Five Secrets of Effective Communication to life, based on a question submitted by two listeners: How can you help a depressed friend or family member? You may be surprised to discover that the attempt to “help” is rarely effective, and may even make the problem worse. In contrast, the refusal to help is nearly always helpful. But to understand that paradox, you’ll have to give a listen to this fascinating edition of “Ask David!”

David and Fabrice also address a related problem nearly all of us confront from time to time: How do you deal with a friend who is a relentless whiner and complainer? When you try to help them or suggest a solution to the problem, they just say, “That won’t work” and keep complaining. You end up feeling frustrated and annoyed, because the other person just won’t listen! David and Fabrice illustrate a shockingly easy and incredibly effective solution to this problem.

Finally, David discusses some disturbing recent research indicating that the ability of therapists—as well as friends or family members—to know how suicidal someone is, is extremely poor. David and Fabrice explain how to assess how suicidal someone actually is, and what to do if you discover that he or she really is at risk of a suicide attempt.

14 thoughts on “016: Ask David — How can I cope with a complainer? How can I help a loved one who is depressed?

    • Thanks so much. The feedback that you and others provide is very helpful, so I can figure out what people want, and what is the most helpful. Fabrice and I are enjoying creating these podcasts for everyone! All the best for 2017, Robert! David Burns, MD

  1. Hello Dr Burns and Fabrice, just leaving a message to say I thoroughly enjoy your podcast and although I don’t have an iPhone I will login to iTunes to leave a positive review. I received a copy of Feeling Good quite a few years ago from my aunt and it was a great resource for me in coping with depression and procrastination and irritability and anxiety. I wanted to reread the book a couple of weeks ago, and so thought to go to this website and see what’s new and I was pleasantly surprised to learn about this podcast which has only just started. I hope you will keep it up, I’m enjoying it and benefitting from it, it is a privilege to listen to it. Thank you both for sharing your knowledge and experience.

  2. I have a question regarding accessibility of TEAM-CBT treatment to people worldwide. Is the “Feeling Good” book missing aspects of TEAM-CBT which were developed only in recent years? Will you publish an updated book? Where can people from all over the world (outside the US) get access to TEAM-CBT therapists, and will there be an online infrastructure to overcome geographic distances?

    • Yes, I have a ton of fabulous new information and techniques, and thought of revising Feeling Good, but it did not look feasible to do that. If I could think of a nice, upbeat name for a new book, I might just write one! If you have any ideas, please let me know! Any help appreciated! Thanks! david

  3. Dear Dr Burns,
    Fantastic website with tons of information! Your books Feeling Good and Feeling Good Together have been and continue to be an enormous and most valuable source of aid to me. The disarming technique is a lifesaver -it is helping me with a business customer who comes across as demanding, difficult and critical. I followed your wonderful podcast on how to deal with complainers, and a question I’ve got is: how do I cope and communicate with self-critical people who put themselves down? I get to see this with my mother, and I’m at a loss. My mom is a very caring, loving and giving person – in fact, she gives too much, and over the years she has become tired, stressed and very negative. She suffers from distorted thoughts and says crushing things about herself like: “I’m a fool”, “I’m a slave”, “I’m a poor old housewife” etc. It’s exhausting and upsetting to listen to her, as it also makes her very critical towards other people. I’ve hinted that therapy might be good for her, but she’s very proud.
    I try to make her feel better, which I realise thanks to your books and her reactions is the wrong thing to do. If I say, “That’s not true!”, she’ll insist that her verbal self-flagellation is true, and it turns into an endless discussion. Ignoring or avoiding her makes me feel cold-hearted, and I can’t find a way of agreeing with her statements. Maybe this would be a question for your next podcast?

    Best wishes from the other side of the Atlantic,

    • Hi “Sandra,” (name changed by Dr. Burns)

      Thank you for your very thoughtful note. I’m glad you are enjoying the website.

      I can only tell you what works wonders for me. I use the Five Secrets of Communication when I respond to individuals who complain / put themselves down. In fact, that was the whole message of the podcast you listened to. The Disarming Technique combined with Stroking and Feeling Empathy are especially important, but this would mean giving up your persistent strategy (according to your comment) of arguing. Can you see that your response do not involve Disarming, but the oppose? I’ve never had any success arguing with someone who complains or puts themselves down.

      If you read my book, Feeling Good together, and do the written exercise, it might help you to “see” what you are doing, and why it does not work, and how you might respond differently and perhaps more effectively. For example, if someone says, “I’m a slave,” i might respond along these lines, although this is not intended as advice for you, simply an example of a radically different approach from the one you appear to be using. “Mom, what you’re saying is true. You give and give and deserve lots of respect and appreciation, but you don’t receive a whole lot in return. So I can totally see what you mean when you say, ‘I’m a slave.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re feeling hurt, lonely, discouraged, and maybe even a bit angry, given how much you do for others. In fact, you might be feeling angry with me for not supporting you more. I love you so much, and feel badly that I’ve probably let you down as well. Can you tell me more about how you are feeling, and if I’m reading your right?”

      Again, this response to your comment is not intended to be therapy or advice, and the specifics of how you communicate with anyone will depend entirely on the specifics of your situation, and will probably differ quite a bit from my example above. My main goal is to show you that although you listened to the podcast, and understood it in the context of your work, maybe have not yet “heard” the message in the context of your relationship with your Mom. This is very common, even among therapists I train–they often have enormous difficulties learning to give up old dysfunctional patterns, especially with loved ones, family, and friends. It is often hard for them to use the Five Secrets in personal conflicts. It has to come from the heart, too. If you use the Five Secrets as gimmicks, they won’t be effective for you. And if you don’t use them skillfully, it is very likely they will backfire, and the other person will become even more annoyed with you.

      Learning to use the Five Secrets is enlightening, and liberating, but requires lots of practice.

      I hope this points you in a slightly different direction from arguing and contradicting someone who complains a great deal and puts himself or herself down. Disarming plus Stroking has always worked for me, with a little Feeling Empathy and I Feel Statements, as well, followed by Inquiry at the end.


      • Thank you so much for your time and wonderful answer! I was beginning to understand how to use the Five Secrets when people criticised or attacked me. What I didn’t know was how to proceed when people (especially loved ones) attacked themselves – which I understand is an indirect way of criticising others. Your in-depth and detailed response is a huge help to me. As you said, it really does take a lot of practice because I have to swallow my pride, put myself in the other person’s shoes and feel along with them instead of getting on the defensive at once. I find it easier to to with people I don’t know very well than with people I know, because with loved ones it can be like walking on eggshells. From my own first attempts, however, I have noticed that the Disarming Technique removes the fuel from the fire and the other person quiets down very quickly. It also makes me feel better because I don’t feel guilty afterwards.
        Thanks again, and I’m enjoying your podcast!

        Best wishes,

      • Hi Sandra, Thanks for your wonderful note! Greatly appreciated. You are 200% right that it is harder to use the Five Secrets with loved ones, because we get more emotionally activated, and that can make it hard to respond effectively. I just finished my Sunday hike with two colleagues from my training groups, and we spend almost the entire time practicing Five Secrets, which is SO HARD to do skillfully. It takes much practice and commitment to develop a high level of skill. But you are clearly “getting it,” so my hat’s off to you! Keep listening, and keep sending in your cool questions and comments! Warmly, David

  4. Thanks for the podcasts. I’m an academic family doctor who was introduced to CBT and Feeling Good early in my career. Just the basic concepts have been instrumental in some of my personal and professional work. I’m currently immersing myself in your podcasts while taking a few CBT courses and have signed up for your anxiety workshop in May (online). I’m delighted to have names for responses I’ve found to be helpful over the years. For example, we see a great deal of chronic pain – I try to never make the patient convince me that they really hurt – I empathize with their pain and the horrible reality that we are so bad at managing it. I never called it the disarming technique, but it does! Sometimes it eventually opens up a dialogue into alternative strategies – skills more than pills.

    Many students, maybe as a reflection of their teachers, believe their job is to “fix” patients. I try to introduce an alternative view of our work. I’m considering starting a CBT interest group – more of a discovery model of learning. Maybe using the Feeling Good Handbook and/or some of the podcasts as an anchor of sorts. Do you know of anyone doing something similar? Suggestions?

  5. Hello,

    I am currently reading your book (Feeling Good) and I find it really good. It’s like I understand for the first time how to tame my mind and how my distorted thoughts were the ones that were taking me to bottomless black holes in the past. This podcast and your book are of great help (in fact thanks to them I found the only hands-on methods that really help me cope with depressive states). Thanks to them I understand a lot more about therapy and about my reactions to it, about resistance and about the difference between (real) CBT and the other types of therapy. Thank you for finding the time to write the books and also make these podcasts.

    Best wishes.

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