Sometimes Being “Nice” Is Just Wrong

Do you frequently lend a sympathetic ear to a friend’s rant? Think you are doing a good thing? Maybe not.

Kindness and compassion: We get many messages that it’s the enlightened way to be. The Dalai Lama even said, “My religion is very simple, my religion is kindness.”

But could kindness – or our idea of kindness – sometimes be counterproductive and even harmful to the other person, to us, or to the relationship?

We all need a sympathetic ear at times. We get overwhelmed, exhausted, lose our center and just want to vent. Having someone listen to us unconditionally and then side with us against a person or event in our life we think is offensive is often a soothing balm to our egos and hurt feelings.

But is this always the healthy course of action?

Consider this: A friend or colleague comes to us for the umpteenth time to complain about something. Perhaps it’s the traffic on the way to work or the selfish person in the next parking space who takes up more than one spot. Maybe it is a rant about the inexcusable thing their spouse did this time at the dinner table.

In the words of Einstein, “Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment, and learn again to exercise his will – his personal responsibility.1

And if you follow the main principles of many self help gurus from Tony Robins to Judge Judy2 you’ll get clear messages about taking personal responsibly for your feelings and actions. Hey, when even Judge Judy, who gets interviewed on FOX News, advocates for taking personal responsibility rather than blaming others for our emotional state or behavior, you know this is not some New Age, fringe-element rant.

So back to your friend who has your ear, again telling you their latest woes. When is it productive to listen and when is it best (for your friend and your patience) to find a way to step away or even respond to your friend more honestly and perhaps cutting them off at the pass?

That “more honest way” could be to let them know the adverse effects of their ranting and your listening. Studies have been done on the effects on people who either rant or read rants on the internet and it appears it does no one any good. 3 

“The stress caused by complaining can have a lasting and negative impact on the brain. Studies have shown that even a few days of stress damages the neurons in the hippocampus (the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive functioning), and impairs its ability to create new neurons.” 4

Both the physiological and the psychological consequences of ranting are bad for you and stress related changes can lead to a decline in the immune system.  Psychologically, talking about how others are “doing unto us” emphasizes our position as victim and minimizes our sense of self worth, personal control and self agency. In a word it is disempowering.

All this being said, if you want to stop being the listening ear for all this ranting and complaining what are your options?

The best thing is to direct the person back to their own inner experience rather than their complaint about  another. We can’t change others (at least as much as we would like to) but we can be in touch with how we feel and expressing how we feel gives us a chance to dialogue and change something. Rather than just living with the unpleasant experience and remaining silent, we can talk about it and move towards change.

Action Steps:

1. Phrases like, “Wow, it sounds like that person affects you in a bad way. I can hear you sound hurt (or frustrated, disrespected, taken advantage of, dismissed).”
Phrases like this show your care and concern without joining them in their victim/ blaming stance.

Or: 2. Giving them another option besides ranting and supporting them in taking action by saying something like, “You’ve been putting up with this for a long time; it seems you experience this weekly. Perhaps you need to have a conversation with them about how it is affecting your relationship.”

Or: 3. “I agree, there are some incompetent drivers out there. It can be scary and difficult to stay focused on responsible driving when people are careless on the road. I encourage you to stay safe next time this happens rather than letting go into anger.”

So next time you find yourself captive to a monologue from a friend or spouse, and you start to feel drained or disinterested, it’s probably a clear sign that the other person is spiraling into a place of victimhood, and maybe using one of the above approaches is better than siding with them or giving tacit permission for them to obsessively rant about what a terrible world or person they have to deal with.

You may not be being “nice,” but you’ll certainly be more caring and kind in a truer sense of those words.


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