Help me be sympathetic to someone with a minor version of my own problem?

Someone I care about is dealing with a J.V. level* narcissistic asshole.

I want to be a good friend, but I’m realizing suddenly that I am not being super supportive, since everything they mentioned seems kinda minor league compared to being raised by a borderline** narcissist personality disorder parent.

Help. How do you walk someone through heck, when you’d been shoved into hell? I’ve got this whole “pssh that’s nuthin’ kid” routine mostly clamped down, cuz nobody needs to hear that, but that means externally, my so-called supportive feedback amounts to pat pat “oh, there now, dear” and I want to help instead.

But I don’t know how. I have advice, but how do I skip straight to that & past my knee jerk caustic “wow you think THAT sucks” reaction.

  • junior varsity. For non-U.S. dopers, that means basically the kid version of the big kid’s sports. Think 13-14 year olds vs. 17 year olds.

** ha! Borderline. (This joke is only funny to those dealing with the crazy in their own lives, I guess.)

Hopefully I at least got the J.V. description right. I never actually played any sports. (Theatre and orchestra nerd here. Even the band nerds were higher on the social scale than us. We all scattered before the soccer players, who at least were mostly nicer than the football players & cheerleaders.)

Just listen without judgement. Sounds easy. It’s not. But if all you can do is ‘pat-pat, there, there dear’ that may help. Peeps always want a good listener.

I’ve been doing this for about five years now. “You want to talk about your little hysterectomy from which you’ll recover in a week? Let me tell you about MY hysterectomy that was the easy part of an abdominal cancer surgery that took eleven hours and had a three-month recovery!” I say that part in my head.

I try to recognize the situations other people deal with are important to them. Because I care about them (and/or I don’t want to be a jerk), I try not to minimize their feelings. And because I have that experience, maybe I’m in a position to help them with theirs. At least something positive can come from my going through hell. I also try to remember if I didn’t have the experience I do and were in their position, I’d be pretty worried, too.

It takes a lot of conscious effort.

If this someone you care about also cares about you, enough to listen to a story or two, then this might work: At some point you can say something very general like “Yeah, I think I’ve been sort of where you are, and it can be really tough.” If they don’t ask you to elaborate, fine, at least you’ve got a little more solid basis for “wow, that sounds difficult” sorts of responses. If they do ask you to elaborate, pick your mildest story to share; eventually you might be able to share enough stories that the other person gets some valuable perspective.

This isn’t something I would try right away, but if they keep being bothered by this other person’s behavior and keep coming to you about it, maybe you could work it in. Not really for you, but for the other person, for that perspective I mentioned above.

I think you’re within your right to express sympathy while also letting your friend know your limitations. “I’m afraid I don’t know what to say about this douchenozzle you keep complaining about. Don’t get me wrong. I know he’s a douchenozzle. But I’ve dealt with someone who’s a million times worse. If I can get through that without losing your mind, you can too. Forgive me if that comes across as belittling. I just don’t know what to say anymore.”

I hate when people compete for the “Who’s the Bigger Victim?” award. But I think it can be helpful for a chronic complainer to be reminded that “listening ears” don’t have a bottomless well of sympathy.

I have a friend who’s in a chronic depression, and whines on FB constantly. Not just daily - all day, every day. I’ve told her privately that I don’t respond to those posts because I think it creates a positive feedback loop where she gets re-enforcement every time someone tells her she can do it! (go to work) or how great she is for mowing her yard.

My advice would be to tell her that this brings up uncomfortable memories for you, and you’d rather dwell on the positive.


Imagine two people. One with a broken leg and the other with a stubbed toe. Both of them agree that having a stubbed toe is not so serious an injury as a broken leg. But knowing this does not soothe the pain caused by the stubbed toe. Though the person with the broken leg has suffered a greater injury they can still sympathize with the person who stubbed their toe.

How close are you to this person? Maybe being honest with them is the way to go.

“Hey, I may need to apologize for something.”

“For what?”

“For not being as comforting and supportive as I’d like to be when you talk about {insert name}. It’s sometimes is a challenge for me. Can I tell you why?”


"Because I was raised by someone who was like a hundred times worse than this person, and every time you vent about them, it brings up bad memories for me. Which makes it hard for me to listen with a sympathetic ear. "

Maybe this would open up the door for you to share your own experiences about dealing with this personality type. The urge to “one-up” is driven by the desire to listen and be heard. Maybe the venting is frustrating because it’s so one-sided.