if it's cold and rainy it's not bad luck, it's called autumn
September 21, 2010 3:38 PM   Subscribe

What are you best tips for dealing with a debbie downer?

Generally dealing with someone who is prone to seeing the glass half empty, complaining, and so forth. How do you react to their pessimism and complaints? How do you not let it bring you down?

Bonus points: dealing with family members who are not necessarily depressed, but tend to see the worst in a situation, and say things like "can't seem to catch a break" "we've had the worst luck" "x, y, & z are going wrong." How do you deal with people like this when you sort of see where they are coming from, but inside, think they're also blind to not see the loads of blessings that have come their way.
posted by raztaj to Human Relations (22 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Life is too short to deal with negative waves. Avoid Debbie Downers. As for family members who are pessimistic, I found that not trying to change their personality is a lot easier than thinking I can.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:42 PM on September 21, 2010

I try to just see the best in everything and face it with a big smile. When I am around debbie downers that complain, I often just respond with something positive and a smile and they usually end up saying, "well, I suppose you're right, it isn't so bad after all."

For example:
DD: Wow, what terrible luck, it is cold and rainy and gross and I don't have rainboots.
ME: Yeah, I suppose, but I also sort of like the rain, and the storm clouds are so beautiful, and the feeling of water on my feet feels so refreshing.
DD: ...Yeah, those clouds are beautiful.


Actually works surprisingly well, give it a try.
posted by masters2010 at 3:48 PM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

laugh and walk away.
posted by Postroad at 3:48 PM on September 21, 2010

Best answer: Maybe so, maybe not. We'll see.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:51 PM on September 21, 2010 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of times they can't be avoided. Empathy and supportive compliments are the only things that work for me. I'm not saying you should become their therapist; some days I don't feel empathetic and that's when I make a few concerned "mmm, how awful!"s and get the heck away. But if you can listen and try to genuinely empathize for bit - well, most people just want a chance to vent, and often once it's off their chest, they can shift their perspective and move on to other things if the conversation is steered that way.

This blog post is sort of hokey, but wraps it all up in a nutshell.

On preview, a combination of this method and masters2010's works very well. The key is 1) not to offer your own complaints or agree with theirs (that makes it a bitchfest which is rarely useful) and 2) change the subject to something positive as soon as there's a natural lull.
posted by Knicke at 3:58 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I spout positive things that have happened lately, to counter the negatives. I talk about what impact those positive things have had. I talk about silly, not positive or negative things that demonstrate that "only bad things ever happen" is totally off mark.

I've been thanked for it, so I guess it's helpful to the person who's gloomy. And if nothing else, it helps remind ME.
posted by galadriel at 4:21 PM on September 21, 2010

The pollyanna approach is great for things like the weather that no-one can control. And sometimes that's all you need!

But it's not generally received well when it relates to specific problems... While it's tempting to try and offer solutions or try and bring the conversation around to more positive topics, sometimes all people want is a chance to vent and a sympathetic ear.

But that can be wearying for the listener, as you've discovered - so if you're at the point where the nodding and smiling is making you feel stressed, then instead of offering advice or pointing out blessings, try asking questions like "what do you think would make this situation better?" / "what could you do to improve the situation?" / "is there anything I could do to help you feel better about this?". Sometimes making people focus on the future and what they can do to move forward can be really helpful to get them out of the mindset of focussing on the past and things that have gone wrong...
posted by finding.perdita at 4:23 PM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Debbie: "Oh, the weather is just awful."
You: "I know, this is the worst place on earth. Anywhere would be better. The Sahara would be better. Antarctica."

Debbie: "I just don't think this is going to work."
You: "You're right, there's no way this won't end up in total catastrophe. It'll be a train wreck. A nightmare. It'll make the front page of the papers."

Etc. If you know the person well, this can sometimes elicit laughter and even a good-natured turnaround. Or if they're REALLY touchy, it could make them mad-but at least get them to stop.
posted by Nixy at 4:46 PM on September 21, 2010 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Consider yourself mildly cheerful teflon. Disengage; deflect. The weather is awful and is going to kill everyone on the way home from work? "Oh, I don't know if it's as bad as all that, but I'm sure we'll all drive carefully. So, [POINTED CHANGE OF SUBJECT]." The project is doomed and we're all going to fail? "Oh, I think we'll do just fine -- I know we've all got the skills. So, [POINTED CHANGE OF SUBJECT.]" Your headache is surely a brain tumor; that's exactly what killed her niece and now you're going to die, too? "Well, I'll be sure to call my doctor if it gets worse, but I'll just take a Tylenol in the meantime. So, [POINTED CHANGE OF SUBJECT.]"

You get the idea. I worked in the same office as a woman like this and it was absolutely, positively the only way to get through the day without wanting to kill either her or myself within half an hour of walking through the door. (Warning: once she realized I wouldn't engage with such easy downers as "the weather will kill us all", she pulled out the Downer Ninja moves; her specialty was to start off with a seemingly positive sounding statement, then turning it around to be a downer: "wow, isn't that a cute dress on you! Of course, I'm fat, so I couldn't wear it. Wait till you get fat, too." "Oh, that was nice of your boyfriend to take you out to [fancy restaurant] for your birthday. Of course, my husband can't be bothered to do anything like that for me. He spent his most recent paycheck on lottery tickets and booze." I believe my response to that one was "well, maybe you'll hit the lottery and he'll be too drunk to notice, so you can claim the money yourself. So, [POINTED CHANGE OF SUBJECT.]")

Another similar strategy -- which I haven't tried much myself, but which I picked up as a suggestion in another AskMe thread re: how to deal with the relentless extremist political views of a family member -- is simply to respond "you know, you may be right" to everything before engaging in the POINTED CHANGE OF SUBJECT.
posted by scody at 5:06 PM on September 21, 2010 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I have this face I make sometimes. It looks like this. Whenever I'm around someone with a poopy attitude, who has been shown to display said poopy attitude regularly, I'll just start making that face. With no explanation. It's pretty ridiculous. Do it long enough, and Mr/s. Bad Attitude will generally, at the very least, crack a smile. Once that has been accomplished, proceed with the conversation as usual. Repeat as necessary.
posted by phunniemee at 5:26 PM on September 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: cyndigo, I'm very sorry for the seriously awful shit that has come your way recently, in a fairly short amount of time. I don't think any reasonable person would classify all of that as "debbie downerish" at all. And you have every right to be honest in telling your friends what's going on - that's a lot to deal with all at once. And anyone who thinks otherwise is not worth your stress or anxiety wondering if you're 'that debbie downer' girl. But then there are those that regularly complain and complain about relatively mundane things, when their health, family, finances, etc are all fine, no problemo. And still, they complain... that's definite downer behavior!

I hope things pick up for you, and that this major shit streak comes to an end.
posted by raztaj at 5:43 PM on September 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

People often don't realize how their activities and inclinations strike other people. If this person is driving you nuts, it would be kind of you to make the person aware of that--and of course there is a large range along the harshness spectrum of doing so.

I recommend finding some way of making them aware of the possible effects of this Eeyorism on theirs: what does it say to others about him/her; does this person feel like s/he has no one to talk to and could this be one reason; what does s/he think that it does FOR him/her, emotionally; how might it HURT him/her, emotionally and socially; etc.?

If you don't want to talk about it, or you are not interested in the psychology of it, do something else. But, assuming you are stuck with this person to some degree, it seems like a good opportunity to break through a wall that s/he has created and maybe get a glimpse of the person behind that wall.
posted by O Blitiri at 6:19 PM on September 21, 2010

"theirs" = others in second parag
posted by O Blitiri at 6:20 PM on September 21, 2010

I have a Debbie Downer in my family. Despite good health, wealth and a loving family, she dwells on every single negative thing and loves to dwell on and retell depressing stories. At a recent family dinner, she went on a lengthy jag talking about how all her her ancestors died, including describing in melodramatic detail stories she's heard about how some of the children in the family died back over 80 years ago! This was while 3 of her small grandchildren were sitting at the table staring at her wide eyed.

At a child's birthday party recently she spent a lot of time whining about how fattening cake frosting is and how it has Crisco in it. She made a big production about scraping the frosting off her cake. Meanwhile, everybody else was trying to focus on the kids.

After the child death diatribe, most of the other adults in the family banded together to create a unified force against our Debbie Downer's negativity. When she gets going on a complaining spree or talking about something negative, we all work together to derail her by changing the subject, distracting her or pointing out positive things. So far, it seems to be working.
posted by pluckysparrow at 6:30 PM on September 21, 2010

Best answer: My boyfriend could be said to fall into this category. It's become really easy to let this roll off me, so here's what works for me:

- Loving mockery: "oh right, I forgot, you hate fun!"
- Sarcasm v1, mock surprise: "you don't think BadCorp. will support a ban on BadWidget??"
- Sarcasm v2, request for clarification: "So, wait. You do or don't think frat parties are annoying?"
- Sarcasm v3, dawning understanding: "Ah, so you dooon't think Fox News always reports the facts accurately."
- Hyperbole as suggested above: "it is possible that they are the worst human being on the planet." "I agree, we should just stay home and never go anywhere just in case."
- Geniune sympathy about real disappointments.

To overthink this, I think these strategies might work because they're a way of showing I heard and understand him. (Yes, actually he DOES think loud frat parties are totally annoying! Yes, actually he DOES hate the idea of going dancing!) We more quickly acknowledge the thing and then move on. Meanwhile, I can express my own opinion (that dancing is fun) and stay in a jokey, happy emotional space.

Some above say "cheer them up." Maybe it is sustainable in small doses, but that was really draining for me. You're pulling them up; they're pulling you down; every time they pull things down, do you have to pull them up again? You're on opposite teams if you need the conversation to be positive and they want to gripe. Instead, I'd recommend you find a way to let them have their own sucky attitude going when that's where they're comfortable. Plus, it's kinda fake to be like, "hey look on the bright side of having a strange college student puke on your lawn."

I also have to be honest sometimes: "oh man, I'm going to get depressed if we talk about this, let's change the subject," "what do you think about cheering up? will you cheer up if I stand here and make different faces at you?" "I'm in a bad mood, so if you can't be the semi-cheerful one tonight I might just need to stay home and take a bath," "don't you ever get tired of focusing on XYZ? I mean, it seems to me like it's an immutable and eternal fact of life that [Fox is biased], so ... I get bored by thinking about it. What's interesting about it to you?" "wow, you think what? You're on your own with that one." I do think that it helps that I really love and respect this guy and have sympathy for the various things that are frustrating him, like Bad Corp's badness. I don't know if I could do it if all the complaints were about something I found totally trivial.
posted by salvia at 7:53 PM on September 21, 2010 [14 favorites]

Re: dealing with family members. I have a couple Debbie Downer siblings. It's exhausting and pointless to listen to them explain to me over and over why everything is terrible, especially as many of their issues stem from the own actions/inactions. I have three strategies, depending on my mood/time spent listening to "I can't catch a break" complaints:

#1: Listen and be supportive. Sibs/family members are like other people; sometimes they just need to vent. However, if this goes on too long, go to...

#2: Tear down obvious obstacles. Example: No one is hiring. I applied at a temp agency and there's nothing out there. Me: Oh, when's the last time you've called them? DD Response: Well, they said they'd call me. Me: So the company doesn't have a phone number you can call to get status? DD Response: Well, I guess I could try that. I usually try to keep this going as long as I can stand it, then go to...

#3: [After hours of complaints.] Me: It must be very frustrating that there's nothing at all you can personally do to make your life any better. I can't imagine what that feels like. Gotta go, talk to you another time.

Then I vow to screen my calls. But don't.
posted by sfkiddo at 8:41 PM on September 21, 2010

Best answer: This is what the phrases "it is what it is," "que sera sera," and "c'est la vie" are for.

Bonus points for bursting into song.
posted by desuetude at 9:13 PM on September 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: When it's someone I really want to invest in, so I'm willing to put out to get the conversation back on track, I follow salvia's awesome game plan.

Otherwise - and I am so embarrassed to admit this - I resort to "Dude, you're harshing my mellow."
posted by DarlingBri at 11:09 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


seriously: every time that shit kicks in, just smile softly and say, almost in a whisper:
"Someday, we'll all be dead."

Now, you're either
a. depressing THEM, or
b. reminding them that they're still alive and therefore capable of anything.

If that doesn't work, I like to go with a trifecta of
a. skeet shooting
b. 'Young Frankenstein'
c. the ripest, freshest avocado you can find (where do you live? Are you in a cold place? fresh fruit, sunshine, girls in short sleeves, those cheer a lot of people up, y'know?)

another idea: you be you.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 11:11 PM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think I was a Debbie Downer. A horrible spot to be in!

You say it's not depression, but that's what it was for me. What else is it, when you can't see anything on the bright side?

Be a good friend as long as it doesn't drag you down. Offer to cook with your Debbie, go to plays, go out for a drink, give her CDs of great music and tell her to dance every day. When she starts being a downer, say "You have to help yourself. I'll help you try, but it is up to you."
posted by goofyfoot at 1:46 AM on September 22, 2010

Thanks for the kind words, raztaj. September has been the cruelest month.

A newish friend invited me to a concert last week, and it was a huge blessing to get out, drink a beer, enjoy some music. I'm trying hard to focus on the positives, and to keep a good deal of the conversational focus on others and the good things happening in their lives. But my friends really need to STOP DYING.
posted by cyndigo at 9:43 AM on September 22, 2010

"Dude, you're harshing my mellow."

I am totally going to try that.
posted by salvia at 9:22 PM on September 22, 2010

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