Back in 1964, in his book Games People Play, the psychiatrist Eric Berne described a pattern of conversation he called “Why Don’t You – Yes But”, which remains one of the most teeth-grindingly irritating aspects of everyday social life. The person adopting the strategy is usually a chronic complainer. Something is terrible about their relationship, job, extended family or other situation, and they moan about it incessantly, but find some excuse to dismiss any solution that’s proposed. The reason, of course, is that on some level they don’t want a solution; they want to be validated in their position that the world is out to get them. If they can “win” the game – dismissing every suggestion until their interlocutor gives up in exasperation – they get to feel pleasurably righteous in their resentments and excused from any obligation to change. We all know someone like this. To be honest, sometimes I worry I know one so well that I share a toothbrush with him.
Part of the trouble here is what the writer Mark Manson calls the “responsibility/fault fallacy”. When you’re feeling hard done by – taken for granted by your partner, say, or obliged to work for a knucklehead boss – it’s easy to become vehemently attached to the position that it’s not your job to address the matter, and that doing so would be an admission of fault. But there’s a confusion here. To use Manson’s example, if I were to discover a newborn at my front door, it wouldn’t be my fault, but it most certainly would be my responsibility. There would be choices to make, and no possibility of avoiding them, since trying to ignore the matter would be a choice. The point is that what goes for the baby on the doorstep is true in all cases: even if the other person is 100% in the wrong (and even if quitting the job or relationship is your only option), there’s nothing to be gained, long-term, from using this as a justification to evade responsibility.
Should you find yourself on the receiving end of this kind of complaining, there’s an ingenious way to shut it down – which is to agree with it, fervently. The psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb describes this as “over-validation”. (“Your boss should be fired‚ it’s terrible that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make things better at work.”) For one thing, you’ll be spared further moaning, since the other person’s motivation was to vindicate her beliefs, and now you’re vindicating them. But for another, as Gottlieb notes, people confronted with over-validation often hear their complaints afresh and start arguing back. The notion that they’re utterly powerless suddenly seems unrealistic – not to mention rather annoying – so they’re prompted instead to generate ideas about how they might change things.
“And then, sometimes, something magical might happen,” Gottlieb writes. The other person “might realise she’s not as trapped as you are saying she is, or as she feels.” Which illustrates the irony of the responsibility/fault fallacy: evading responsibility feels comfortable, but turns out to be a prison; whereas assuming responsibility feels unpleasant, but ends up being freeing.