Now, the key here is to say this with not a trace of sarcasm—try to sympathize by remembering that your sister truly feels this way. And if you can do that, she will hear her complaints reflected back to her, which will make her feel understood. And once she feels understood, there’s not a lot more to say, and she won’t feel the need to go on and on to get you to hear how miserable her life is. Even better, by over-validating, you’re helping her to hear her complaints differently, and as a result, she may argue with you like this:
“Well, my kids should definitely call more, but they’re not always selfish. In fact, for my birthday they did this nice thing where …” Or: “Yes, my friends can talk too much about themselves, but I don’t think they’re actually narcissists.” Or: “It’s frustrating that my friends don’t set me up on dates, but now that I think about it, I guess if the situation were reversed, I’m not sure I’d know many single men to introduce them to.” Or: “My boss is awful, but I don’t know if I’ll be there for the rest of my life. I mean, maybe one day I’ll leave, but it probably won’t be for another 10 years.”
Yes, she’s still complaining, but once you stop challenging her belief system, she’ll stop trying to up the ante to get you to see how miserable she is. Moreover, once she hears a heightened version of her complaints, she’ll likely feel the need to correct you—in essence saying, “Yes, all of these people and circumstances are very bad, but they’re not as bad as you described them.” And if she does, remember not to switch to the positive. Don’t say, “Oh, good, I’m glad it’s not that bad.” Instead, continue to be the sympathetic complainer by saying: “Okay, well, it still sounds pretty bad to me.” And then move on to other topics.
If you over-validate her every time she complains, eventually she’ll stop trying to seduce you with her misery, and you’ll stop wasting time trying to give suggestions to someone who’s not interested in changing. And then, sometimes, something magical can happen: Eventually (and this could take a long time), she might realize she’s not as trapped as you are saying she is, or as she feels.
Now, it’s also possible that even with your over-validation, your sister will continue to incessantly complain. In that case, you can set a compassionate boundary. It might go like this: “You’re my sister and I love you very much. I know you’re suffering, and it breaks my heart to see you in so much pain. I wish I could help you, but I think I make things worse by offering suggestions that you don’t find helpful. If I can help you with something specific, please feel free to ask. But I don’t think that me listening to what’s bothering you is helping, because nothing changes after I listen. So I think we should talk about other things from now on.”