The Value of Complaining


When you think about your conversations with friends, family members, and coworkers, what is the main topic?  Do you wax nostalgic about wonderful moments from your past? Do you share your vision of what an ideal world would look like?  Or do you focus on what you don't like about your life and complain about something crappy that happened to you last week? 


Unfortunately, most people spend most of their time complaining.  They might not think they are complaining.  A lot of people like to say that they are "venting," as if that were any better.  Complaining is when you talk about the past in a way that makes it clear that you don't like what happened and you wish it were different.  I can't think of anything less productive or useful than to talk about a past moment that you cannot change.  The only thing you can change about it is your relationship to what happened and your understanding of it.  


But instead of doing that, you complain to others, and what you seek in return is agreement.  This becomes the basis for the interaction with the other person, as if to say:  I will tell you about this horrible event -- Can you believe that he/she said that to me? Can you believe he/she did that? Can you believe this happened to me? -- and then you will agree that what he or she said or do was a terrible, horrible thing. This agreement allows you to believe that your sense of outrage and dissatisfaction is justified. 


You know that feeling when the other person doesn't empathize and agree instantly that you're in the right and whatever happened was in fact terrible or that the other person is at fault. If your interlocutor challenges you in any way, you feel like you're misunderstood and have to redouble your efforts to convince the listener that you're the one that is right.


Complaining is many people's the default way of connecting to other people. Everyone has something to complain about, and you can switch back and forth. "No, you go first, and tell me what horrible things happened to you last week, and then we'll swap positions, and I'll tell you about everything that so-and-so did or said to me, and we'll commiserate over our shared experiences of things that we didn't like and wish were different, and then we'll call it a day." That's a lot of people's friendships in a nutshell. This dynamic allows them to share the juiciness of righteous indignation and a shared sense of having similar experiences.  In other words, people bond through their complaining. 


What's so bad about complaining? It's inherently negative, backwards-looking, and judgmental. You're invested only in assigning blame, and you're often attempting to make yourself feel better by making someone else wrong instead of examining the true reasons for your feelings. You're focused on the past, on what went wrong, instead of talking about passions, projects, and ideas for the future. You're too busy stewing in your juices to see the good around you. You're looking at the world through the lens of right vs. wrong (i.e., you're right, the other person is wrong). Complaining is a technique to avoid being present to what's happening in your life. If you feel bad as a result of something, examine it, be with those feelings and see what you think is really going on. There's no value to complaining except to spread negativity. 


Instead of complaining, you can certainly talk to people about situations happening in your life to get some perspective and perhaps try to see what's occurring from a new perspective. But the energy is very different: you're inviting someone to view the situation objectively and share their views, even if they differ from your perspective. That's an entirely different impulse from the complaint that seeks agreement and affirmation. Almost always when you complain, you're reacting to a situation of a feeling of powerlessness or it triggers deeper thoughts you have about yourself, like you're not good enough or unworthy in some way.


So the next time you feel the impulse to complain, be mindful of that surge of anger and pause. Take a breath and ask yourself: what do you really hope to achieve by complaining? Are you hoping someone will validate you and make you feel better? Resist the urge to complain and try to be present to what you're feeling. See if those feelings of anger or annoyance fade. Once the intensity of your feelings have faded, take a closer look and see if there's something else going on. Are you mad at a situation because it reflects a deeper feeling you have about yourself?  If you discover that something else is going on, then you can explore that. From there, you will have an entirely different take on the situation and won't need to spread negativity by "venting" to others.




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