Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s discussion on complaining.
If you’re coming in late to the game, I highly recommend reading the previous post first, since it lays some groundwork about what constitutes complaining and what does not. However, I’ll sum up the gist of it.
My friend Chad shared something with me that had resonated with him recently:
“Complaining is a waste of time
unless you’re telling someone
who can do something about it.”
And that got me thinking. It occurred to me that not only does this statement warrant some self-reflection, it also allows us to redefine terms this way:
Complaining: sharing negative information, thoughts or emotions with someone who cannot do anything about the situation
I’m a firm believer that virtually everything we do in life is done because of some perceived gain. In other words, there are reasons behind most of what we do. This says nothing of the existence of ideas like altruism, which would simply be doing something based on a perceived gain for another person. My point is that we tend to believe “If I do this, then that should happen — or at least there’s a high enough likelihood to make it worth my while.”
Quid pro quo.
The problem with perceived gains, however … is that “perceived” part. You see, perception offers no guarantee of aligning itself with reality. Yet, since most of our perceived gain system becomes automatic, even subconscious, we lose track of asking ourselves, “Is what I’m doing here actually working?”
With these ideas as a springboard, let’s take a closer look at why we complain. Then, for those who are suspecting that complaining isn’t getting us where we had hoped it might — and in keeping with the theme of The Best Advice So Far, that “You always have a choice” — I’ll offer some thoughts about breaking free of the “grumbles” and trading them for greater overall peace and happiness.
Before you even continue reading, however, I want to pose a challenge. Enter a place of honest self-reflection and adopt this mindset: if your immediate reaction to any of what you read below isn’t “Nope, that’s definitely not me,” be willing to consider that the particular reason is, at least to some degree, likely one of your own perceived gains behind complaining.
This list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it in any particular order of importance.
Complaining in hopes of the perceived gain of being in some way accepted by others covers a lot of ground.
If we really think about it, perhaps we are hoping that our complaining will bring us some attention from others. We’re not sure how to gain positive attention; so attention centered on the negative in life will have to do. What we’re really craving is love and friendship — but pity has somehow wound up being the closest we ever get.
On the same lines, maybe we didn’t used to be a complainer. But we became part of a group of friends or coworkers who do complain a lot. And so, in order to be included, we took on chameleon-like behavior and followed suit.
Suggestion for positive change: First, acknowledge that complaining isn’t bringing you positive attention. While complaining may become a least common denominator that gets people talking together, it’s ultimately a drain on the soul and not a fulfilling pursuit. However, most people are attracted to a person who brings lightness and joy to a situation. Decide to be that person. Not only will you stand a better chance at forming true friendships, you just might change the culture of the other people around you.
I know many people who complain as a way of distancing themselves from something of which they strongly disapprove or with which they disagree. I often see this in the areas of religion, politics and other policy. If we complain about a thing, the perceived gain is that everyone will know I had nothing to do with this [ridiculous/awful/shoddy/wrong] thing.
Sometimes, this can also be a form of acceptance-seeking. If people think I might have had something to do with the stupid thing, person or situation, they might not like me. I want them to like me, so I’d better make it clear that I’m not in favor.
At still other times, our complaining may be about something that we, for whatever reasons, are involved with — something which is currently a big, fat mess. And though we are technically “part of it,” we feel the need to make sure others know that we aren’t as [disorganized / unprofessional / lame] as the [committee / project / school play] we got roped into.
Suggestions for positive change: I am all for being outspoken about such things as injustice, abuse of power or the perpetration of misinformation. However, going back to the original premise here, if our words aren’t being spoken to someone that can do something about it, they really are a waste of time and energy. Try redirecting your energies into activism. To rephrase a time-tested truth, action speaks louder than words.
And for those who feel trapped by a BEAST (i.e., Big Energy-Absorbing Stupid Thing), please visit this post. Again — you always have a choice!
Often, complaining is anger — even deep, long-term anger — working its way out at the wrong things.
So we complain about the meal we’re served at a restaurant … when we’re really angry about our dead-end job and our condescending boss.
Or we complain about the color of the wall paint … when we’re really angry about a marriage on the rocks.
Maybe we’ve even lost track of why we’re angry. We’re just angry, all the time.
Suggestion for positive change: Directing our anger at things that are smaller or safer than the big, scary thing we’re really angry about involves a perceived gain that will never be achieved. What we want is to feel respected and valued at our job or in that marriage. And a hotter meal or a different color paint on the wall stands no chance of bringing about those deeper desires.
If you suspect that anger is behind your tendency to complain, I’d encourage you to read the post entitled “drain.” It takes true courage to face the thing we’re actually angry about, and to make the choices necessary to make a first step toward change. I know I’ve said this an awful lot here, but keep at the forefront of your mind that you always have a choice. It can be terrifying speaking up to a bully, leaving a long-term job to enter the unknown and search for a new one, acknowledging aloud to your spouse that your marriage is in need of some long-overdue work — or seeking counseling for a lifetime of mounting anger. But new choices are the only road to change. And the freedom that comes with that kind of foundational change far outweighs the relatively short discomfort that may be required to set things on a new path.
It’s possible that you complain because you’ve been hurt, disappointed or let down so many times in the past that you’ve forgotten what hope feels like. It’s become easier to expect the worst than to believe the best about any person or situation. The problem is … negativity only ever invites more negativity.
Suggestion for positive change: Let me direct you to a few prior posts — “runes,” “déjà vu” and the series “why we do: part 1 and part 2.” If further reading isn’t possible just now, please … bookmark this page and come back when you do have more time to read and reflect on those previous posts. I truly believe they may give you some new perspective and, if you’re willing, a starting point for hope to bloom again.
Habitual complaining may be an indication of control issues.
We find ourselves growling, swearing or laying on the horn in traffic. When it’s really just a different language that says, “How dare you be in my way!” We’re used to having control, and it’s been taken from us with no recourse to regain it.
Of course traffic isn’t the only place this attempt at exerting control rears its head. Maybe it comes out when you get to thinking you’re smarter than your boss who’s making calls you’d make differently on a project. Or maybe you’re one member of a larger team or committee, and you nitpick or filibuster any decision that didn’t reflect your own input.
In this way, along with control issues, I’d suggest that complaining may be a mark of self-centeredness. Anything that doesn’t go my way, when and how I want it, is met with complaining — the “adultified” version of a tantrum.
Suggestion for positive change: Making changes in this area takes a big person. After all, if you’re someone who feels the need to control situations, and it’s suggested that you give up that control, it can feel a lot like taking away oxygen.
I’d first invite you to think about whether your perceived gain is actually being met. Are your complaints getting traffic to move any faster? Is your boss giving you control of that project or decision in the end? Is everyone on that committee suddenly inviting more of your input? Or are you just finding yourself continually at odds with people?
Realizing that your attempts to gain control aren’t working is the first step to deciding to try something else.
As for what that “something else” might be, I’ll throw out a couple of ideas.
First, consider whether the problem is deep-rooted enough to warrant counseling in order to help you relinquish some of that need for control.
Or try exchanging external control for the challenge of greater self-control. You may find that, if done in healthy ways, this keeps you feeling more at peace with life. Throw yourself into a positive hobby or activity the outcome of which is entirely up to you. Hit the gym. Write a book. Prepare for and run a marathon. Be demanding of yourself, and you may find yourself feeling less of a need to do so with others.
Lastly for now, complaining may be an attempt at shirking personal responsibility. If I complain loudly and often enough, it feels like I can convince myself and others that a problem in my own life is really someone else’s fault. And that means, I don’t actually have to do anything to change my circumstances.
Suggestion for positive change: I’ll quote some of the best advice so far (the topic of an entire chapter in my book), which was passed to me by my friend Carlotta, who, having suffered through cancer, had more reason to complain than most — and yet who never did:
“Life is not fair. The sooner you accept this, the happier you will be.”
Complaining may shift the blame in words. But it does absolutely nothing to change the fact that your life is largely determined by your own choices. And so, if you remain content to gripe and point fingers at the boss, or your spouse, or your parents, or “the system,” or God, or life in general — you’ll continue to be unhappy.
This isn’t to say that every negative circumstance in your life was of your own making. But waiting for someone else to take responsibility for your problems and to solve them will leave you in exactly the same place tomorrow, in a year — and in twenty — unless you decide to get up and do something differently with the many, many choices that lie completely within your control.
Again, the above list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive. But if an honest look revealed something you know to be true about yourself, do something about it. Commit right now to implementing positive change, however small.
To quote my best friend Dib (Carlotta’s daughter, in fact): “The only prize for having the worst life is … [wait for it] … CONGRATULATIONS! You have the worst life!”
I think you’ll agree that happiness and inner peace are far better rewards than complaining.