Letting Go: The Complainer’s Club
“Instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns, be glad that the thorn bush has roses.”—a German proverb
In today’s lesson, we are going to discuss a very specific issue in friendship: complaining. Why complaining?
Because complaining is an insidious problem in communication, and communication is foundational to relationships.
Complaining often sneaks into our conversations disguised as other things: advice-seeking, venting, and path-finding. We’ll dive into these issues in the sections below.
Complaining as Advice-Seeking
Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are seeking advice, but the reality is that we are simply complaining. Many of us find ourselves doing this time and again. We open a conversation with a close friend, knowing deep down that the topic isn’t going to lead anywhere good.
“So Sarah mentioned that she’s looking to buy a new car,” we’ll begin. Two hours later, the whole conversation has been a familiar, circular journey through complaints about someone else’s insensitive behavior, poor decision-making, financial irresponsibility, and back again.
Neither friend feels any better or comes away with any solutions, but we justify the long complaint session by saying something like, “What do you think I should do?” or, “I just don’t know how to confront her without having an argument!”
If the request for advice is genuine, while the session definitely involved complaining, the conversation’s actual goal was to find solutions.
However, all too often solutions are not the goal, and if solutions are offered, the complainer will find a reason to reject them. Sometimes the rejection is outright, while sometimes it’s a vague, “Yes, maybe I should try that.” Often, the rejection fuels another cycle of complaining, this cycle based on the suggested solution!
This begins with the common, “Well, I would try that, but she…”
Complaining as Venting
“Speaking your truth” can be another cover for what actually turns out to be complaining.
“I really hate my job,” a person might say. Their friend, familiar with this discussion, either changes the subject, makes an excuse to leave, or prepares to settle in for a long and fruitless conversation.
After bashing the boss, the company culture, coworkers, benefit structure, commute, office design, and software, the first person is done complaining… yet nothing is resolved. The job is still unbearable and complaining has accomplished nothing. Ironically, these sessions are not meant to drive change. Rather, the complainer was simply airing out his or her “truth” once again, with no particular goal in mind.
If the speaker truly wishes to effect change by speaking the truth, it is likely that the target audience will shift. Rather than complaining to a friend or acquaintance, the speaker will address an individual, group, or committee that has the power to positively influence the situation.
Complaining as Path-Finding
We sometimes disguise complaints as attempts to find a way forward. After a lengthy complaint session about feeling tired or disorganized, for example, the complainer might justify the session by saying, “I’m just trying to think all of this through and figure out where I’m going wrong.”
By reframing the complaints as a genuine attempt to discover a way forward, the complainer is able to feel productive, even though the conversation was completely unproductive.
Since people generally believe that planning and analyzing are both valuable uses of time, re-framing a time-wasting conversation as either of those feels much better than admitting that we were just complaining.
Understanding the Difference: Productivity
So what’s the common thread among these types of complaints? How do we distinguish real, proactive conversation about negative topics from discussions that are merely complaint sessions?
Complaint sessions are not oriented toward finding solutions. Conversely, productive discussions that help to generate answers may include some complaining but aren’t characterized by it.
Advice-seekers usually try to be thorough when discussing their problems, and they genuinely try to get help and answers from their friends.
Venters may need to blow off steam about their frustrations now and then. Their need is usually based on specific problems that have cropped up, not the same, tired old complaints with no solution in sight.
Path-finders complain as a part of exploring their path forward. They discuss issues they’re dealing with, ways to move past these problems, pros and cons for the solutions, and special considerations that might help or hinder their progress.
However, if any of these conversations manifest repeatedly over long periods of time, usually about the same or similar issues, then complaining is probably the driving force behind them.
Unfortunately, complaining is not only bad for the complainer but also bad for friendships. Friends who are subjected to continual complaining quickly become bored, jaded, and even antagonistic. Why?
Complaining disrespects the listener. It sends a subtle message that the listener is more of an object than a person; more of an audience than an agent. It says that you need their ears, but not their thoughts. You want affirmation, but not authenticity.
Lastly, complaining sends a clear message that you’re willing to be disingenuous while wasting your friend’s time by pretending to work on a problem that you actually don’t intend to solve at all.
1. Using your journal, reflect on your disposition. Do you often complain? Are you needlessly negative, especially about issues that you don’t really intend to address? What about your friends? Do you find that some of them have a bad habit of complaining?
2. If you are a complainer, what can you do to move forward? How can you remind yourself to let go of open-ended negativity—that is, negativity without solutions?
3. If your friend is a complainer, consider raising this with them. How could you tactfully suggest that they need to find solutions, or stop complaining? Would this discussion hurt your friendship, or help it—at least in the long run? Perhaps this is a friendship that you should let go of?
4. If you really want to challenge yourself in this area, try going an entire day without complaining. When you fail (and you will!) take note of what went wrong, and try again the next day.
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