Complaining: Getting It Out, Getting What You Want

“I will never stop complaining.” ~ Margaret Cho, comedian

Can “complaining,” a word with such negative connotations, actually have its benefits?

In a world that appears to be full of so much negativity, there is a new wave of thought that people who are able to remain positive and optimistic are considered to be the most resilient. We may believe stoicism is a sign of a well-adjusted person who can “keep calm and carry on.”

While keeping positive thoughts about situations assists us with coping more effectively complaining may have its benefits as well.

Complaining is ubiquitous, everyone, everywhere at some point in time does it; no one is immune to its allure.

Who is complaining?

  • According to consumer research statistics women are 80% more likely to complain than men.
  • Where men are more likely to complain about job, financial issues and career (Seih, 2013).
  • Women are more likely to complain about family or friends (Seih, 2013).

 

Are you a “help rejecting complainer”?

  • Do people run when they see you coming knowing they will be deluged with your complaints?
  • Do you reject the solutions offered to you in order to prove you are “unhelpable”?
  • Would you rather curse the darkness than turn on the light?

 

When then, is complaining beneficial?

The paradoxical nature of complaining is such that although it carries with it a negative association it can often be a motivating factor for change. Try to imagine a world without a complaint, a world full of passive acceptance of what is; while a peaceful and ideal thought, how would we progress both as individuals and as a society?

Given how often complaining occurs in day to day interactions around the globe, we can only conclude that there is some utility of complaining, in moderation of course.

  • Complaining can be a source of release, a way to let go of what is bothering us instead of keeping it inside and ruminating about it and allowing it to grow.
  • When we suppress our complaints, we can end up feeling frustrated and angry.
  • Complaining can help us assert when our set standards are not being met.
  • Complaining can serve to help us bond with others.

Have you ever stood on a long line in the grocery store while the cashier is happily chatting away with the customer they are slowly ringing up and turn to the person next to you in line to complain that the store should open more registers? When that person comments in agreement with our complaint there is an instant feeling of validation that the standards of the situation are not meeting our expectations.

  • Having another person validate our complaint assures us that our expectations are not in fact, unreasonable.

 

Complaining may actually benefit our relationships.

  • When we express our complaints in a relationship, we are holding the other person accountable for their behavior. The other person may not have been aware of this behavior, or aware of the impact it has on us.

For example, Jill’s husband Tom never helps their children with their homework. Jill feels this has somehow become her responsibility and would like more help. Jill feels she handles the majority of the household responsibilities and wants her husband to do more. Voicing this complaint instead of ruminating and allowing the resentment to build, gives Tom the opportunity to validate Jill’s complaint and provides the opportunity for the couple to reach a compromise. If however, Tom does not validate Jill’s complaint and does not want to make an effort to compromise, Jill will be faced with having to make a decision whether to accept, or reject Tom’s response. In either case, a shift will need to take place as a result of the complaint so that it does not continue to build into resentment, frustration and more complaints.

  • Complaining to others about someone else’s behavior, while not ideal, can provide some objective insight into why someone may be doing the things they are doing and allow us to view a situation from another person’s point of view.
  • Complaining allows us to evaluate a friend or loved one’s level of commitment to our relationship.

For example, if Jill’s husband Tom decides to change his behavior as a result of Jill’s complaints, Tom is showing a level of commitment to Jill and the importance to him of maintaining that relationship.

 

How can we complain effectively?

When complaints are used as a motivating factor for change, or simply as a method of release, it is important to examine the possible consequences of our complaints and how we would like our complaints to be received. In order for complaints to be most effective, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who will I complain to? It is likely to be most effective when voicing a complaint directly to the source.
  • What is my complaint? Is the complaint really about what I am saying it is about or is there a deeper underlying dissatisfaction? Be clear and concise in your complaint and offer possible solutions. Be prepared to compromise.
  • When and where would be the best time and place to voice my complaint? Take into account the importance of timing and an environment free of distractions and interruptions.
  • Why am I complaining? What do I hope to gain from this complaint? If you are complaining just to voice frustration or to seek validation, you may want to make that clear to the person on the receiving end of the complaint.
  • How would I like this situation to change? If you are seeking a solution, identify what it is that you expect to happen and what you are prepared to do if you are not satisfied with the result.

Complaining effectively can be a motivator for change, however, chronic complaining can be viewed negatively by others and create distance in relationships. While remaining positive and possessing the ability to accept what is are important qualities for maintaining balance; complaining effectively can bring about more meaningful relationships and an overall satisfaction with situations we cannot change independently.


 

Bohart, Arthur C. (2002) Focusing on the positive, focusing on the negative: implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol 58 (9), 1037-1043.

Kowalski, Robin. M. (20020) Whining, griping and complaining: positivity in the negativity. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol 58 (9) 1023-1035.

Seih, Yi-Tai (2013) Why We Complain: A Two factor model in language use. University of Texas at Austin.