Everyone knows a few people who almost constantly moan and groan, complain and whine. They blame circumstances and concurrent emotions on others and take little responsibility for how they view the world or their role in their own unhappiness. You might live or work with such a person — or even be one.
In a recent conversation with a long-married woman, she divulged that her husband is a chronic complainer — generally finding the dark cloud surrounding the symbolic silver lining. She chalks it up to a childhood in which emotional literacy was discouraged. He comes from a long line of pessimists. It is a challenge for her to maintain her own generally cheerful demeanor as she searches for ways to do an end-run around the roadblocks to his satisfaction with how his life is unfolding.
I recall a sign in one of my places of employment that had a red circle with a line down the middle and the word “whining” in the center to indicate that this was a “no whining zone.” I do my best to make my mind that type of place as well.
People complain for a few reasons. “We use complaints as icebreakers,” said Clemson University psychology professor Robin Kowalski, PhD, in speaking to WebMD. “We start a conversation with a negative observation because we know that will get us a bigger response than saying something positive would.”
I wonder how that came to be, since I prefer feeling good to feeling disgruntled. It takes its toll on my vitality and ability to function at peak capacity.
One need look no further than social media or the television screen, which are lively platforms where complaints find comforting homes. Complaints can be the glue that bonds people as in cases when groups might come together over a political stance or a needed change, such as repairing a road filled with potholes. If we see others as sharing our views, we are validated and continue our downward spiral. Misery loves company, indeed. Complaining allows us to vent frustration and anger in safe, socially acceptable ways. It’s good to unload rather than lug these feelings around. But complaining can become habitual — or even addictive.
As someone who ‘shows up, stands up and speaks out,’ when I witness injustice being done, I prefer to focus on ways of making positive change rather than demonizing what I don’t like. When I attend vigils and rallies that are pro-peace, I see signs that put down the opposition. As clever as they are, I choose not to focus on that mindset.
Pay attention to your thoughts throughout the day. What’s the first thing that runs through your mind when you wake up: Is it gratitude or worry? Do you imagine what could go wrong? Do you complain about the other people in your life? Before I roll out of bed, I set an intention (the same one I have had for decades) to ‘have an extraordinary day and connect with amazing people.’ Each day I do just that.
Last year, I experience an ocular impediment in the form of a sty in my left eye. Besides being unsightly (no pun intended) with a swollen appearance, it impaired my vision. I have come to accept that physical symptoms are reflective of internal conditions. Instead of bemoaning it, I took the necessary steps to remedy it. Once I could see more clearly psychologically, I could see more clearly physically. Imagine that!
I also don’t want to see myself as limited in any way. In the past few years, a series of health challenges have had me slowing down even as I resist that necessity. I still work out at the gym and did a 5k in September 2017 and in the midst, felt the fear that my breathing would slow me down as it does when I am on the treadmill or walking fast paced uphill. I tend to minimize my challenges since I reason that others have far more severe impediments in their way.
My father used to guide me with the words, “If that’s the worst thing that happens to you, you’ll be okay.”
Mixed message, that one, since while it seems supportive, I internalized the idea that I had nothing to feel badly about… ever.
Another revelation came courtesy of a friend. After listening to me tell her how lately I have felt overwhelmed with people calling on me for support; some with chronic issues for which they saw no resolution and some who tended to “one up”, as in “my problems are worse than anyone else’s”, she pondered whether I had been taking on the energy until my body reacted by attempting to expel it through my eye. Made sense to me. Once I took in that wisdom, my body complied and cleared out the toxins (not wanting to get too graphic in my description, but suffice it to say that it wasn’t pretty) so that the lump is considerably smaller.
Chronic complaining is also a hazard to your health and is considered contagious. Neuronal mirroring is a factor as well. We see each other as reflections of each other, even if we are not conscious of the connection between us. When we are in the midst of those who are “happy being miserable”, it can be equated to the effect of second-hand smoke. We breathe in toxins even if we are not actually puffing away on the cigarette.
Complaints often focus on our “don’t wants”:
- “I don’t want to drink or do drugs, but it’s too hard to get clean.”
- “I want to lose weight, but I don’t want to diet.”
- “I want to quit smoking, but I’m under too much stress to give it up now.”
- “I want to be married, but don’t want to change anything in my current lifestyle.”
- “I want to graduate from college, but don’t really want to do the work involved.”
- “I want my house to be in order, but I don’t want to clean up after myself.”
I am recalling a dynamic that occurs here in the East Coast region of the United States each winter. As temperatures often plunge below zero and many feet of snow accumulate, folks understandably complain about delays and power outages. Those complaints didn’t stop the snow or the temperatures from falling, nor did they make us any warmer. On the flip side, each summer, people focus on the scorching sun and torrential rain. The truth is, the weather is the weather.
Many people take to social media to complain, knowing they’ll always find those who’ll carp along with them. But eventually complaining becomes ingrained and we see diminishing returns. There are certain things beyond our control, such as the weather, traffic and other people’s choices. What if we could change our focus to what’s working — or better yet, to what we can change?
Try these tips to help break the cycle of chronic complaining and retrain your brain:
- Focus on what you can control, such as attitude and actions.
- Evict the invaders in your head that make a mess of your mind.
- Give yourself a pity party pass. Take time to throw a mini-tantrum. When the “party” is over, leave.
- List what’s working in your life. Think of your home, family, friends, romantic relationships, work, creative outlets, health, spirituality, and community. Hold an attitude of gratitude.
- Make a positive change.
In 1981, I spent 10 days hiking, camping and cross-country skiing on an Outward-Bound course. An instructor taught us to be constructive instead of complaining. “If you’re cold, put on a layer of clothes,” he said. “If you’re hot, take off a layer of clothes. If your socks are wet, change them. Out here if your socks freeze, you’ll lose toes.” How often do we stay in “wet socks” when we could put on clean, dry ones?
Finally, remember these wise words from Anthony J. D’Angelo: “If you have time to whine and complain about something, then you have the time to do something about it.”