The One With the Complainers

A few months ago, I went to lunch with a small group to celebrate a friend’s promotion. We talked about work, family, upcoming vacations, all the usual things. One friend began complaining about her husband’s refusal to clean up around the apartment. Like a virus it spread quickly and we each succumbed in turn. The next hour (I’m not exaggerating) was spent venting about a litany of issues.

Then, somehow, I heard myself. I was suddenly drained by the conversation I’d helped to create. I’d boarded the complain train with the people at my table and was whisked away without even realizing it.

I meekly attempted to change the subject. “So, I heard that Ben & Jerry’s is developing a new ice cream flavor.”

Complainer #1: “Oh, I hate ice cream.” (Side note: I didn’t know this was humanly possible.)

Complainer #2: “You know what I hate? Marshmallows. They’re squishy and spongy, and they squeak in my mouth.”

Complainer #3: “That reminds me. I’m going to ask Sam to bring marshmallows on our trip to the shore. We had such a hard time finding a rental house for the week. Some owners want you to bring your own towels and some don’t have wi-fi and…and…and…”

I was sucked right back into the fray. I’m not proud of that. I want to be able to remove myself from these situations, or barring that, stay in the right frame of mind. That afternoon I realized how negativity is self-reinforcing and becomes addictive.

stop complainingAuthor Tim Ferriss suggests doing a no-complaint experiment. Spend 21 days without complaining. Wearing a special bracelet helps in reprogramming your awareness because if a complaint slips out, you move the bracelet to the opposite wrist and the clock starts again. Could I do it?

I don’t think i’m an excessive complainer, though I suppose my friends and family would have the final say-so on that point. I know I feel better, lighter when I don’t complain. Tim had a few resets and made it through the full 21 days in about three months. One of important changes he noticed was a shift from unproductive commiserating to problem solving.

“I defined “complaining” for myself as follows: describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem.” 

I disagree with Tim a bit on this point. Allowing “helpful complaints” only works if you’re complaining about a problem that can be solved. But I find that when I fall prey to complaining, it’s most often about random things that are out of my control. In fact, that’s one reason why I complain: to regain some illusion of control. The subway car is too crowded. So-and-so left dishes in the sink. Again. The store didn’t have those shoes in my size. The weather. Roxanne Gay writes, “I really don’t intend to change most of the things I complain about. Griping is seductive on those days when happiness requires too much energy.”

Martha Beck has an alternative: stop complaining aloud and vent on paper. I think by the time I wrote a couple of sentences I’d see how silly most of my complaints are and move on. The ones that aren’t silly might get resolved with thoughtful, positive action and without turning social events into a huge drag.

This is not easy. Complaining seems to be hard-wired in us humans. (“Mom, I’m bored!” “She’s touching me!”) The more I think about it, the more I think the reason we complain is to be acknowledged. We’re looking for someone to back us up. Someone agree that my friend’s husband is wrong for not getting his dirty socks off the floor. Someone validate the horrible commute I had this morning. Please.

In our lives, the people around us lift us up, or they drag us down.  —Leo Babauta

Does complaining spur you to action? Have you tried a no-complaint experiment? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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37 comments

  1. Aw… I read this just as I got back from a very satisfying gripe in the shop next door about our bank and their latest ANTI-customer-attendance system 😉

    But, seriously, I can’t get on with people who do nothing but complain. Or with people who don’t like ice cream.

    I’m going to have to postpone the 21-day-no-complaints experiment until September, though. We’re in the middle of an epic heat wave here in Spain, and the failure to groan about it publicly carries the threat of immediate social exclusion.

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  2. I hate to think that I couldn’t go 21 days without complaining, but it would be hard! I’ve heard of that bracelet experiment, but with a twist– for not saying anything negative specifically about another person. (Also hard, to be honest.)

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  3. I’m with Nina, I hate to think I couldn’t, too… and I’d like to try. My biggest source of complaints (these days) seems to be bad drivers. And there is no solution but to stay home. So… maybe if I could exempt myself out of that one thing then I can go for the bracelet 🙂 In all seriousness, like you, it truly does make me feel better to be around people who are overwhelmingly positive. Complaining gets me down and I know it gets people down who I’m around. Great ideas for how to make the switch to a no-complain zone easier, Jackie!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’ve heard Maine drivers are the WORST. 😉 Ha!

      I know how drained and terrible I feel when I’ve been complaining. I really believe that the energy I put out comes back to me. Here’s to more complain-free conversations!

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    1. I’ve had to do that myself. It’s such a drag to be around someone who is always negative and can’t find a nice thing to say. One reason I love your posts is that you always try to look on the bright/funny side of the coin. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. If I had to quit complaining right now, with my company is in the midst of moving out of a six story building in picturesque Tribeca that’s been our home for 20 years, to a factory on the dismal outskirts of Long Island City, that would be considered treasonous. Complaining is bonding in these parts. I envy Reggie’s ability to bark more than ever these days.

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  5. When I was a teenager my dad once made the comment that it was too bad complaining wasn’t an Olympic sport because I would no doubt bring home the gold for the US. HAHA.
    This challenge would be very hard for me, I’m afraid. When I was first married my husband would say after I had finished complaining about something “Do you want me to give you a solution or do you just want to vent?” Mostly I just want to vent. But I think I have gotten less complainy over the years because several people I’ve regained contact with via FB have commented that I seem much more positive about things. Progress! Maybe I’d only be in bronze medal contention now. =)

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    1. Sometimes you just need to be heard, to feel like someone sympathizes with your plight.

      Too funny! I like to see the judges for that Olympic sport. They’d have to be pretty battle-hardened. 🙂

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  6. I think it’s pretty human to complain, but one day I realized that I couldn’t remember my dad EVER complaining! Not once. That made me try harder to not gripe or whine, but sometimes you just need to vent with friends. Just knowing that someone understands what you’re going through is enough. That said, I couldn’t stand to listen to others complain through an entire evening. So depressing.

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  7. I’ve gotten better about avoiding complaining, but it still happens of course. What I find most draining is when people start complaining about the politicians they don’t like. I think a little respite from complaining would be a good thing for most of us.

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  8. When I was in college, my pychology professor asked: “Does attitude predict behaviour or does behaviour predict attitude?” Initially, I thought it a silly question; surely your attitude not only predicts but in fact dictates your behaviour! But experiments like the one you describe in your post show that the relationship can in fact work in reverse. If I stop complaining for 21 days, perhaps my inclination to complain will be similarly quelled.. It’s definitely worth a try!

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    1. That’s a great point! I know I feel much better — lighter, even — when I stop myself from complaining. All it takes is a small portal of awareness, such as the one served by the bracelet, to remind me to shift my behavior and often my attitude follows.

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  9. I love this topic, Jackie. I wrote about this subject a few years ago after spending some time listening to my conversations, as well as the dialogue of others. The energy seem to fall in one category – complaining about situations, people or miscellaneous items – I took a vow of limiting my complaining and steering others in a different direction if it became too much of a topic in our conversations. It is difficult, but it really makes us aware of our words and how much value we are adding to our daily lives.

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    1. I applaud you for taking an active role in making your daily conversations engaging and positive. It’s easy to become “numb” and mindless. I love that you’re an active listener and participant. I bet people leave a conversation with you feeling good.

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  10. You are spot on about complaining for acknowledgement, Jackie – that rings true. Usually when I’m complaining it’s about an ache, or some physical malady, tiredness, being too hot, none of which are productive or immediately fixable.
    I noticed myself complaining, and don’t like it. The act does make me feel worse. I’m resolved to change. This excellent post comes at a time when I needed it!

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    1. I realized only recently that complaining is a habit. Like any bad habit I can choose to continue it or I can choose to break it. That was a small revelation. The thing I’m complaining about is usually not in my control, but the act of complaining about it sure is. 🙂

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