Call it bitching, call it kvetching, call it whining, but whatever you label it, it’s still complaining and we all do it. And we have plenty to complain about: taxes, Congress, the neighbor’s dog, the traffic, and social media. You name we can complain about it.  But what is all this complaining doing to our relationships and our states of mind?  The short answer is that it depends on the complaint…and the complainer.

How To Tell of You DO Complain Too Much

Chances ate if you do complain too much; someone has already said something to you about it. Either as a passing remark or a counter-complaint, some people are not shy about letting you know just how annoying you are.  But let’s say you are fortunate enough to surround yourself with a slightly more discreet crowd and you need to ask this uncomfortable question of yourself. Here are a few road markers:

  • Nothing seems good enough.
  • You expect the worst, or if not the worst, you expect disappointment
  • You’re usually a little perplexed at those who seems so cheery most of the time.

If this sounds like you, you are not alone.  Many people engage in passive, non-effective, chronic complaining.    A patient of mine, I’ll call her Emma, complains about how much she complains (!).  Emma says that in some way she feels that complaining about what’s happening is akin to a bonding experience of a sort, rather like “misery loves company.”  It is entirely possible that Emma is on to something here:   feeling as though we’re all in this together about a situation that is aversive but not changeable dispels feelings of isolation.

Perhaps people who engage in a good deal of this passive form of complaining do so to fend off a feeling of disappointment that could potentially be greater than the one they expect.

Not All Complaints Are Created Equal

Essentially, one can break down complaints into three categories: active, effective complaints passive, chronic, ineffective complaints and venting.  The categories are self-explanatory.  An active complaint is directed at a specific event, situation, product, result or service that does not meet expectations and the dissatisfied person makes a statement to whoever is responsible to see if amends can be made. These sorts of complaints are associated with someone who possesses a level of assertiveness, self-esteem and a modicum of confidence that he or she can effectively ask for and obtain what he/she wants.

The passive, chronic complaint is a different situation altogether.  As the designation suggests the complaint is less about a specific discrete situation and more, frankly speaking, about the person doing the complaining.  The subject of the complaint is generally a condition over which the complainer has little control. However, by complaining about it, the individual gets the sense of gaining some control over it and—erroneously—feels a kind of mastery over something that cannot be mastered.  A sort of satisfaction develops, albeit a negative one, when we complain; it’s as though we have ferreted out everything that’s wrong about a situation and made it public.  And by doing so, we have somehow conquered the unconquerable.

Then there’s the “in between” category” that is, venting.  Venting has its positive aspects as its negative aspects.   Sometimes, when one person finds a situation unacceptable and vents about it to a group of like-minded individuals, the possibility exists that the venting could evolve into a brain-storming session to take some action.  Additionally, being able to get something off your chest help lessen the grip of angry or frustrated feelings in the face of an untenable situation.  Of course, like everything, venting should be done in moderation; too much venting can label you a “whiner.”

Can A Chronic Complainer Lodge an Effective Complaint? 

One might assume that a chronic complainer may have the skills at hand to lodge an effective active complaint.  Paradoxically, the passive chronic complainer, when trying to assert a specific complain does so in a way that will nearly guarantee that she will not get her needs met.  Because the chronic complainer has a belief that she cannot get her needs met she will use tactics that put the target of the complaint on the defensive, refuse to consider any responsibility for the unsatisfactory situation and generally make all involved uncomfortable and unwilling to compromise.  But, they say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, you say?  Not always.  Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets replaced with one that doesn’t squeak much at all.  Being placated just so you will shut up is not the goal of an effective complaint.  Having your needs met is.

What Chronic Complaining Can Do To Us

Imagine that each situation that you encounter becomes an opportunity to find fault. This is one potential outcome to being a chronic complainer..  One can become quite vulnerable to imperfections and eventually feel as though little or nothing can bring any pleasure.  The effect that complaining has on one’s mood is also aversive in nature.  Exposing oneself to negativity regularly produces a negative mood state in which little or nothing could bring pleasure.  Thus the chronic complainer falls into a perpetual cycle of finding fault, complaining about it, feeling negative and unable to face the next situation with an open mind.  Eventually, the capacity for feeling simple joy is worn away and the ability to feel great joy is compromised.

What To Do About All This Complaining

Here is what to ask yourself to help stem the tide of the complaint cascade:

  • Is what I’m complaining about specific and contained or general and vague? Vague, general complaints usually refer to problems that have no solution, like the weather or Congress.
  • Are your complaints the same ones over and over? It is possible that repeating complaints is a way of gaining empathy that you do not feel you have or an oblique way to ask for help.
  • Are you afraid that if you don’t’ focus on the negative in any given situation, you will be unprepared for a big disappointment? Many people struggle with avoiding disappointment and taking the negative approach is one attempt to resolve this.  Unfortunately, this strategy prevents the person from fully experiencing any positive aspect that a situation could offer.

Important relationships can suffer when one person cannot find a way to let go of this negativistic approach to life and the other is striving for a more positive outlook.  Slowly by uncovering what it may be that leads you to feeling less optimistic about your life, or what sorts of rejections you feel you risk by showing how happy you can be, you can lessen the need to find fault and learn how to enjoy what’s there and roll with the punches.