The Virtues of Complaining
Complaining gets a bad rap. We all know someone who just can’t stop telling us all the things that are wrong in their life. Maybe it’s tolerable for a little while if they’re particularly funny, but even that gets old pretty quickly.
Nothing’s more of a morale killer than incessant complaining about everything: the boss, the job, the paperwork, the clients. It’s non-stop too because there’s always plenty to complain about. It’s weird to see the virtue in complaining, but that’s what I’m going to attempt to show you here: How complaining can actually be helpful.
The Fear of Self-Pity
Whether we tolerate the Complainer or not, one thing is for certain we tell ourselves: we’re not going to become him. The idea that others might think of us the way we think of “that guy” is horrifying. But where does this intense hatred come from? Somewhere along the way we decided that “complaining” was not an acceptable personality trait. And there’s little sympathy for the person who was always complaining. This person was a perpetual victim. Nothing—nothing—was their fault, and nothing was in their control.
Honestly, you didn’t even want to spend too much time with this person.
What really got your goat was that it was pretty simple to come up with lots of good ideas for this person. If the complaining were strong enough and annoyed you enough, you’d devise a several step plan which would solve the problem and get the person into a new, positive environment—but The Complainer, as you quickly learned, didn’t want their problems solved. Gosh, if you did that, then they couldn’t engage in their favorite past time (umm…complaining.)
Because of this guy, complaining has gotten a pretty negative reputation. It’s up there with self-pity, something to be avoided at all costs.
We can’t remove this from masculinity (of course, it’s not just men who are doing the complaining, but that’s who I’m talking to today). Although it may have been a man, or several men, who were The Complainers in the past, men were supposed to solve problems, not complain about them. That’s part of our Man Code.
The patriarchy doesn’t want us “complaining”, though, because if we do it right, it may actually lead to change.
Sorting Through to the ‘Real Stuff’
The benefits of complaining come when we use it to sift through all the junk that lies on top of what’s really bothering us. People who avoid complaining and rush to problem solve miss the core of what the actual issue is: We rush to make changes because we don’t want to get caught in victimhood. But, if we don’t allow ourselves time and space to vomit out all the shitty stuff that lies on top, we’ll never get to the root of our issue and resolve that.
Unlike just about everything else in mental health, this is something that TV actually gets right a lot of the time. Often there’s an issue with character A and throughout the episode they’re acting a particular way (obsessing, brooding, etc.), they’re putting up fronts, they’re overly aggressive in their lawyering, they’re spending too much time on a cold case—and at the end of the episode we find out that they’re dealing with some grief, they’re worried about their kid, they’re suspecting their partner of cheating—there’s something that if they just sat down with someone and talked and talked and talked they’d realize their big issue before they brought it to the office. If they just had someone to complain to who would say, “Yes, AND look at this big, glaring, elephant that you’re missing. That’s what’s really holding you back!.”
A client who comes to me and allows himself to follow the “petty” complaint of someone cutting him off two days ago inevitably leads us to an underlying feeling that isn’t being expressed. Because—and here’s the secret to so much of mental health—once we can express the feeling (this is different from gaining “insight” which is still in the head and not the whole person), then we don’t have to carry it into different parts of our lives. Or, at least, it won’t carry as much weight. Our anger for the guy who cut us off can stay at a 3 and not go to a 15.
Complaining about how pissed you are that your friend is dying allows you to let out your sadness, yes, but also your anger (maybe, at your friend for dying), your fear (if he can die, so can I), and your helplessness. Sifting through all of that with someone else can give you the strength to be a support to him instead of making excuses to not go again, or telling yourself that you just can’t handle it.
Complaining about a job that you can’t leave can let you express some of those same feelings (helpless, anger) so they don’t come out at work. Because whom you do your complaining to means a lot too.
Complaining to the Right People
A call I often get is a guy whose wife or girlfriend or partner has told him that they are done with hearing him talk about something. Not “done” as if they don’t care, but they are tired of circling around the same issue again and again without coming up with any solutions. Or they’re tired of seeing that their husband/boyfriend is angry at them when they know he’s angry about something else. That’s when they tell him, “You need to go to therapy” and hopefully they’ve done it in a way that isn’t shaming, but actually makes it possible.
Your friends, partner, even your mom and dad may not know what to do with your complaints if you allow yourself to only complain to them. They may take the complaints personally, they may think it’s helpful to share how they’ve dealt with a problem, they may think it’s helpful to give you a step-by-step solution to your problem.
But none of that truly helps. It may feel ok in the moment, but you’re still left with all the stuff that’s underneath the complaining that you didn’t get to.
It’s tricky to artfully complain, but it’s possible and can much more easily get to the heart of the matter than all that you do to avoid becoming a Complainer.
The secret is to complain but not to stop there. Complain to someone who’ll listen, who’ll let you vent, will connect the dots with you, and lead you to what you need.
Find someone who can hear you complain without trying to solve your problems, but who pushes you to discover what’s underneath all the rubble.
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