Complaining: Why, why not, and how to give your head peace

Moaning, whinging, and bitching. It comes in many different guises, but one thing is for sure, we do it a lot. Giving out about things is a habit so engrained in us that we are not even aware of the extent to which we complain. It may seem harmless enough, but chronic complaining has the potential to be self-destructive, priming your brain towards the negative. And if positive affirmations have the potential to create a successful reality, chronic complaining may conversely set you up for a lifetime of being pissed off about things. On the other hand, complaining in many instances is a necessary strategy and if used effectively can help solve problems and create worthwhile change.

It’s worth exploring this phenomenon to better understand the different types of complaining and the motivations behind it. Lisa Juliano, Psy.D. on her Psychology Today blog, puts complaining into three different categories:

1) The Active Effective Complaint

An active complaint is directed at whoever is responsible for the dissatisfying situation or service. In this case, the complainer is actively seeking a solution to the problem. This can be constructive and is an important skill to develop. A lot of people, particularly in Ireland it seems, bottle up their dissatisfaction about something in order to avoid causing a scene. For instance, being overcharged at the supermarket or a meal being served cold at a restaurant. This in turn may perpetuate internal turmoil and distress. Active effective complaining means not being afraid to speak up. I need to battle my Irish genetic predisposition on this one and take after my mother who has never been afraid to make an effective complaint when necessary!


2) Venting

Venting is expressing a strong emotion to relieve the pressure that the emotion has caused. Everyone knows what it’s like to come home after a stressful day at work needing to vent to your partner or housemate, or to be on the receiving end. Venting is our own pressure relief valve and can be positive. Getting things off your chest can make you feel immediately better, allowing you to remove the emotional filter and view the situation with more clarity. The conversation can then constructively lead to finding a solution to the problem. Dr Michael Hurd suggests that a certain amount of venting can be appropriate and healthy, but will bring diminishing returns. We should not expect anything tangible to come from venting, unless it is ‘the prelude to a constructive thought’.

3) The Ineffective Complaint

This is certainly the most common and least useful type of complaining. This is the moaning and whining that does not lead to a positive outcome. In this case the subject of the complaint is beyond the control of the complainer. The ineffective complainer isn’t really seeking a solution to the problem, but is creating a mental state that manages disappointment. Complaining about the weather has never, as far as I know, helped to change the weather, and complaining to the referee rarely makes him change his mind. In a professional environment, constant ineffective complaining compromises your integrity.

“Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.” Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture.

But if ineffective complaining does not achieve positive change, why do we do it so much? Will Bowen, author of ‘A Complaint Free World’, offers five main reasons why people complain.

To start a conversation or establish camaraderie.

Ah, that’s why we complain about the weather!

To avoid taking action by shirking responsibility.

Finding blame elsewhere to avoid taking responsibility for making change.

To pre-excuse poor performance, behaviour or inaction.

‘Ah this hurling stick is a plank, no spring in it at all!’

To brag about superiority. 

These are cries of superiority, implying that the complainer knows better and that they have higher standards that are not being met by others. I see this one a lot in the ego-dominant world of professional sports, and, to put it scientifically, it does my head in. It can be explicit or quite subtle. Either way, it’s about making the complainer look better, usually at the expense of others. It can be easy to fall for this at first and perceive the complainer to have higher standards than everyone else. But if the complaint is not effectively and constructively presented in a manner that helps elicit positive action, do not fall for it, chances are it is self-serving and disingenuous.

To control others.

Complaining is used as a way to incite others to switch loyalties. For example, someone who perceives a colleague, boss or teammate to have wronged them may complain behind their back to turn others against them. I always try to make my mind up on someone based on my own beliefs and experiences rather than based on someone else’s judgement, which is clouded by their own biases and emotions.

Other reasons for ineffective complaining include;

To gain sympathy.

This type of complaint will not help solve any problems, but the complainer can take some comfort from the complaint if it results in sympathy and compassion towards them. ‘Oh my back is really sore’. Sometimes when there is no immediate solution at hand, the injured party will take something from the comfort of sympathy.

To be seen to be suffering.

As Dr. Hurd points out, suffering is an inevitable consequence in the journey of personal growth, but it should never be a goal in itself. Some people like to be seen to be suffering as if it is an accomplishment or sign of virtue. ‘Oh I’m so busy, I’m working 12 hour days and haven’t slept in a month.’

To reinforce a negative worldview. 

Here we have the pessimists who will complain about anything. Some people have honed the art of complaining so impressively that they see can find the downside in every situation. ‘Ah Galway are useless they never win. *Galway win the League*. Ah they’ll be over confident now and get hammered in Championship.’ With pessimists the glass is half empty and they will complain because they like to complain.

Complaining ineffectively can certainly damage our mental health in the long run. The accumulation of frustration and helplessness can add up over time, impacting our mood and self-esteem.

Here are a couple of strategies that can help us avoid this pitfall:

1) Firstly, be aware

Are you a chronic complainer? For the next couple of days take a mental or physical note every time you find yourself complaining about something, regardless of how seemingly innocuous it is. Don’t try to change anything yet, just notice.

2) When you are going to complain about something, ask yourself if it is an active effective complaint, or an ineffective complaint?

Is your complaint constructive and intended to find a solution, or is it motivated by one of the other reasons mentioned above? If it is the latter, pause to consider the negative psychological consequences of mindless complaining before you continue.

3) Journal regularly

Spending ten minutes every day journalling is an effective ‘mind dump’, getting all the frustrations that are swirling around inside your head out of your head. Clearing your mind allows for the clarity of thought which often leads to a better solution. It have often found it to be quite a therapeutic exercise, helping to change my current emotional state nearly immediately.

4) Develop a healthy sense of perspective

Of course, it is natural to complain when we are faced with real suffering, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional. However, chronic complaining tends to be needless and revolves around first world problems. If you are reading this, you probably have broadband, a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in, and enough food to keep you from going hungry. Appreciate what you have in life, and stop your whinging.

Author: Cairbre

Cairbre is the face behind Feed Me Strength. Currently the Head Strength and Conditioning coach for Arsenal Women FC. He has a passion for athletic performance and an endless curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind.

UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.

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