Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

Constant Complaining: Does It Serve Us Well?

Our everyday complaints add stress and dissatisfaction to our lives.

One of the major sources of dissatisfaction and stress in our lives is our ongoing desire to control what happens to us—to get what we want and get rid of what we don't want. I refer to this type of desire as the state of “want/don’t-want.” I thought it would be interesting to see just how much control we have over our circumstances. With that in mind, let’s start complaining about our lives!

“Complaint” is a good word to describe those circumstances of our lives that we wish were different, whether we’re dissatisfied about the small stuff (can’t find the sock in the dryer) or the more important stuff (how someone treats us). Even if a complaint is justified (the neighbor’s dog barks too much), it’s still a complaint in the sense that we're not getting our way. The purpose of becoming aware of our complaints is to help us recognize how they add stress and dissatisfaction to our lives and to begin to see what it would feel like to let go of them.

So, go for it—make a list of your current complaints. Here’s a sample list:

  1. I don’t want to get old.
  2. My partner is always complaining. (Notice the irony in that complaint!)
  3. I haven’t moved for 20 minutes on this [censored] freeway.
  4. I hate being in constant physical pain.
  5. Government is wasteful and inefficient.
  6. My kids should call me more often.
  7. I’m put on hold for way too long whenever I call [fill in the blank].
  8. I hate the lack of manners in the younger generation.

Don’t judge yourself negatively over the length of your list. That is, don’t complain that your list of complaints is too long! If you do that you’ll get caught up in self-critical thoughts that will keep you from reaping the benefits of this exercise. It’s just a list of your complaints. Hold it lightly.

Now go through your list and separate it into three parts: (1) those complaints involving circumstances over which you have no control; (2) those complaints involving circumstances over which you might have some control; (3) those complaints involving circumstances over which you have total control. It’s highly likely that none of your complaints will fall under (3).

The issue here is not whether your complaints are justified. Justified or not, they’re still a source of dissatisfaction and suffering because complaints reflect your desire for your life and the world to be different than they are. Here’s how I’d divide up my sample list:

No control

If this were my list (honestly, it’s not—well not all of it!), I’d say that I have no control over numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, and 8. That’s over half the items on the list! These five involve conditions in my life and in the world that aren’t within my power to change. I can change my response to these five conditions (and that will definitely reduce my suffering), but I can’t change the bare facts of these circumstances.

  • My inability to control #1 is self-evident. I will get old.
  • As for #3, I can’t control the flow of freeway traffic. It is what it is. Maybe there was an accident ahead. Accidents happen. Getting angry or frustrated won’t clear up the traffic any sooner.
  • As for #5, all governments are inefficient and wasteful to some degree. In my opinion, it’s a waste of energy to complain about it. Besides, if I reflect on this complaint, I can find lots of ways in which government works very well, especially compared to many other places in the world. For example, I’d not get very far out of my driveway without the services that government provides, like regulating the quality of gasoline so my car will start, paving the roads, determining safe speed limits, maintaining traffic lights, and hiring police to make sure everyone observes the rules of the road.
  • As for #7, I can’t control how long I’ll be put on hold, although maybe if I brought a snack and something to read to keep me company while I waited, my complaint wouldn’t be such a source of stress.
  • As for #8, no amount of complaining will change the manners of the younger generation. Besides, doesn’t every generation complain about the generations coming up behind it? My older relatives complained about the lack of manners in my generation!

Look over your own “no control” list. Can you see that holding onto complaints over which you have no control increases your suffering by making you more stressed, anxious, dissatisfied, and unhappy? Are you able to question the validity of the assumptions you're making regarding any of your complaints? If so, does that questioning reveal that the complaint might not be wholly justified (for example, the inefficiency of government and the poor manners of the younger generation)?

Are there any items on your list that, seeing you have no control over, you’re able to let go of? If “yes,” how does letting go feel? Whenever, I use that phrase, “letting go,” I think of the words of the Thai Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah:

If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.

Total control

I don’t see anything on the list over which I could claim total control.

Partial control

That leaves three items on the list, and I’m not convinced that some of them wouldn’t fit better under “no control.” If this were your list, first, recognize that, at best, you only have partial control over these complaints. That should encourage you to consider letting go of them. If this were my list, here's how I'd analyze it:

  • As for #2, what are the chances that complaining about my complaining partner will make him complain less?
  • As for # 4, does it lessen my physical pain to hate it? On the contrary, it could intensify it because stressful emotions, such as hatred and anger, often lead us to tighten secondary muscles around the points of pain, increasing our overall pain load.
  • As for #6, is it worth making myself miserable over my kids not calling often enough for my liking when I don’t control their fingers and therefore can’t possibly make them push those buttons that comprise my phone number?

Because I’ve categorized these three under “partial control,” it’s worth thinking about what kind of skillful action might lessen these complaints—which would, in turn, ease our suffering. I define “skillful action” as speech or action that relieves suffering and enhances well-being in ourselves or others. It helps to first acknowledge, without judgment, that things are as they are: a complaining partner, the presence of physical pain, kids who don’t call often. This non-judgmental assessment provides an opportunity for some dispassionate problem-solving.

  • Could I try some strategies with my partner that are known to be effective in reducing complaining, such as validating his feelings? Some examples: “It’s so frustrating when a computer crashes”; or “Work must be really hard right now.” If his complaining is about me, could I raise the idea of couples therapy?
  • Could I get a referral to a pain clinic or try some of the mindfulness-based practices that are specifically intended to help reduce pain?
  • Could I pick up the phone and call my kids myself?

Once we become mindful of our tendency to complain, we can begin to see that our peace and contentment don’t depend on controlling every circumstance we find ourselves in; they depend on learning to respond skillfully to those circumstances.

When we truly recognize that we have no control over most of our complaints, it’s easier to accept that many of our desires will go unfulfilled and many of our experiences simply won’t be to our liking. Acknowledging and accepting this, we can begin to take those unpleasant experiences in stride. When we do, we’re likely to find that our tendency to complain subsides. What a relief that would be!

Note: The theme of "complaints" is expanded on in Chapter 2 ("Can't Get No Satisfaction") of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow

You might also like my article "Taming the Want Monster."

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. To receive an email the next time I post, click here. I'm active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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