My mother complained a lot. She had no idea how to respond to an abusive husband, how to sever a tie that she believed to be God’s wish and how to raise her children alone, with poverty and social stigma looming. As anecdotal evidence and scientific studies suggest, females tend to complain more than males*, a fact that seems to bother a great deal of people. So, the question is whether or not it is helpful to complain, a question that has been tackled by many scientists and lay people in recent years.
Popular author Eckhart Tolle, for example, said this,
“To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it.”
There are countless examples of opinions like these in the New Age literature, mostly, but not exclusively uttered by males. Scientific studies seem to support this increasingly popular take on complaining. One study by Amanda Rose shows that girls who complain to their peers are more susceptible to developing depression and anxiety, while boys, interestingly, simply bond more with their peers while complaining.**
Because absolutist positions rub me the wrong way, I have given this anti-complaining campaign some thought. What came to mind first was a person in power wishing to keep his subordinates quiet, an absolute monarch his subjects, a plantation owner his slaves, a patriarch his wife and daughters. Surely it would be best if a subordinate in a dismal situation could rise and speak up appropriately and effectively. But what if the abused person’s hands are tied? What if the cost of action is too high or is perceived as too high? What if the person sees no venue? It makes no sense to me and actually feels morally reprehensible to ask those who are or feel victimized to accept their abuse.
Surely, some people complain out of bad habit. Everybody knows somebody who complains for the sake of maintaining the status quo or because projecting out the bad feels good. Yet, I contest, many people complain because they wish to receive social support for a situation in which action is not or doesn’t appear to be a viable option at that time.
Instead of seeing complaining as unhealthy, we can see it as a first step towards action. With time and skill, a wimpy whine can turn into a louder, more organized voice. A repetitive, self-serving complaint might elicit a response by another, provoking a more serious discussion, a more adaptive response or perspective. Let me share here four ways of how to take that next step and turn that which appears to be hay into precious gold:
1. Clarify why you complain
When you catch yourself complain, ask what your motivation is. What do you wish to accomplish when you complain? Do you just want to vent or are you in need of recognition or ways to change things? If you enjoy complaining for the sake of it, let it go and direct your attention onto something more worthwhile. Otherwise:
2. Switch from a passive to an active stance
Instead of merely listing things that you find troubling, turn inward and listen to what emotions or physical sensations are hidden behind your words. Try to simplify by expressing in a few words your actual experience, such as, “I feel sad (helpless, angry, hurt, afraid, appalled, or pained).” This introspection is facilitated by mindfulness meditation which is part of many current psychological approaches, such as Zen Psychology Therapy (www.AUnifiedTheoryofHappiness.com). A study by Bauer and Bonanno showed that grieving people who expressed just one negative feeling about their personality, shortened their suffering significantly. Sometimes observing or stating your experience suffices; other times you need to also:
3. Ask yourself what exactly stops you from changing the situation
When you ask questions like this one, you may just begin to observe yourself more keenly and, subsequently, discover opportunities. You might identify a little thing you can do immediately that can trigger an avalanche of change. It is possible you stand in your own way, lacking courage, skill or the right support. Take responsibility for what is keeping you from taking action. Mostly in life we can change only ourselves. If your obstacle is external, such as racial and gender discrimination, you might help yourself best by joining a group of like-minded people. However, whatever you decide, do not become eaten up by your own complaints and:
4. Proceed with moderation
Why is it that boys seem to gain more support from complaining than girls as the study by Amanda Rose suggests? The researcher suggests that boys abstain from taking too much responsibility for their predicament while girls often do. Do not exaggerate your role or, for that matter, the importance of your predicament. Along these lines, while Bauer and Bonanno found that expressing one negative feeling helped the grieving process, expressing none or more did not. Moderation seems to be the answer for many life problems.
On the whole, I think it is not so much a question if we should complain, but if we learn from our complaints. I know my mother did. Eventually she overcame her fears, took responsibility and acted by leaving a very bad situation. Who would have known when she took her first wimpy step of complaining though? And who are we to judge anyhow?