Complaining: Are You Sounding Like a Downer?

If you are a complainer you may inadvertently be driving people away.

Posted Sep 25, 2017

Marcus Spiske/Pexels
Source: Marcus Spiske/Pexels

I got on the elevator of our building this morning and a woman rushed to the elevator door to get on. I was happy to hold the door for her and wished her a “good morning.” She was initially quite pleasant and then she proceeded to complain about everything that came to her mind—it was humid, hot, it gets hot then the air conditioning makes you sick, you get sick and then it just drags on, etc. I am sure she didn’t realize how negative she seemed since some people often “connect” through their complaining. In fact, sometimes people try to outdo each other with how bad things are. But if you are a complainer you may inadvertently be driving people away.

A number of my patients have complained about the complainers to me. I know that I am complaining about them, as well, so I hope that I can turn this around to something positive.

What does the complainer want?

See if you identify yourself or someone you know with any of the following:

  • Hi. It’s a terrible day, isn’t it?
  • You think that’s bad. How about this?
  • I can’t believe that….
  • I just heard…. 

What drives people to complain so much? What are they looking for? Let’s look at the different styles of complaining.

  1. Habitual Venting: One factor is that things can be really bad and so it’s natural to vent your feelings. But some complaining is like habitual, addictive venting. This style becomes a habit that seems to take over whenever someone is frustrated. The venter believes in catharsis—“I have to get it all out to get past it."
  2. Rumination: This is a common style of complaining where a friend just keeps going over the same complaints—over and over. It’s as if their mind has its wheels stuck in mud and it keeps spinning. This person believes that they have to pay attention to every negative thought that intrudes on their mind. And then tell you about it.
  3. Validation-seeking: This style is based on the idea that I need other people to validate all of my complaints. “If you understood me, you would agree—and complain with me." This person often tests others to see if they will agree with the idea that life is miserable for them. If you don’t agree, they may complain about you.
  4. Grabbing the floor: This style is used by someone who interrupts other people with a complaint that everyone needs to pay attention to. This is a style based on “I will out-flank other people in misery.” You have to pay attention.
  5. I’m a bigger victim: This is an often dramatic, attention-getting style where the person feels the need to be viewed as a bigger victim or martyr than other people. This is often a self-defeating style that leads people to focus over and over on how unfair life is.

How to Turn Complaining Around

If you or someone you care about is stuck in the complaining style, consider the unintended consequences. First, the more you complain the more you are stuck on negative feelings. The more you dwell on negatives the more things seem worse. Second, the more you complain the more negative you seem to other people. They might not want to hear these complaints. And, third, if you alienate your friends you will have something else to complain about.

What can you do?

  • Keep track of your complaining for a week. Is there a pattern? Do you complain more around some people than around others?
  • Are you complaining about the same things over and over? How will this help?
  • What do you hope to get from the complaining? Feeling understood, venting, connecting with other people? Is it really working to your benefit?
  • How do other people experience this? Is this what you want?
  • Rather than complain, consider either saying something positive, asking about the other person, or talking about something that you are doing. Or, try saying nothing.
  • Do you need to accept some frustration, rather than complain about it?
  • Can you turn complaining into solving problems?

Ironically, people who complain often end up with more to complain about. Once you open the complaints files there is no end to the misery that you can experience.

Look in a different file.


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