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No One Likes a Complainer. Here's Why.

Some complaints are totally justified. Others just lead to self-sabotage.

By Lisa Juliano, Psy.D.

Source: Mooshny/Shutterstock

We all know someone who always seems to be complaining about something. That someone might even be you.

If you do complain too much, your friends and family have probably already told you so. But if you’re not sure, here are a few road markers:

  1. Nothing seems good enough.
  2. You expect the worst, or if not the worst, you expect disappointment.
  3. You’re a little perplexed by those who seem cheery most of the time.

Not all complaints are created equal, and they can be broken down into three categories:

  1. The Active Effective Complaint

    An active complaint is directed at a specific event, situation, or service that does not meet expectations. The dissatisfied person, the “complainer,” makes a statement to whoever is responsible. An “active complainer” is usually someone who possesses a level of assertiveness, self-esteem, and confidence—they effectively ask for and obtain what they want.

  2. Venting

    Then there’s venting. Venting is expressing a strong emotion to relieve the pressure that the emotion has caused. It has both positive and negative aspects. When a person vents about a distressing situation to a group of like-minded individuals, it has the potential to evolve into a brainstorming session that results in taking action. In addition, getting something off your chest can lessen the grip of angry or frustrated feelings. But constant venting with no action taken can turn into whining.

  3. The Ineffective Complaint

    The ineffective complaint is different altogether. The subject of the complaint is sometimes a condition over which the complainer has little control. However, by complaining about it, the individual gets the sense of gaining some control and—erroneously—feels mastery over something that cannot be mastered.

    Ineffective complainers often see the glass as half-empty to protect themselves from disappointment. Their complaints are not so much about changing a situation, but more about creating a mental state—the complainer manages disappointment by setting their expectations quite low. For example, an actor who has been struggling with booking jobs might complain that auditions are never fair.

How an Ineffective Complainer Can Self-Sabotage

The ineffective complainer, when asserting a specific complaint, often does so in a way that nearly guarantees they will not get their needs met. This person believes, usually out of awareness, that they will be frustrated. So, without realizing it, they use tactics that put people on the defensive. For example, they may behave childishly when lodging a complaint, make unrealistic demands, or choose a less appropriate time to make the complaint. When they don’t get what they want, the belief that they can never get satisfaction is reinforced.

Last year, my patient, "Emma," wanted a salary raise. Because she was anxious and expected her boss to deny her, she went into the meeting with what she later described as a “whiny little kid” demeanor. Rather than detailing the reasons she deserved a higher salary, she argued her case by telling her boss, “Everyone knows you have the money.”

She did not get her raise.

What Chronic Complaining Can Do to You

For chronic complainers, each situation becomes an opportunity to find fault. Eventually, this drains life of pleasure. Chronic complaining can also affect mood by producing a negative mood state. Thus the chronic complainer falls into a perpetual cycle of finding fault, feeling negative, and then being unable to face the next situation with an open mind. Eventually, the capacity for feeling joy is compromised. Emma recognizes this and wants to change it.

What Can You Do About Complaining?

Ask yourself these questions to stem the tide of the complaint cascade:

  1. Is my complaint specific and contained or general and vague? Vague, general complaints usually refer to problems that have no solution, like the weather.
  2. Are your complaints the same ones over and over? It might be that your complaints are a way of getting empathy, or an indirect way of asking for help.
  3. Are you afraid that if you don’t focus on the negative in a situation, you will be unprepared for a major disappointment? This strategy prevents a person from fully experiencing the positive aspects a situation might offer.

We all complain at times. However, if you feel you like you are complaining all the time but getting nowhere, it might be time to talk to a therapist. Exploring your complaints can help uncover the underlying feelings that lead to this behavior, and perhaps offer the possibility for increased satisfaction.

Basil Rodericks, used with permission
Source: Basil Rodericks, used with permission

Lisa M. Juliano, Psy.D., is a graduate of the William Alanson White Institute and works in private practice in New York City. She provides adult individual psychotherapy primarily, but not limited to, the psychological issues of the creative artist. She also works with couples, both gay and straight. In addition, Lisa offers bariatric surgery patients pre-surgical psychological evaluations and post-surgical counseling. Please visit her website.

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