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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

"Un-Whining" Your Life

Making complaints work for you

"It's tough getting old!" is a familiar refrain among the Forever Young generation. "What's the world coming to?" is another on the list of growing concerns as we age.

Some of us worry about our future -- healthcare, social security and dementia. Others focus on larger issues -- fiscal cliffs, global warming and terrorism. Many simply long for the good ole days when Life in the Fast Lane was a great lyric, not a description of a race we didn't expect to be running.

These are the concerns facing Baby Boomers as they struggle with the reality of aging in a youth-obsessed culture. Turning 60 myself, I'm not unfamiliar with my generation's worries, nor guilt free when it comes to whining about them. But does all the complaining actually help?

Some believe it can provide a bit of stress relief. Others say it helps them feel less alone. But habitual whining can actually have the opposite effect. Not only does it become boring to the complainer, but it can be irritating to others. How many of us swore we would never be one of those 'Grumpy Old Men (or women!), yet find ourselves heading toward just that?

I suggest "Un-Whining," a new tactic to deal with the urge to complain. It's based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a technique shown effective in undoing maladaptive habits. By challenging the thoughts and feelings attached to dysfunctional behavior, it offers alternatives that can result in more positive reactions.

Keep in mind, this process is not about denying reality or adopting wishful thinking. Nor do I encourage stoicism or martyrdom. In my psychotherapy practice, I urge my patients to speak freely about everything -- while suspending all judgement -- so that we can identify and understand what's on their mind. I tell them that sharing their troubles isn't whining, unless they get stuck and dwell on them. Good therapeutic work is focused on using complaints to learn how to deal with them productively and move forward.

Here are the five steps to un-whining followed by an explanation of the psychology behind this process.

  1. Identify the discomfort when you feel a complaint coming on.
    "Something is bothering me and deserves my attention."
  2. Consider an alternative proactive behavior instead of lamenting out loud.
    "Is there anything I can do that will alleviate my discomfort?"
  3. Tolerate the discomfort temporarily if no action can be taken right away.
    "Can I hang in there until I figure out a solution?"
  4. Shift expectations of yourself and others to lower the bar.
    "If I make some internal adjustments, perhaps my discomfort will be more tolerable."
  5. Think long-term change to avoid future complaints.
    "Perhaps I can alter my situation so that the discomfort is less likely to occur in the future."

To see how this works, let's apply the steps to a common complaint, like "my aching shoulder."

  • Identifying the discomfort: I just played tennis and developed a pain in my shoulder that I've not had before. I take a moment to pay attention to what I feel, thinking "my shoulder is killing me." I listen to the complaint in my head with the kind of concern I would if I heard a close friend was hurt. I say to myself empathically, "It's understandable that I'm bothered by this ache, what a bummer." While I may give myself the chance to feel "ow" and think "this really hurts," I quickly move on toward, "Now what?"
  • Being proactive: My next thought is, "Is there anything I can do immediately to relieve my discomfort?" Regarding my shoulder -- I can ice it, take two Advil and make an appointment for physical therapy. Often there is some immediate action we can take that responds directly to a complaint. This doesn't only apply to physical aches and pains, but emotional and interpersonal ones as well. Let's say I had a disagreement with a friend; I might consider phoning them to resolve it rather than simply voicing my irritation to someone else. A productive action makes us feel like we are taking charge of our discomforts rather than being passively victimized by them.
  • Tolerating frustration: A certain amount of physical or psychological pain is often more tolerable than we think. Of course it depends on the severity of the problem, but many discomforts gradually diminish or disappear over time. Announcing that I'm hurt and focusing on the pain is not as helpful to me as saying to myself that "My shoulder is bothering me, but it's very likely that it will get better." It's not about simply gritting my teeth and bearing pain. On the contrary, it's about taking time to think about solutions (or if necessary, eliciting help from others) rather than voicing discomforts out of habit. Besides, eternal satisfaction is an unrealistic goal, perpetuated by a culture that promotes non-stop happiness. Unless we learn to tolerate some frustration in life, we set ourselves up to be whiners.
  • Shifting expectations: Life is a series of adjustments. Sooner or later, we will all experience physical and cognitive changes that come with age. Some confront these losses earlier, some more dramatically than others. Sometimes the most challenging changes are the ones among our loved ones. But we all have to adjust our expectations to avoid feeling chronically disappointed. If my shoulder hurts, I think, "Maybe I overused it?" Or "Perhaps I'm not as strong as I once was." I consider the possibility that I may have to take a break from tennis or play doubles instead of singles to avoid stressing my shoulder. Unless we balance the desire to maintain vitality with accepting increasing limitations, we will lose our battle with the aging process.
  • Making long-term change: Some discomforts require the broader, longer view on life. It may mean shifts in our environment, relationships or lifestyle. If my shoulder can't tolerate the repeated motion required to play tennis, perhaps I have to use less topspin, serve underhand or even begin thinking of an alternative sport. If I'm unwilling to consider taking the long-range perspective, I'll put myself in the position of feeling chronic pain. Changing my outlook on the sport I love will lead to changes in my behavior that will likely result in fewer complaints. Taking this long view -- both on and off the court -- is especially important in order to keep the activities and people we feel passionate about from becoming a source of increasing unhappiness.

I view chronic complaining as a learned habit. Breaking it (like most maladaptive behaviors) takes practice. "Un-whining' requires repeating these 5 steps over and over in order to develop alternative behavior patterns that are more effective. Once the new habit is formed, it will be reinforced by the positive reaction it evokes. Try it and see.

The good news is that we are all living longer. The not so good news is that longevity brings aches and pains along the way. Let's think of "un-whining" as yet another challenge that our generation can overcome. Sure, complaining can provide us an opportunity to release some negativity. It may even help us feel connected to one another as we share our grievances. But it seems to me that turning complaints into positive actions may serve us all more in the end.

Do you think "un-whining" may be helpful to you and others? If so, pass it forward and tell us how it goes.

Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change(2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at Friend me on Facebook (at or continue the conversation on Twitter.

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