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How to Stop Complaining

Do's and don'ts for coping with and helping the chronic complainer.

We all complain at times. Kids complain about their friends who didn’t talk to them at lunch, the teacher who was mean, the little brother who is always in their stuff, the science project that is so stupid. And we adults complain about our boss’ attitude, the work schedule, our partner always being late, about not having enough sex, or … about our partner always complaining.

But for some folks, complaining seems to be a way of life. It's their default communication, from their opening comments when they hit the door at 6 till they finally fall asleep (and then complain the next morning about how poorly they slept), they never seem to stop. Being around such chronic complainers can be draining, annoying, frustrating. Why can’t they stop already?

They probably can’t for a few reasons. Like most problems, there are other problems afoot driving it. Here are the common sources:

We complain as a way of relieving stress

This is what most of us are doing when we are complaining—we’re venting, saying to those close to us who we can drop our guard with, about life’s stressors that have been building up inside us. So, our kids complain about the mean teacher, we rant about our boss and the schedule, yap to our best friend about the sorry state of our sex life. Just by getting our disappointments, frustrations, angst out and feeling heard, we feel better.

We complain because we can’t solve the problem

Tom complains about his boss because he feels trapped in his job. Your son complains about his science project because he feels overwhelmed. When you’re feeling trapped and can’t see other options, when you feel anxious or hurt and lack the skills to solve the problem, or the courage to act, you fall into complaining.

We complain because we are depressed

The glass is always half-empty, the skies are always gray, we're stuck at the bottom of a well with no way out. Depression saps our energy, makes us see only all that not good, we expect only more of the same and develop a why-bother stance. We complain because that is all we feel we can do.

We complain because it is part of a family or relationship culture

This is fueled by all of the above, but here we are talking about role models from childhood where parents were always complaining, creating a steady negative climate that we take into our own psyche. We’re also talking about couples or families who have developed for a lot of good reasons a hyper-vigilant, hyper negative you-and-me-against-the-world stance where the world truly feels unsafe, where others are out to get you and can never be trusted. Complaining for them isn't complaining but merely commenting on the obvious.

We complain because of secondary gains: it's our primary way of getting attention

The child who is not as smart as his brother, not as athletic as his sister has to find other ways of gaining attention in the family. Complaining, being the family Eeyore may turn out to be one of the few ways the child feels he gets attention, sympathy, support. It can work for the child, it can work in an adult relationship.

Don’ts: What not to do

Because other’s complaining can feel so emotionally toxic, especially when we ourselves are stressed, it doesn't take much for their complaining and our negative response to set off a negative cycle that just makes it all worse. Here’s what not to do:

Don’t complain about complaining

Here’s where you want to tell your partner to just stop talking about the work schedule and take a chill pill, where your daughter's whining about lunch makes you roll your eyes and want to say stop already it was only lunch. Try not to do this. The person who is complaining generally has tunnel-vision at the moment. While you want to push them to see that they are losing perspective, that this is truly a first-world problem, they can’t do that then. Your complaints about their complaining are likely to just further fuel their own distress, make them feel judged and hurt, resulting in more irritation or negativity.

If you can’t be supportive in the moment because of your own stress, say so, then follow your own advice and find ways to chill.

Don’t offer the same advice over and over

Yes, you want to help; you think you can see the solution to the problem that they can’t. That’s fine. But if you already offered your advice—to talk to the boss, the friend—and it goes nowhere, don’t keep going down that road. It obviously isn’t working; you and they are just getting frustrated by having the same unhelpful conversation.

Don’t make too big a deal about it

You want to be supportive and sympathetic when your child, partner, or friend complains, but don’t turn it into a three-hour drama complete with heavy sighs and coddling, especially if this happens on a regular basis. If you do, there is a danger of fueling that secondary gain where this is what we do best. It can quickly fall into a behavioral and emotional pattern that is hard to break and keeps the complaining going.


Do listen

The first-aid for complaining is simple yet focused listening. Let the person vent, tell their story. Resist the urge to give advice and solve the problem. (This is the classic male / female split and source of frustration where guys want to jump in and fix the problem while their partners want them to just listen: both wind up feeling frustrated.) Once they've calmed down, your job for the moment is done.

Do circle back about talk about the problem

When the emotional climate has changed and the other person is less grumpy, this is the time to circle back and try and have a sane and rational conversation about the problem. Here you talk to your child the next day about how to tackle the science project or deal with the friend; here you talk to your partner about possible ways of approaching the boss, or about her talking to HR, or you both working together to help him find a different job. The key is to keep this conversation separate from the initial venting.

Do talk about the larger pattern, i.e., the complaining

Here you are trying to resolve the meta-problem, the steady complaining itself. You're not going to be talking about the science project or the job but your concern that the other person always seems to be unhappy. Your goal is to help them drill down and find out what might be driving it; Are they depressed, are there bigger problems in the family or the relationship that are not being addressed, is there something that they need most when they feel this way that you can do that will make a real difference? Ask.

Do focus on the positive

When your child is not complaining about the teacher or friend, your partner about the job, or when they take active steps to fix the problem, take note and now make a big deal about it. And be a role model yourself for positiveness. By proactively trying to change the climate in the house and the relationship, you can avoid or break that secondary gain and negative patterns.

And if you are a complainer who wants to stop

If you realize that yes, you do complain a lot and see that it is bringing down those close to you, it may be time for you to drill into the source of your own state of affairs. Are you depressed, feeling trapped, not sure how to solve the problems, or have given up, are not getting enough positive feedback and support in your relationships?

If so, work on these underlying problems. Get some therapy and/or check into medication; have those difficult but important conversations that you have been avoiding.

Take action to begin to put these problems to rest.