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Why Complaining Rarely Gets You What You Want

... and the 3 questions to ask yourself to get what you need.

Minerva Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

There are many reasons why complaining is a bad habit: It puts you in a bad mood. It keeps you focused on flaws and problems. It makes you sound suspicious and distrustful. It annoys the people who have to listen, or makes them feel that they are incompetent and unhelpful. Overall, complaining makes life feel like an ordeal instead of a gift, for both givers and receivers.

The biggest problem with complaining is that it doesn’t always get to the heart of the matter. In fact, it may distract you from what you really need to be thinking about. Instead, it keeps you busy ruminating about how horrible your life is, blaming others for it, and shutting down any hope for a different future.

Complaining is the verbal expression of negativity, a pervasive, self-imposed, unfavorable view of the world. Complaints fall into three categories—self-pity, judging, and warning. What determines the type of complaining we do depends on whether our negative narrative is focused on ourselves, on other people, or on our fears about the future.

  • Self-pity. Self-pity involves bemoaning. This type of complaining focuses on how tough, unfair, and unforgiving life has been. Favorite topics for discussion include how disappointed you may be in yourself, how little appreciation and recognition you get for your efforts, and how unlucky you are with anything you try. Feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, and unloved often could put you in a chronically bad mood. Self-pity aims to get you sympathy and validation.
  • Judging. This type of complaining focuses on criticizing and condemning others and revealing their flaws and shortcomings. Favorite topics include talking about how incompetent, dumb, arrogant, or flaky other people are. Anyone who doesn’t meet your arbitrary standards of excellence could become a target of scorn and ridicule. Sometimes, you deliver your judgments indirectly, as jokes, sarcasm, or even constructive feedback. Negativity, however, is negativity, regardless of how you serve it. Criticizers like agreement. If anyone doesn’t agree with you, there must be something wrong with them.
  • Warning. This type of complaining involves catastrophizingreacting excessively to normal events. You are constantly worried about consequences. You tend to make negative predictions. Where other people see safety, you see risk and danger, and you make it your mission to warn and protect them from what they can’t see: Beware! The economy is tanking! Unemployment is soaring! Crime is on the rise! Politicians are corrupt! The most likely reason for engaging in this type of complaining is to find someone to share gloomy prophecies with and be scared together.

The truth is we have all tasted and served all three varieties of negativity. We have all complained in the past and we will do it again in the future. Complaining is robust. It has survived time. And while it is not a good predictor of success, there is one big advantage to complaining.

Whether we complain about ourselves or others, whether the negativity manifests as self-pity, criticism of others, or ominous predictions about the future, the reason why people complain is always the same: We complain when we are not getting what we want. Behind every complaint, then, lies an unfulfilled goal—and that is the key to undoing complaining.

Some people find complaining cathartic. They may enjoy venting about the things that bother them. Nevertheless, when all they do is complain, they have only done half the work. Complaining alone does not change anyone’s life. You have to do something more about it.

Complaining is the beginning of the problem-solving process. It moves the spotlight on the pain points. It prompts you to explore and discover the reason behind the incessant rant. It makes you become aware of your unmet needs, your unfulfilled desires, and your goals that remain unaccomplished.

How can you make complaining work for you? To start, every time you complain about something, ask yourself three questions:

  1. What am I complaining about?
  2. What do I want that I am not getting?
  3. How can I get what I want?

The answers to these questions will give you relief from complaining. They will also help you shift your focus from wallowing in negativity to creating meaningful goals that you can work toward, so you can get what you want. Begin to notice the things that you complain about the most. Discover what the unfulfilled desire behind the complaining might be. What are the things you want and are not getting? And lastly, what can you do to acquire or achieve them?

To learn more about how dreamers become achievers, check out Brainblocks: Overcoming the 7 Hidden Barriers to Success (Penguin, 2015).

If you don’t have time to read an entire book but still want to know how the brainblocks prevent dreamers from becoming achievers, check this out.

And if procrastination is getting in the way of doing either, get a free copy of my ebook Getting Things Done SOONERR™!