Can you think of someone who complains chronically? Most of us can. Being around that person probably takes a toll on your energy. If you don’t know a complainer, you’re probably a complainer too. Instead of complaining about that person in your head or to other people, here are some suggestions on how to reframe the way you see them and ultimately interact with them.
I break complainers into three categories:
- Habitual complainers- they are the most draining. They don’t realize that they are complaining and are not seeking a solution. Habitual complainers feel powerless in areas of their lives; complaints are an expression of their victimhood and a way to release circular energy.
- Social complainers- people who complain to connect with others. They can be funny and use complaining as a vehicle for humor. Think Seinfeld. Amusing complaints are gossip dressed up as a concern with magnetic negative bonding power. Complain to someone about an issue at your child’s school and instant bond when they agree with you. Exaggeration is a technique that social complainers use to engage their audience.
- Coachable complainers- the last category I have come across are coachable complainers. You can sense that they are uncomfortable in the limbo of a complaint but cannot see a clear pathway ahead. They want to move into action, and their complaint is, in fact, a question.
I am an expert in the area of complaints because I am a recovering complainer who has transited all three categories in my forty-four-year history. Choosing not to complain is a work in progress, and I occasionally relapse when I am tired.
My complaining has evolved over the years, getting craftier as I grow.
It began as a child when I was powerless over situations that occurred in my household. Years after I stopped being a victim, my mentality would not relinquish the role. In my 20s I felt like a pinball, and my complaints were an expression of my immature psychology. Craving attention and love, I would suck the life out of anyone who would listen to me. I had a boyfriend use that exact phrase as he broke up with me. When I got sober in my 30s and learned how to take action, my complaining improved but my new pattern was to notice everything that was flawed in a situation or person. The more work I did on myself, the more harshly I critiqued others who were not living an examined life. These assessments manifested as complaints. My mentality embodied the saying,” When you point one finger, three fingers are pointing back at you.” I couldn’t stand people who reminded me of the way I used to be. It became necessary to take a closer look at my position when I couldn’t sustain prolonged periods of inner peace.
Around the same time, I started doing intense work within the EC and Landmark Education. I had a crucial breakthrough around my complaining after a conversation with a woman who I befriended in the EC. She told me flat out that I complained a lot. Typically, this type of comment would spark my temper, but her delivery was almost complimentary, so it threw me off. My friend went on to say that she listened carefully to my complaints to understand what I cared about. From my complaints, she extracted my core values of integrity, authenticity, and growth. She noticed that any person or environment that didn’t reflect these qualities caused a complaint to bubble up inside me. She went on to say that there was only one thing to do with a complaint; address it directly with the person or institution who could do something about it.
Blown away by this exchange, I started becoming more conscious of my complaining. The conversation also started shaping the way I listened to other’s complaints. When you turn a complaint inside out, it always exposes someone’s core values and reflecting those back to a person gives their battery a charge.
How to deal with people in each category who you know and love requires a different touch.
If someone is a habitual complainer, more in-depth work to resolve whatever caused them to feel like a victim may be necessary. Shame, a dominating quality of victimhood, is quicksand. You can’t get out of quicksand on your own; you need someone to pull you out with a rope. A habitual complainer may need to venture back into their history before baby steps forward become a consideration. I love this video by Mel Robbins about how to handle draining relationships:
The social complainer probably isn’t interested in a solution if they receive positive feedback for their complaints. I have a few social complainer friends who are amusing for short periods of time. The amount of time I spend with them is crucial. If I am not careful, I can get sucked into their mindset quickly. Humor is seductive, making you feel connected while masking the content. From time to time, I will ask if the issue in their monologue seriously bothers them to create an opening for a more meaningful conversation. People become ready to grow on their own time, so never count anyone out.
The category of complaining that you can affect the most change in is the third one, the coachable complainer. Right-sized suggestions are critical in this scenario, otherwise known as the “Goldilocks Principle.” The principle is based on the part of the children’s story when Goldilocks samples the three bowls of porridge, and one is too hot, the other too cold and one is just right. For people to advance, advice has to fall between specific margins. Anything too extreme can be overwhelming and cause instant paralysis, anything too small enables their current condition. Here is a detailed explanation of the Goldilocks Principle:
This weekend I experienced my daughter being in a complaint. Instead of pulling her aside right away, I got triggered by her whining and responded in a snippy voice, threatening to take away her iPad which only made her complain more. Pulling the car off the highway to deal with a complaint immediately is imperative. As our interaction rapidly deteriorated, I realized what I was doing and asked her to speak alone. Her core value is connection, and conflict gives her no access to what she craves most. I reminded her of an outing we took the week before and how much fun we had together. She softened and agreed. We spoke about how she could make a request instead of complaining. There is more workability in a request than a complaint. She got it, and we snuggled before bedtime, no residue between us.
This week I am observing my complaints. What complaints do you have that you are willing to address?