When my brother and I were picky kids demanding to be fed, my mom always remarked, “I’m not a short order cook.” As an adult now, I totally get her reasoning: it’s impossible to plan, prepare for, and cook multiple meals for one family and she shouldn’t have to be put in that position. Plus, it’s important to keep an open mind when trying new things.
But if there was something on the menu we didn’t like, we’d have to eat it anyway — even if it was just a few bites. The rule was that we had to consume at least three brussels sprouts at Christmas dinner, even if we were gagging on them.
Mom generally knew what we didn’t like and didn’t purposely intend to make those things in order to piss us off. It’s just that she was the person who was cooking and sometimes she really wanted to eat liver or steak & kidney pie (I’m wretching as I type), or brussels sprouts.
My taste preferences were sometimes very different from hers. And sometimes they were similar — as with pasta, or tomato soup with grilled cheese.
In this case, she was the one with the control over the menu, and we didn’t have much choice as kids. But as we grew to be teens and then adults who could shop for and cook our own food, we could choose something different.
But when I was a kid, you’d bet I’d whine, “Fish sticks again? Yuck!” (hey, it was the 70s). I’d complain every time I was faced with something I didn’t like.
You’d think that we’d grow out of the whining and complaining as we eventually grew older. But that’s not necessarily true.
It’s one thing to complain about fish sticks as a kid, but another to complain as an adult about things that we have a choice over whether we accept them or not.
How many times have you complained or kvetched as a grown up without really realizing it? How many times has a complaint turned into a a full on criticism of someone or something?
There’s actually something now called “hate watching” in which we watch television shows or movies that we don’t really like, but love to discuss with each other how much we disagree with their story lines or hate the characters. It feels so much more interesting to tear the shows apart than to just say, “it wasn’t my thing.” Twitter is full of these non-professional critics.
How often do we stay in jobs that don’t fulfil us or which don’t support our growth or needs? I used to complain every day to anyone who would listen about how much I hated my job, but it took me several years to make the changes I needed to completely transform my career.
How many people are in relationships that aren’t really working, yet you complain about or criticize each other without knowing how to constructively heal the issues in the relationship? How many people have done what they can, but still have difficulty leaving?
How many of us criticize the opinions or creations of others, while never really sharing our own opinions or creations, which require vulnerability and putting ourselves “out there?”
Why do we complain?
Complaining feels good. It gives us a release of tension. It allows us to communicate our preferences of what we like and don’t like. It allows us to communicate an opinion.
And if it’s done in a passive aggressive manner, it allows us to manipulate others to give us what we want.
We are human: getting what we want feels good, and not getting what we want (or getting what we don’t want) feels bad.
But when we form limiting beliefs as children due to our experiences with these feelings, they can impose expectations that we think must be met: “I must feel good all the time.” “I must always get what I want.” “My wants are secondary to other people’s wants.” “I never get what I want.” “It must happen in the way that I think it should happen.” “I want it my way.”
These limiting beliefs get us stuck in the negative loop, focusing on what is unwanted and forming expectations around what is wanted. It’s much easier to affirm these fixed beliefs than to be uncomfortable not getting what we want, or to be vulnerable in asking for what we want and potentially not getting it.
Being stuck in this loop leads to complaining.
The unwanted almost feels safer, because it appears more certain.
It is easier to criticize our partner (whom we know won’t leave us due to this criticism, because s/he would have already done so) than to get the help we need to learn how to communicate our true feelings, needs, and boundaries, or to let the relationship go and risk being single again.
It is easier to complain about someone else’s art than to create our own.
It is easier to complain about the job we hate than to save up money, obtain the requirements, and go after the career change we so sorely want.It is much easier to passively complain about something we don't like than to actively create something we do like.Click To Tweet
It took all the courage and vulnerability I had in order to leave a safe and established corporate career and admit that I really wanted to be a therapist — that meant years of training and starting at the beginning again, at middle-age no less. And it also took more courage than I ever knew to admit that maybe therapy wasn’t my passion, but writing and teaching might be. And even more courage to not know if that would finally be it, or perhaps I would be left empty once again and have to find something else.
To focus on the positive can feel extremely untenable, because we don’t know if we’re going to get it. If we feel helpless to get what we really desire, and being courageous is too scary, complaining is often the only active thing we believe we can do.
Thus, a pessimist outlook is borne. It is rarely a conscious choice to be a pessimist. It’s just easier. And if we spend our time with others who have a similar outlook, it builds an illusion of consensus.
The underlying tension of complaining
Complaining happens because we can’t be emotionally honest about what we are feeling. From childhood, many of us aren’t taught to talk about our feelings. Some of us accept the myth that to show emotions is to show weakness.
When we have needs and wants that aren’t fulfilled or even understood, we get this inherent sense of frustration and pissed-off-ness along with a sense of helplessness. None of these feelings feel good and they bring real tension to our inner worlds.
When these feelings aren’t able to be expressed or empathized with, they fester deep within, and we start to argue with them: “You can’t have what you want. Just be grateful for what you do have.” “There’s no real purpose to life anyway. I just have to survive. Nothing’s going to go my way so why even bother?”
Or we start to blame and defend, finding ways to justify why our preferences are so much more important than those of others. When there is no easy solution to conflicting preferences and a compromise isn’t likely, it forces each party to take a stubborn position.
When we get to that horrible feeling pessimistic place of stuckness, we start lashing out because we don’t know what to do with it: we start to complain, whine, be critical, get angry. Or we start to isolate, stonewall, and withdraw. Or we start desperately trying to please others to prove ourselves worthy of any crumb of validation.
Complaining feels active, but it is really passive. It doesn’t allow you to really do anything to make positive changes, but it feels active because you’re trying to communicate something (even if you’re never really heard).
This cycle can be extremely disempowering because you are ruled by your reactions to circumstances yet remain in a place of little positive change.
Try emotional honesty instead
When things really are feeling negative and we’re stuck in reverse or neutral, we have to find compassion for our feelings.
To not be negative does not equal being positive. It’s not about magically transforming your negative thoughts into positive ones.
It’s about honouring the real emotions within you, the ones deep down that aren’t being heard.
It’s not really about the food preferences, or the tv show you hate, or the job you can’t stand, or the person who aggravates you.
It’s about the underlying wounds of feeling sad, lonely, scared, misunderstood, vulnerable, frustrated, threatened.
Emotional honesty is about, well, being open and honest about what you are really feeling. It is empowering and liberating — it allows you to accept who you are and how you’re feeling right now. It is about being true to yourself.To be on a place of emotional honesty is to empower and accept yourself. The façade can come down.Click To Tweet
When you can acknowledge these feelings and hold them gently, allowing them to be without having to cover them up or numb them out, then they can begin healing.
And when these feelings are truly heard, you will then be able to make changes from a place of wellness. These changes are more likely to please you than if you were to try to make them from a place of reactive complaint.
The next time you find yourself in a situation which is unwanted, or in which you feel like you want to complain, here are some questions you can ask yourself to delve deeper into emotional honesty:
- Ask yourself, “What is this really about?” If you find yourself complaining about something, the truth is that you’re dissatisfied with something deeper. It’s not about the fact that he forgot to take the garbage out, it’s really about you feeling unheard, disrespected, or overburdened.
- Ask yourself, “How am I really feeling?” Note, the answer is “I feel [emotion]” not “I feel like he is [insert a critical description…].” Allow yourself to really feel it and talk to yourself in the way that soothes you. Self-empathy is about nurturing and aligning with your true feelings, without judging yourself for feeling the way you do.
- Notice what your usual reaction to this situation might be. Do you get critical and angry? Do you seethe and withdraw? Do you jump to compromise or please the other person, even if you really want them to please you? How is that pattern working for you?
- Notice your thoughts and beliefs about the situation. These often come with conditional words like “should” “must” “have to” “need to.” Like, “She should just know that I like it that way” or “I need to have this done right now.” Are there any alternate perspectives you could take that feel better? It is not about mental justifications, defensiveness, and blame. It is about staying open and finding common ground.
- Consider how you can communicate your feedback in a constructive manner that respects everyone’s perspective. Even if you’re really frustrated or pissed, you can hold that feeling along with holding the other person’s feelings and perspective too. Neither one of you is right or wrong, you just have different preferences or ways of doing things. How can you come together to find solutions or perspectives that allow each of you to walk away from the situation feeling better about it?
- Start strategizing about what you would like to create instead and how to do that. If you’re complaining about a messy household, what strategies would work to create an orderly one? If you’re complaining about a source of conflict, what steps would you take to enhance harmony? If you’re complaining about something you don’t like, how can you create something else that feels really good to you? If changing what you don’t like into something that you do like isn’t working, then you might consider starting from scratch with a new creation. Not everything can be salvaged, but it is up to you to decide what kind of effort you can put in to give it your best shot.
Tell us about your experience when you find yourself in a place of wanting to complain or criticize. What are you really feeling underneath?
How do you typically respond when you experience something you don’t like about a situation or a person?
What are your strategies for feeling better?
How would you like someone to communicate a criticism or complaint to you?
We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment and share your insights below.
Keep shining the insight light,