Emotional Pollution

We all know at least one person who complains about pretty much everything. He or she has nothing good to say about anyone, and (gleefully) zeros in on other people’s weaknesses — real or exaggerated. You have to wonder why some people are like that.

I’ve learned from experience that we do things for a reason. The reasons might not make sense, and we might not even be conscious of them, but they’re there nonetheless. Counselor Margaret Paul, Ph.D., suggests that ‘Complaining is a ‘pull’ on other people. Complainers are pulling on others for caring and understanding because they have emotionally abandoned themselves. They are like demanding little children. The problem is that most people dislike being pulled on and demanded of. Most people don’t want emotional responsibility for another person and will withdraw in the face of another’s complaints.’

In fact, complaining really doesn’t make sense at all. To “complain” means to repeatedly state a fact that something is wrong or negative. But if you’re able to do something to change it, then there’s no point talking about it. Just change it! If you can’t do anything about it, then complaining isn’t going to make a difference anyway — other than to annoy those around you.

Some people complain as a part of finding a solution. Others might be grieving a real loss. Both reasons are valid. But some people complain just to bring others down, or they want others to see them as victims and to pretend along with them that they can’t change something that they actually can change.

Telling a complainer to stop doesn’t work because he or she is actually getting something out of it. It’s a cry for help, and serves to fulfill or sooth some personal need. Dr. Paul suggests that ‘They are operating as a wounded child in need of love, attention and compassion. Because they have not learned to give themselves the attention and compassion they need, they seek to get those needs met by others. They use complaining as a form of control, hoping to ‘guilt’ others into giving them the attention, caring and compassion they seek.’

A lot of it comes down to the fact that many of us are taught at an early age that it’s good to sacrifice. But, at the same time, we’re not usually told that it’s good to be unhappy. If you think about it, sacrificing yourself to the needs, whims or demands of others is guaranteed to make you unhappy. Human beings are inherently selfish creatures — meaning that we thrive best by ‘doing our own thing,’ while still respecting everyone else’s right to do the same. There are two types of people in this regard. One does whatever he or she pleases, and leaves others alone to do whatever they please. The other spends his or her time being concerned about the needs of other people (or wanting to be seen as such). In essence, the first person is walking in and out of the door, and the other is the doormat.

The doormat will never get his or her needs met. And it’s often the doormat who becomes the complainer. As children, we don’t have much of a choice or say about things, but why does the emotionally injured child continue to feel so selfless and helpless as an adult? My experience has shown that they simply will not allow themselves to be happy. They develop a chronic need to complain since, after all, there’s not much else they’ll allow themselves to do. How sad!

Like all forms of negativity, complaining is toxic — and contagious. But if you’re realistic and positive, you’ll see it for what it is and shield yourself from the complainer’s dark view of life. People who are not very positive can be vulnerable to that negativity. Author Alex Kjerulf says there are many reasons why complaining is a mistake, even when there’s a valid reason to complain. In the workplace, for example, complaining kills innovation, creates cliques, distorts reality and brings everyone down without accomplishing anything.

I have coached people who want to change the way they respond to negative people at work. One suggestion is that they just walk away and encourage others to do the same. You’re not obligated to confront the complainer, but if he or she confronts you, use that as an opportunity to say, ‘I don’t mean to be rude. But in all honesty, your negativity brings me down.’ Many complainers simply don’t realize what they’re doing. You’ll be surprised how powerful this technique can be with friends and family as well.

There are other subtle tactics you can use, like saying, ‘So what did you LIKE about the movie?’ (Or the restaurant, or whatever.) Let complainers know they are polluting the air — the emotional equivalent of smoking in the no-smoking section. You’re not being mean or rude; you’re simply respecting your own right to be free of the negativity they’re discharging into the world.