The Psychology of Complaining

Lined notebook paper and pen with words Stop complaining!

Wise words from an article on the psychology of complaining at

If you decide you want to lodge a complaint, make a plan, says Winch. First, determine exactly what you want to achieve (don’t let someone else pick a reparation). Then, figure out who has the ability to provide what you want, and finally, ascertain the best way to get that person to give it to you. Though it’s all very logical, in the heat of frustration people usually lash out at the first body in sight. Winch recommends moving from the easiest complaint to the hardest when working on problem-solving skills.

When people receive a grievance, they naturally grow defensive. They might even throw the issue back at you, further dialing up your emotions. That’s why you need to be extra nice, against your instincts. “This is the existential dilemma of the complaint,” Winch says. “Do you want to be right, or do you want to get a good result?”

One way to avert the downward spiral of defensiveness is to make what Winch calls a “complaint sandwich.” The top slice of bread—the first thing you should write in a letter or say to a person—is the “ear-opener,” which prevents the target of your complaint from feeling attacked. The “meat” of the sandwich is the specific complaint or request for redress, and the bottom slice is the “digestive,” or a positive, grateful statement reinforcing the idea that you are a reasonable person worthy of help.  [“The Art of Influence” by Carlin Flora, 9/6/11]

A lot of sound principles are contained in this one passage.

First sound principle: reason over emotion.

Most of us think of complaining as an emotional venting. But emotional venting alone cannot lead to anything constructive. While it’s not necessarily the case that emotional venting is always wrong, it’s crucial not to expect anything tangible to come out of that venting, unless it’s a prelude to constructive thought.

Second sound principle: self-awareness of one’s goals.

Mindless complaining doesn’t solve anything. It might bring you down, or others down, but it hasn’t solved a single problem. There’s a false idea that “suffering strengthens character.” Actually, it’s not suffering itself that’s a value; it’s personal and intellectual growth. Sometimes suffering comes with the territory when undergoing growth, but it should never be a goal in itself. Nevertheless, people who have internalized this false belief like to be seen as suffering in front of others, almost as if it’s an accomplishment or sign of virtue.

Third sound principle: Good communication about one’s goals to the other party.

The “downward spiral of defensiveness” the author refers to here is the likely emotional attitude of the person hearing the complaints. It ranges from, “What do you want me to do about it?” to, “How can I help you…I want to help you, but I don’t know how!”

As a result of either of these defensive responses, the person doing the complaining is less likely to feel supported, validated, or otherwise psychologically visible to the person who hears the complaints.

Sometimes, when one complains, all one wants to do is vent. I bring this up to psychotherapy clients fairly frequently. I tell them, for example, “We can vent about what’s not going right. That’s perfectly fine, and I’m here to listen. But we can also try to construct a possible solution. Which one are you more interested in doing right now?” This puts the person in charge of deciding what he or she wants, which is always healthy. But more importantly, it points out how complaining can have one of two purposes, either solution-finding or simple venting.

When you complain, you have to consider your audience, just like a professional speaker or writer considers his or her audience. You do this not only out of consideration for that person, but also for your own self-respect and self-interest. Ask yourself what you would like to get out of the complaining experience. Do you just want some sympathy or a listening ear? If that’s all you want, then say so. Ask for the person’s consent. “Can I vent to you about something? I don’t necessarily expect or even want an answer. I just want to sound out my thoughts and feelings about something.”

It’s wise and healthy to consider the benefits and consequences of complaining, most of all to yourself. A certain amount of venting is arguably appropriate and healthy, but it also will have diminishing returns and start to become counterproductive at a certain point. The goal isn’t to identify the arbitrary time limit to place on your complaining or venting; the goal is simply to recognize there is a limit to the usefulness of complaining. Once you do, you’ll counteract your bouts of complaining — whether to another, or even in your own mind — with a solution-focused attitude.

The essence of a solution-focused attitude is, “There is a solution to this problem. I might not know it right this moment, but I can probably find it out, either by myself or through investigating via the knowledge of others. The point is: Solutions are possible.” Such an attitude, carried throughout the day, tends to short-circuit the perceived need to complain.

The essence of self-esteem is confidence in the use of your mind to cope with life, solve problems and create valuable things, experiences and relationships for yourself. The mental and emotional carrier of self-esteem is confidence and trust in the power of reasoning, i.e. thought.

The more confidence you have in (1) the ability to acquire objective knowledge via reasoning; and (2) your own personal ability to use reasoning, then the less you’ll have to complain about — and the shorter your sessions of complaining will likely be!

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