We all know at least one person who complains about pretty much everything. He or she has nothing good to say, and (gleefully) zeros in on other people’s weaknesses — real or exaggerated. I’ve learned from experience that people do things for a reason; the reasons might not make sense, and they might not be conscious of them, but they’re there. Counselor Margaret Paul, Ph.D., suggests that “Complaining is a ‘pull’ on other people … for care 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, i.e., repeatedly stating a fact that something is wrong or negative, really doesn’t make sense. If you’re able to do something to change a situation, 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; pretending 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 soothes some personal need. Dr. Paul suggests that “They are operating as a wounded child in need of love, attention and compassion.”
A lot of it boils 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. Constantly 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 others’ right to do the same. Some people do whatever they please and leave others alone to do the same. Others spend all their time being concerned about the needs of other people (or wanting to be seen as such). The first person is walking in and out of the door, and the other is the doormat. 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 an 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 there’s not much else they’ll allow themselves to do anyway.
Complaining is toxic and contagious because people who are not very positive can be vulnerable to negativity. People often ask me how they can change the way they respond to negative people at work. One suggestion is to just walk away. 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.” 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 right to be free of the negativity they’re discharging into the world.
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