September 29, 2019
“Complaining is finding faults. Wisdom is finding solutions.” — Ajahn Brahm
The other night I was out to dinner, and I did it again! Tried to build a case about the injustices in the world. I was making my case with someone who already knows my position and could probably repeat it back word for word! I added nothing new to the discussion, nor did I suggest a potential solution. In hindsight, my self-righteous rant looks to me like the epitome of arrogance. Inside I didn’t feel self-confident. I felt frustrated and impotent.
Why do we do that? Take our attention off of what we can be doing to make a situation better and rail against the things over which we are, to one degree or another, powerless? Invariably, when I find myself raging against the powers that be, I’m distracted from taking action. And I’m usually unaware that I have yet again put myself in the profoundly uncomfortable position of feeling like a victim.
There isn’t anything wrong with complaining per se. Sometimes we need to vent. Venting becomes a problem when it’s repetitive, emotionally, mentally, and physically draining, and keeps us stuck in quick-sand from which it feels impossible to escape.
WHY WE COMPLAIN
The list is probably endless.
It’s easier and feels more natural to put our attention on the other guy’s hubris and arrogance and selfishness, rather than seeing and acknowledging it in ourselves.
We want a distraction from our feelings of powerlessness. Lambasting others usually makes us feel bigger and stronger than we are. Next time you hear someone pontificating about the horribleness of someone else, notice that self-righteous indignation makes them stand a little taller, and seem puffed up. We don’t like to feel small.
Sometimes we just want someone else to acknowledge our suffering.
We have good intentions; we want to feel like we’re actively doing something about the problem. We want the problem to go away, or the situation to change for the better. In talking about it, even if we’re not doing anything productive other than arguing with reality, we somehow feel like we’re taking action.
We like strength in numbers to assure us of our “rightness.” We are hard-wired to be herd animals (no offense to animals intended). Strength in numbers has its benefits. But it’s essential to make sure that our numbers are made up of people willing to do something more than rail against reality.
We’re simply in the habit of complaining. In an article in Psychology Today, The Three Types of Complaining, Robert Biswas-Diener cites research suggesting that “making a habit of complaining can ‘re-wire’ the brain so that those particular thinking orientations become ingrained.”
We believe that our complaining will inspire others to do something about the problem. We hope to motivate them to take action by graphically detailing the horrible things that are coming. Unfortunately, it doesn’t often work that way. Biswas-Diener also says: “One unfortunate downside to venting and chronic complaining, without a specific call to action, is that they dampen people’s moods … listening to gripes makes people feel worse. What’s more, the complainer also feels worse!”
Railing against reality is exhausting and futile. As Byron Katie says in Loving What Is, “When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.”
WHAT WE CAN DO INSTEAD
Take 100% responsibility for our lives.
In her book The Choice, Edith Eger tells the story of her two years in Auschwitz where she survived unspeakable and ongoing victimization. She tells the story of how she took that experience and made it into a life of service. Eger says:
“There’s a difference between victimization and victimhood … we are all likely to be victimized in some way in the course of our lives. Victimization comes from the outside. In contrast, victimhood comes from the inside. We become victims, not because of what happens to us. We become victims when we hold on to our victimization. We become our jailers when we choose the confines of the victim’s mind.”
In his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva counsels, “If something can be changed, work to change it.”
So, If it can’t be changed, put your attention elsewhere. Simple. Wise.
Ben Ladik, a seventh grade U.S. History teacher, says that in his classroom he hears a lot of complaining. His antidote: “I try to instill in my students the idea that complaints are problems without solutions, so put your attention elsewhere. Grievances are problems that we can address and solve by taking actions over time. If it’s a complaint, suck it up. If it’s a grievance, we will work together to fix it.” I love this guy!
Get together with others with the stated purpose of exploring different ways to handle a situation that has previously been a cause for complaint. Be curious. Come to the table recognizing that as one person, we have a limited perspective. But when we bring together two, three, or four open and curious minds, we can have a more significant impact. Our menu of ideas and options will expand.
In the world of victimhood, we talk a lot. If you don’t agree with us, listening to your perspective is not on our agenda. After over twenty-five years as a therapist, I still find listening to be a delicate art to master. My experience with others is that I am not alone in that challenge. Sometimes all we need is a compassionate listener. Feeling understood, we feel free to move on to other topics. My current favorite resource for honing listening skills is Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind by Nancy Kline.
If you’re with someone who keeps repeating the same tired perspective, ask with kindness: “What ideas do you have for what you can do to change it?” If they fall back into empty complaining or ignore your question, rinse and repeat, asking as many times as necessary: “What ideas do you have for what you can do to change it?”
Humor has saved me, and meaningful relationships, more times than I can count. Making fun of myself or playfully attempting to rescue someone from their dilemma can turn a tide that would otherwise result in wishing I was somewhere else or tuning them out. Neither of those responses feels satisfying.
Bringing our attention to the reality of our impermanence. The awareness of the impermanence of our moods and physical states, and the impermanence of every living thing on this planet, can sometimes bring us back to our innate wisdom. We can then relish what we do have, imperfect as it is, rather than bemoaning what we can’t control.
Notice how you feel.
The next time you aren’t sure if you’re repetitively complaining about something over which you have no control, ask yourself one question: “How do I feel?” You’ll know you’re stuck if you feel frustrated, helpless, or angry. On the other hand, if you feel energized, cooperative, and open to ideas other than your own, you are probably discussing, problem-solving, or doing something constructive that is moving you in the direction you want to go.