Self Improvement — 08 February 2009
Complaining is both a beneficial and an annoying habit

Everyone complains sometimes, some do so frequently. It may be annoying to hear, yet soothing to express. Why do we complain and how can we continue to benefit from it while reducing its negative impact on others?

People complain about everyday annoyances such as traffic, children’s behavior, rudeness, inefficient service, waiting in line, other people’s habits, foolish rules, and even the weather. We also lament about more serious concerns such as work, taxes, the economy, our leaders, our health, our lot in life, our relationships, societal injustices and more. Much of these areas of frustration are beyond our control, yet we cherish becoming justifiably disgruntled about all that is “wrong” in life.

Robin M. Kowalski of Western Carolina University in “Complaints and Complaining: Functions, Antecedents, and Consequences” defines complaining as ”an expression of dissatisfaction, whether subjectively experienced or not, for the purpose of venting emotions or achieving intrapsychic goals, interpersonal goals, or both.” She adds,
“Often people complain even when they are not subjectively dissatisfied.” “Many complaints do not reflect people’s true attitudes towards the object or person in question but rather involve attempts to elicit particular interpersonal reactions from others, such as sympathy or the avoidance of aversive events.”

Complaining, is a way to assert our personal value. We claim our right to receive recognition, fair treatment, attention, and proof that we matter. When we do not feel that others recognize our worth, we rile against it by demanding to matter. We may reframe the need for recognition as expecting good manners, respect, our rights, human decency or fairness, but what we really desire is being validated to feel affirmed and safe.

As children we experience sibling rivalry and lament parental unfair treatment, “You always let him/her get away with it, but I always get punished for it.” As teens we complain, “You just don’t understand, you forgot what it is like to be a teenager”. As customers and patients we resent being kept waiting as it diminishes our status and damages our sense of specialness.

We complain when our body hurts or inhibits us from doing what we want it to do. At the advent of a serious illness we may ask, “Why me?” We pride ourselves for being fit, strong and looking younger than our chronological age, all signs of earned or gifted distinction.

Complaining bonds us in shared unfair or unrighteous treatment. “Your call is very important to us” angers many of us as we are subjected to their music and are put on “ignore”. Sometimes lamenting is a way to accentuate our competency as we highlight other people’s failings or excuse our errors by blaming colleagues or circumstances. In business, complaining may also help us get wrongs rectified and advances our sense of privilege in receiving the promised benefits. Venting frustrations serves as an emotional relief and ease of stress.

As beneficial and self-enhancing as complaining may be, it can also harm us and our relationships. An ongoing state of discontent may impact our health and frequent expressions of disgruntled emotions may turn our friends away.

• Do not discredit the complainer as a negative person. Understand that some people complain to achieve a personal goal such as better service or reward, while others seek approval, validation, respect and attention. Provide it if you can.
• Monitor your motivation in complaining. Is it the desire to express similar views and bond with others, impress them, join in a cause, receive attention or sympathy, elevate or justify yourself by discounting others, or relieve your stress by “getting it off your chest”? Your goal will determine how receptive others will be to you.
• Use complaining in moderation. Since frequent complaints have a negative impact both on you and the listener, a healthy dose of discontent can relieve your stress and keep you in others’ esteem.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life.

Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions.

Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column “Relationship Matters” for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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