Curb Your Tendency to Complain

From infancy, most children learn that complaining about being hungry, a sibling’s unkindness, crying about having pain, screaming when they feel unfairly treated, wanting attention from a busy parent, being hungry or thirsty, will likely be promptly heeded and remediated. Without full awareness, children learn to expect immediate need-fulfillment from their parents, babysitters, and later teachers, coaches, family members and even friends. Not being promptly responded to arouses frustration and fears that may compel the young child to resort to crying and even exhibit a temper tantrum. Since, in infancy, most babies learn that need-fulfillment is provided by others, the transition to self-reliance occurs in stages as children mature.

In early years, crying and having a temper tantrum, is a young child’s plea for help and a request to have his/her needs met by a parent or another adult. As youngsters develop greater self-sufficiency and autonomy, they realize that they are qualified to assist themselves in many tasks and may seek help from adults only when they cannot overcome the hindering situation.

In adulthood, we also experience times when we feel ignored, or unfairly treated, but by then, we have the verbal skills to clarify our needs politely, gently complain and clearly explain our unmet needs and our expectations for the remediation of “their error”. It is experienced by all that asking politely for what we feel we have not received and is clearly due to us, is most often responded to with an apology and attempts to rectify the error. Conversely, complaining and shaming the other party is much more likely to create an unpleasant exchange, anger and even physical violence, rather than an apology and rectification of the previous action.

Responding with empathy and kindness rather than with accusations about our “due” services or treatment is not only polite and kind, but most effective in receiving an apology and restitution of the expected service.

Researcher Mark H. Davis of the University of Texas at Austin created a test to measure both the mental and emotional aspects of empathy. He found that “empathy is compounded by four ways: 1. Using our imagination. 2.Using an intellectual understanding of the view of others. 3. Empathic concerns- feeling warmth and caring about others, and, 4. Managing our own personal distress as we focus on another being”. It is true that when most people feel poorly treated, they immediately feel incensed about the “other’s” behavior and focus on protecting themselves. We may even feel propelled by our anger to respond by hurting the “offender”. Some people instinctively react with the urge to “punish” the other in order to lower their own frustration and remediate their misery.

Clearly, if we follow Mark H. Davis’ four steps, we must abandon, for a short time, our own hurt and suffering. This is quite difficult to do, though concentrating on LOGIC rather than EMOTIONS at that moment is wise and effective. Complaining or reacting instinctively to an offensive act is unwise.


1: Delay instinctive retributions.

2: Calm down and let your cognition lead you to a decent and fair reaction.

3: Celebrate your decency, compassion and kindness toward others.


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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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