Attention — 02 December 2011
For healthy relationships, curb your urge to purge your woes

The habit of complaining is universal, everyone complains at least occasionally, and some do it frequently. Though the need to express one’s woes has some psychological and social gains, it is more likely to render the frequent bemoaner socially isolated.

Talking about our life stresses to a friend who can listen, empathize and support us is invaluable. Talking to anyone and everyone about what plagues us is socially inappropriate and burdensome to listeners. Yet, the fact that everyone complains at times keys us into the psychological needs behind this behavior.

Researcher Robin Kowalski defines complaints as: “expressions of dissatisfaction, whether subjectively experienced or not, for the purpose of venting emotions or achieving intrapsychic goals, interpersonal goals, or both.”

This definition addresses three areas of need a complainer may have: 1. Validating the dissatisfaction as merited, 2. Venting for emotional relief and pain reduction and, 3. Receiving interpersonal support and connection.

When we complain about a bad situation, maltreatment or ill fortune, we need another person to validate it as inconvenient, unfair, hurtful, or unlucky. Was the unpleasant treatment received from a service provider really egregious and meriting being upset? Was it a sample of common practice or were we personally selected for this treatment? Confirming that we were objectively wronged may alleviate some of our concerns about our worthiness.

Complaining seems to be a natural response to stress. Just talking about our difficult situation, health, luck, relationship or any upsetting event serves to relieve some of our pent-up misery. People state that uttering the words of unhappiness reduces their discomfort. Also, reciting their troubles helps them gain greater perspective as to the reasons for their wounded feelings and ways of restoring their emotional comfort.

When a listener offers reassurance, validation, support, empathy and deep concern, we feel valued and the impact of our distress is lessened. If the responder had also experienced the same or similar feelings – we are reassured that we are not alone and feel more connected to others.

Some cultures regard suffering as a form of distinction, as though the person who suffers more is “holier.” It is a mark of special standing to bravely cope with difficulties that others have not had. It may even be seen as a divine assignment to test the individual’s resiliency. Thus, the misfortune is reported to the listener as one seeks adulation.

For many listeners chronic complainers are a source of stress. The complainers’ chronic unhappiness transmits negative energy and their neediness is burdensome. It is hard to know how to cheer them up and thus they are worth avoiding.

To keep your relationships with others healthy:

  • Avoid being a chronic complainer to maintain others’ attention.
  • Have a positive attitude most of the time for a greater social circle.
  • Selectively share your woes with empathic friends.
  • Accept that having troubles at times is part of life – not a mark of punishment or distinction.


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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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