Congratulations, you lucky few who read the title of this blog post and decided to keep reading anyway. BeCAUSe, it’s not a blog post in which I complain, rather, it’s a blog post about complaining. Surprise and delight!
Because, am-I-right, complaining is one of the more difficult things to endure coming out of another person. Oh, la-di-da, it’s different when we do it; then it’s cathartic and self-affirming, and sometimes even comforting! But who, in their right mind, would volunteer to listen to someone else complain. It’s a downer. It feels and looks gross, pathetic even. At least, that’s the way I tend to see it.
But.. I’ve been thinking a lot about complaining lately, because I’ve found myself– yet again– in a life situation where I have much to complain about, many to complain with, and people complaining to me out the wazoo (did I mention I work in retail now?). I’m sure some people are complaining about me too, but I don’t have the self esteem to think about that right now.
Disclaimer: I haven’t written any of these thoughts down prior to typing them, and I’ve only peppered them into Adam’s ear from time to time on long, distracting walks, so I’m just going to get them out and hopefully form them into some semblance of order. I don’t want to be rambly, but I’m sure I will be. Bear with me! Forgiveness is next to godliness. (Michael G. Scott)
I believe there are a few distinct complaining behaviors that we lump into the one category too often– which, perhaps, should have their own unique words. Their purposes are different, but often the practice is the same, or at least similar. In this blog, I’m breaking them down into their purposes, which are: Emotional Release, Solution-Seeking, Alliance, Manipulation, Self-Affirmation, and Responsibility Avoidance.
Emotional Release Complaining is the act of giving voice to a frustration for the purpose of disengaging its hold over a person’s emotional state.
That’s right, it’s the direct result of chronically stifling your emotions. Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Emotional Release Complaining, in-and-of-itself; in fact, in small emissions, and balanced with an equal intake of positive emotions, I think it’s natural and healthy. But there are some dangers associated with it– namely:
1) The fact that you’re dealing with emotions in the driver’s seat. Yikes. Bottled-up emotions are as unstable as Francium, and I don’t have to tell you how crazy that bitch is.
Omg Francium cannot keep it together for the half-life of her. [Chemistry joke ftw!] No-but-really, when dealing with emotions under pressure, you’ve got to be careful, not only of the words you choose, but under what circumstances to say them, to whom, and you’ve got to have a security team nearby too, just in case the wind changes and your little belch of flame turns into a wildfire.
2) It can give you such a feeling of relief that you keep going. In other words, it can be addictive, and not in a good way. [Is any addiction good? I think coffee is, personally. Also maybe q-tips. And.. Star Trek!] That’s why I said earlier that this type of complaining has to be balanced with an equal intake of positive emotions. Which– mind-bogglingly– is so much easier said than done. In an ideal world, these positive emotions would initially have come from your parent(s). Baby cries, parent coos. Receiving this treatment early and consistently would teach you, in turn, how to find/access/apply positive feelings to your own life. Unless you were dropped on your head as a baby, in which case, God bless you.
See, an expulsion of negative emotions gives the temporal lobe a momentary feeling of– for lack of a better word– “emptiness,” which at first feels freeing, but quickly turns to a desperate feeling of neediness– and, as we all know, impulse-consumption is the mother and father of negative emotions.™ It’s a bit like being constipated, having a rough poop, feeling euphorically empty, but almost instantly ravenously hungry again– for the most horrible food. Come to think of it, it seems like the difficulty beforehand might be directly related to the horribleness of the food craving afterward. Huh!
Anyway, the trick, or at least what seems to works for me [when I do it], is to prepare for an Emotion Release episode by keeping a tasty meal of positive emotions nearby at all times, to be used as a chaser, in the event of a spontaneous bout. For instance, I had an experience last week that put some big, fat negative emotions up in my forehead. They were big enough that the mere fact of their presence put my emotional gauge in the “‘Bout to Blow” zone, immediately. So when I found myself among safe and loving company, I allowed myself to blow off some steam, but as soon as I’d released a healthy chunk of bitterness, I let Love in, which balanced everything out pretty near perfectly. And if you need me to tell you what it means to “let Love in”…
I mean, it’s fucking hard as fuck, but it’s only difficult because of pride usually. If you can take that one step and get past pride, Love is always right there, waiting for you. In this particular instance, after I’d let off some steam, I found a meaningful and true way to express gratitude and love to the person who had listened to me. I changed the focus from my negative feelings to my positive feelings for her. As Don Iowa would say, “In with Mr. Good Air, out with Mr. Bad Air.” AIO reference ftw. 🏝
3) Your audience may not know their role in your venting. This is how 9/10 arguments start between Adam and me. I get home from work, take my finger out of my customer service dike, and Adam thinks I want him to put his finger in it. [Yes, yes, “that’s what she said,” I know.] The point is, he misinterprets my venting as a request for help. This can be super dangerous, because you’re already dealing with Unstable Francium behind the wheel; add to the mix, miscommunication, and you are headed for a world of trouble.
Your audience must know that they are being vented to, and not only aren’t required to weigh in on any level, but also that if they do, they will probably be very sorry they did. And if you’re the silent/vengeful type, they might not be sorry initially, but they will eventually.
And I mean, obviously, you need to keep in mind that this type of complaining is only to be done among trusted friends. I hope that’s obvious anyway. Technically, you don’t need a human audience for this kind of complaining. Growing up, I complained to my cat, Leslie Meghan, Gray Fortress, all the time. Safe Keeper of my Heart, RIP. Anyway, this leads us into the next type of complaining:
Solution-Seeking Complaining is the process of dissecting and discussing specific problems in order to resolve them.
And I’m going to say something obnoxious right now which could probably technically be classified as sexist: most straight guys think that this is literally the only type of complaining there is. And tbh I feel like complaining about that right now, but I’ll refrain.
Seeking a solution for your dilemma is the next stop on the Blues Line! After letting off steam (a necessary step! Don’t skip it!), and bringing your emotions back into a state of equilibrium via positive emotions, it’s up to your prefrontal cortex to determine wtf happened and how to keep it from happening again, or at the very least how to better deal with it if it does occur again.
And, since we are a beautifully communal species, it’s only natural that we seek knowledge, experience, and wisdom from others who may have undergone the same thing, in order to form a more perfect solution. This is Solution-Seeking Complaining. You may be thinking, however, “This doesn’t sound like complaining, sounds more like discussion.” Well, okay, that might be a better word for it, I guess, but I’m thinking of a few specific instances that present a more plaintive aspect:
At the restaurant I used to work at/manage, I was put in the uncomfortable position of having to use my own judgement to decide whether or not to fire two of my employees. Having never been in an authority position like that before, I was very slow to act, and the behavior of these two got worse and worse. Every day for weeks, I went home and vented to Adam, and then continued to logistically discuss the problem of what to do. It took a long time and a couple of fortunate missteps on their part for me to decide to can their asses, but if I hadn’t complained past my emotions and into my cognitive faculties, that decision would have been made based on emotion only, which is a horrible way to do anything.
For the record though, I still suffer from their mistreatment of me. I’m no strongwoman that can take abuse like it’s nothing. I still, actually, employ the use of Solution-Seeking Complaining to try and find out why they hated me so much. It’s never added up, and I doubt it ever will. I’ll keep rehashing it though. If you’ve figured out a way to let go of the need for things to make sense, do tell.
Oh but the other instance I was thinking of was a friend of mine who is married to a very difficult man, and her religious beliefs mandate that she submit to him in practically every way. She does have a head on her shoulders though, so instead of risking abuse from him, she reaches out to her friends from time to time– not only to vent, but also to try and figure out how to deal with her shitbag of a partner, while staying true to her religious convictions. To other people, her complaining might sound repetitive and pathetic, but I have to believe that she’s trying to work out how to grow up and leave the guy. And that has got to be a difficult thing to work out.
Alliance Complaining is the practice of affirming another person’s grievance for the sole purpose of being accepted into their clique.
We’ve all done it. I think it’s an animalistic instinct, carried over from when we had to form alliances quick and dirty. Nowadays, we don’t have to rush into alliances, but because technology is speeding up everything around us, we probably feel the biological need to keep pace with it in our interpersonal lives. Just a theory.
Anyway, you almost definitely know what I’m talking about– it’s when you start a new job and the pack leader bitches out another member of your team, behind their back, but to your face, as if to test your allegiance. If you agree with them, you’ve fallen in line, and they’ll treat you like a family member. If you stay silent or disagree, they’ll fear, hate, and ostracize, if not plot against you.
Fortunately, Alliance Complaining only achieves its goal if everyone involved is dumb as rocks. If anyone involved becomes aware of the insecure, petty, and counterproductive nature of the behavior, they can put it to rest with a turn of the head.. and maybe an Emotional Release Complaining session.
Alliance Complaining is a big, ugly bubble that most of us probably encountered for the first time in Middle School, and grew up with, through our formative years (12-25), and now might be completely enclosing us, which is probably why we have such a hard time popping it. Losing the Cloak of the Clan means we’re on our own, defenseless except for our own strength. The good news though, is it’s a bubble, and it really has to be popped.
God, but the anxiety that creeps up when you feel the urge to start or engage in an Alliance Complaining circle is TANTALIZING, is it not? It’s weird to use the word “tantalizing” to describe “anxiety,” but I think that’s exactly what it feels like. The desire to be a part of a club! Accepted! Family! All you have to do is spew out some vicious slander, and you’re SAFE. Hell, often it’s not even that blatant. I can’t count how many times someone’s said off-handedly to me, “Bad stuff about Blah-Blah, right?” Fuck! One word, and you’re either “in,” or you popped the motherfuckin’ bubble!
The problem with being “in,” as I assume you know, dear Reader, is that it’s a slippery slope of identity and control. Once you let mob mentality determine your behavior in one scenario, it’s only a matter of time before it starts to shore up on your other seams. That phrase doesn’t actually make sense, from an English standpoint, but I think it gives you the right idea.
How do you guard against accidental Alliance Complaining? It’s actually pretty simple and doable. Slow down, pay attention, and
Manipulative Complaining is the act of expressing a grievance in order to obtain a particular response.
Unfortunately, I think we all know this type pretty well too. Just the other day, I complained to Adam, “I’m so ugly.” Looking back, I’m aware that I was subconsciously attempting to manipulate him into telling me I was pretty. It’s the coward’s way of asking for something, really. I’m pretty bad at asking for things, because I have chronically low self-esteem (I’m working on it– this is not a manipulative complaint). It’s so much easier to let a statement ask your question for you, right? Bah! Wrong.
This type of complaining can be very hard for the receiver, especially if they know they’re being manipulated, and especially-especially if the manipulator doesn’t. When I complained to Adam, he immediately recognized it as a “trap” as he so lovingly called it.. He’s been manipulated before, so his defenses went up, and he ended up saying something hurtful to me, before I’d even realized what I’d done! I’m happy to say, this particular instance ended with apologies all ’round and we both lived happily ever after.
But they don’t all end like that! I think the trick to avoiding these nasty potholes is being cautiously and lovingly assertive, the second you feel a manipulative complaint coming on, or detect it from someone else. I don’t actually have a lot to say on this one, because it’s the one that haunts me the most. I’ll let you know when I have an epiphany.
Self-Affirmation Complaining is the practice of asserting a negative opinion in order to be agreed with.
You probably recognize this type when you encounter it. It’s got all kinds of strings attached, but mainly, you’ll be able to sense that the person who’s complaining is probably scared. You have something they need desperately: a checkmark for the box of their soul. And scared people scare people, so this is likely an encounter which will be uncomfortable, regardless of your response.
At the same token, people do need each other. They need to share their feelings and they need affirmation, but they also need balance and self-control. From their first moment of self-awareness until their dying day, humans need to be seen, affirmed, and ultimately loved by the ones they respect. I’m convinced, 100%, that when a person employs the use of Self-Affirmation Complaining, they are subconsciously asking to be seen.
There are a few ways we can answer a Self-Affirmation Complainer in the moment:
1) Sidestep/Disengage– A perfectly acceptable course of action, especially if you don’t know the person well, or you are in the middle of something. They are, after all, putting themselves in your way. You have every right to let them have their hissy fit, without stepping in to take care of them. Ultimately they are not your responsibility, and in fact, what is your responsibility to take care of yourself first, which may feel cruel or terrifying in the moment, depending on the situation, but it has to be done sometimes! It takes practice to disengage gracefully, especially if you get your self-worth from giving it to other people (DANGER WILL ROBINSON). It gets easier though, because the more you do it, the better you’ll feel about yourself (you took care of yourself! Good on you!), and the better you feel about yourself, the easier it is to see and make good decisions for yourself.
2) Affirm Their Opinion– Obviously the easiest thing to do. It would make life so much simpler, right? Give ’em the o-o-old thumbers-uppers and walk away. Unfortunately, even if you wholeheartedly agree with their opinion, by taking the bait and feeding their false sense of self-worth with your transitory check-mark of approval, you’ve aided a fellow human in their path to self-destruction. Yes! It’s true! It’s absolutely the same as enabling an alcoholic or drug addict.
When a person’s self-esteem is only fed by the affirmation of others, it’s like trying to survive only on water; it may be a necessary part of our diet, but without substantive nutrition, you’re going to waste away. It’s very sad! And we do have a reasonable responsibility to help our fellow human– at the very least to learn to help themself.
3) Challenge Their Opinion– Probably the second easiest thing to do. It’s still ignoring the actual issue, but to them, it’s better than nothing, because instead of affirming their opinion, you’re affirming their cover-up. Engaging in this option can only lead to confusion, especially for someone like my husband, who initially identifies every form of complaining as Solution-Seeking Complaining. [He’s such a good man.] The reason is that they don’t follow the rules. Again, the Self-Affirmation Complainer doesn’t play to win, they play to survive. They literally need affirmation from you, and they will get it, by whatever means necessary.
4) Speak Directly to Their Underlying Question (“Do You See Me?”)– A ballsy move, and one that could backfire, but is probably the most honest, simple, and effective response. It’s pretty fucking hard to do though. Takes practice, and courage.
More often than not, the Self-Affirmation Complainer doesn’t have enough self-awareness to recognize the depravity and selfishness of their behavior, so putting it front of their face would be like throwing a surprise intervention for an alcoholic. Probably not the best idea of every time. But there is a time for everything!
In any case, this would be a very effective way of shutting down codependency, if you happen to err on the side of enabling. But again– it takes stones of steel to be this honest and vulnerable. Because, remember, looking into another person’s eyes requires that you at least be open to being seen by them as well. In other words, you can’t see someone without looking at them. In other words, to see someone, you have to face them. In other words, to see another soul, you must first uncover your own. In other words.. just kidding, I can’t think of anymore.
What would this actually look like, you say? Good question. Of course, every person, every relationship, and every situation is different, but the common denominator– aside from a little awkwardness probably– would simply be recognition. YES. You do see them. You hear them. You want to understand them (not just their opinions). Reflective listening is the best tool of all time. It not only helps you understand what a person is saying, it’s often very clarifying for them. People don’t know what they’re saying half the time, and so much of the time, you can get to the root of a person’s insecurity, simply by letting them hear their own thoughts. That’s therapy!
The bad news is, most people aren’t ready for honesty and vulnerability, so they’ll be freaked out by your authenticity and react defensively. Alas, it’s the way of the Trump Supporter, what can be said.
5) Speak Passively to Their Underlying Question (“Do You See Me?”)– If you want or need to engage the Self-Affirmation Complainer, but you don’t want to take the bait of supporting their bad habit, and you’re not ready to be assertive just yet, fear not! This is the option for you! Example:
RACHEL: I’m so sick of the PC climate, everyone just needs to take a chill pill, am I right? Let me say my words, get off my back already, ugh!
PHOEBE: Girl, I don’t think any movement is big enough to take you on.
Yes, okay, that particular example might be a little bit of a back-handed compliment, but obviously Rachel didn’t take it as one. Look at her face! She’s a little uncomfortable, because you didn’t answer the way she wanted or expected you to, and she feels seen. How about that? Sneaky. This type of addressal (someone tell WordPress that’s a word) requires the same level of vulnerability on the part of the listener, but with the added ingredient of social prowess. There’s nothing wrong with not showing all of your cards. That’s called being cautious.
It takes a while, and equal amounts practice and failure to get good at being Passive-Progressive.™ Damn! I am on fire!
Responsibility Avoidance Complaining is the act of expressing frustration in a problem in order to avoid the burden of seeking, discovering, and applying its solution.
In other words, being a whiny bitch! There’s only one thing you can do with whiny bitchin’: laugh it off. It’s true! No matter who it is, even if it’s you, the popping of the Responsibility Avoidance bubble comes from a sense of humor. Guys, life is hard enough! We don’t need to ad insult to injury by getting down on someone who’s feeling it especially rough for whatever reason. They may or may not come around, but as long as they’re not hurting anybody– let them be, or maybe tell them a joke or tickle them. At the very least, you can smile. Have a little faith in humanity!
The way we feel affects the feelings of those around us. Notice the next time someone’s being a whiny bitch, how does that make you feel? Like rolling your eyes, right? AKA whining? We have the power to affect change– yes, in a small way, but you’ve heard of the snowball effect? It works with the energy we share with each other. So think about that the next time you’re tempted to complain about a complainer, and choose to laugh instead.
In conclusion, I’ve decided to start asking myself “What’s my objective here?” before I start complaining, and to try and pay attention the answer. Good lord have mercy, this blog got long! I’m going to stop here.