Chronic complainers are all around us. They moan about the weather and the traffic. They insist that the waiter is too slow…gas is too expensive…and nothing today is as good as it used to be. They seem perpetually upset about everything they see in the world. Reality: Most chronic complainers simply feel disconnected and lonely. Complaining is just their way of getting the attention they crave.
Here’s how to help a chronic complainer—someone you know or even yourself—kick the habit…
The type of attention complainers receive isn’t the sort they really want, but they usually don’t know how to get any other kind. A chronic complainer often hasn’t learned how to ask for a hug from his/her spouse or find a sympathetic ear for a heartfelt conversation. Complainers don’t realize that their complaining drives away friends and relations, causing them to lose the attention they crave.
Most chronic complainers learned this behavior as children. Either their parents gave them attention when they whined or they witnessed complaining by one or both of their parents.
Other behaviors people use to get attention when they don’t know how to ask for it include feigning or imagining illnesses…having intentional “accidents”…being chronically late for meetings and events that can’t start without them…and endlessly seeking assistance on minor matters.
Example: A nervous flier might bug the flight attendant repeatedly for pillows and drink refills because he is unwilling to admit that he is afraid of air travel and needs reassurance.
Sometimes we have legitimate reasons to complain. If the phone company overcharges us, of course we’ll call and get the bill corrected. If a waiter delivers the wrong order, we bring it to his attention. If a spouse forgets to do a chore, we might mention the oversight. These are productive complaints. We’re not just harping on a problem—we’re suggesting a specific course of action to remedy the situation.
At times, it’s even useful to voice nonproductive complaints about problems that our listeners can’t fix. Doing so might help relieve stress…provide a group with a topic of conversation…or even bond strangers together.
Example: If you live in an area with chronically bad traffic, sharing traffic horror stories can forge a sense of kinship.
However, we must be extremely careful when we voice these nonproductive complaints that they don’t become a habit.
Helping Others to Stop Complaining
If there’s a chronic complainer in your life, try to get to the bottom of what’s really bothering him. Odds are, the complainer is feeling dismissed, invisible, ignored or powerless…unloved, alone or unsupported by friends, family or coworkers…belittled, insulted or criticized. How to help…
If you can’t figure out exactly what’s wrong, ask the complainer directly. This person might be desperate for someone to take an interest. Try to focus the chronic complainer’s wide-ranging complaints by responding with, “What do you really need?” or “What’s really bothering you?” Then search for ways to show a complainer that he is loved, supported and valued. Compliment him…give him a hug…offer to help with a difficult task.
Become the complainer’s cheerleader. Provide nonjudgmental support under all circumstances. If you would like to offer the complainer advice, first ask for permission to do so, to reduce the odds that he will view your guidance as criticism.
Don’t get upset if you are on the receiving end of complaints. Chronic complainers tend to complain to whoever makes them feel the most comfortable, even if he/she isn’t the person who’s causing the problems.
Example: People who feel disrespected at work frequently look for any excuse to complain to a spouse, parent or friend. These complainers aren’t comfortable enough at work to complain there.
Do You Complain Too Much?
If you feel that you yourself are a chronic complainer…
Listen to your words. Are you quick to find fault? Do you often sound negative, perhaps without meaning to? Listen to what others say about you. Has anyone ever accused you of complaining too much?
Make an effort to sound more upbeat. Rather than recount your day in a way that makes it seem frustrating and painful, put a positive spin on it.
Example: Simply ending an anecdote about a tough day at the office with “Everything’s so much better now that I’m home with you” turns a complaint into a compliment for your spouse.
Think twice about voicing a complaint about something that your listener can’t correct. There’s an old joke about the mother who gives her son two ties for Christmas. When he puts one on, she asks, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like the other one?” When we put friends and loved ones in no-win situations, we damage our relationships.
Phrase a complaint so that it sounds like a shared problem, not an accusation, when you absolutely must complain about the behavior of someone close to you.
Example: Rather than, “I’ve told you a million times to pick up your laundry and you still don’t do it,” try, “If you pick up your laundry, we can get started on the wash so that we won’t have to be bothered with it this weekend.”
Never complain to family members the minute they get home. They will start to dread walking through the door, and because their minds might still be elsewhere when they first get home, such complaints are more likely to be ignored. Give your loved ones at least 15 minutes to relax, then ask if there is anything you can do for them before raising the problem.
Consider the cause of your chronic complaining. Could it stem from a need for attention or to feel more useful or loved? If so, consider volunteering your time to a charity…adopting a pet…or offering to babysit a neighbor’s children. All these can help you feel needed and loved.