Complaining is Always a Smoke Screen and There’s Always Something Behind It
Reading Time: 6 minutes
A dangerous community:
Complaining is a cover-up:
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I fired a client recently!
Let’s call her “Jessica.” She has worked with me for a couple of months and she wanted to move out of her career into creating a non-profit for a specific social problem. We have worked on things and every single call, I ask, “What would you like to work on today?” And she spends the first five or ten minutes complaining about her current job, or her husband, or her children. She was always a victim. She was always a saint. And everyone else took advantage of her, did not appreciate her, ignored her or overlooked her. It took me a few weeks, but I noticed my own energy leak on her calls and reflected on it and realized that her complaining was getting to me and she was not doing any of the work on the solutions that we developed in our coaching sessions. My feedback to her just kept getting blocked.
I tried different tactics:
- Asked for permission to give her feedback on some of the stuff she complained about.
- Asked for permission to tell her what I noticed and my reaction.
- Brainstormed with her as to how our next session will start out.
- Confronted her with her complaining.
- Asked her to restate her concerns without complaints.
- Asked her to envision the outcomes she wants.
I went deep in my toolbox to figure this stuff out.
She either responded with a sullen attitude on the call, or the silent treatment, or the sighs of Job (as in the Bible), or tell me how wrong I was, that she was not complaining. She would deflect, dodge and change the subject. This stuff was so masterful in her that she herself did not know all her unconscious tactics.
Well, I realized that I was complaining about her to myself in my mind! I had to put on my big girl panties and go where I had never gone before. I finally told her that I could no longer hold space for her as a client because she was not living up to her end of the agreement and I was expending more energy trying to prove that she was not doing what she said she would do than us actually doing good work. I told her we were not a good fit and I think she should find someone else. I felt useless as her coach.
Well, she was shocked. She made accusations and then began to complain about me. She also complained to other people about me and it got back to me. She felt unsupported by me. She felt I was holier than thou. Blah, blah, blah.
(I am excited because it means I have reached the big time. When you can fire a client, that is “big time!”)
A few days later, I got a note from her telling me that she was ready to work with me because everyone she complained to about me, told her I was right, that she did complain too much. She wanted us to resume coaching. I declined. I was honest with her. I told her that I would like to see her do some more work on her own before we resume coaching and to revisit me in three months and let me know how she had worked on this. I also told her that I was triggered by her particular brand of narrative and it meant I had my own work to do around complaining as well.
When you do not immediately set boundaries for a complainer, you yourself are wading in the pool of self-pity and the feel-goodness of commonality of experience!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually think that some complaining is a good thing, in its proper context.
Everybody complains. Get over yourself. If you do not complain, you are not human. Complaining is a wonderful indication that there is dissatisfaction brewing. Complaining may be a negative thing to do but it is positive when you discover you are complaining, and you pay attention to it and self-correct the course you are on.
Complaining is defined as “expressing dissatisfaction or annoyance about a stte of affiars or an event.” To express dissatisfaction means to point out that something is wrong. Something is not working. But you have to couple that with the change you want to experience.
Those kids marching against gun violence? They are not just complaining, they are asking for systemic changes. They are painting a vision for us for what they want. They are empowered.
Here is the curious thing about complaining: The etymology of the word shows it originally meant “to lament, to bewail.”
Lament is actually a glorious word.
This is why I say there is something positive about complaining. It tells you something is wrong. It tells you that there is something to grieve. And grieving is good. But whether it is complaining, grieving or lamenting, it has a shelf life.
It should be for a short period of time and then you move off of it into your sense of power as to how you can change or accept the situation. Either way, there is a gift that you want to do the work to find.
When you couple your personal sense of power, that capacity in you to drive and create incredible outcomes, with the fact that something is wrong, then you move from complaining to a state of being empowered. There is actually no empowerment without a problem to be overcome.
Complaint + Personal Sense of Power = A New Narrative
A dangerous community:
If you hang out with folks that complain all the time, you will find that you will become a complainer. Nothing glues people together more strongly than a common dislike. Common complainers can create a profound sense of community and a sense of belonging to each other. It is addictive and dangerous.
Complaining is a cover-up:
Why do people complain? Because they enjoy feeling powerless and have become use to it. Why do they feel powerless? Because there is an unhealed wound. Always, always, beneath the complaint is your wound, and by complaining, you are rejecting looking at your own wound, and your own power to make the change needed, thus rejecting yourself.
This is so painful. Henri Nouwen says it well.
Complaining is like cloaking a situation with a dark cover so you do not see the truth. You have to shed complaining and shine the light on what is going on to see your wound and pay attention to the wound.
You do yourself a favor by remembering when you start complaining, your wound is asking for attention.
When I think of every single chronic complainer that I know, each person had a real problem dealing with rejection. It was their soft underbelly. I do not know if that is true across the board or not, but this has been my experience.
Complaining is a bad habit:
Our habits create grooves in our brains and once you are on that groove, it is hard to get off, but you must. How do you break a bad habit? You develop acute awareness and change the narrative. Always, the problem with complaining comes in when you begin to realize that it is a drain, just imagine the draining aspect of complaining. It just seeps and bleeds and drains all the energy and positivity out of you. You are left empty, depressed and feeling powerless. And then to get your energy up, you start complaining again. It is a vicious cycle. That is why it is so addictive.
Complaining is a health risk:
Complaining, as in, venting, just floods your blood with cortisol, the stress hormone. You think you are just getting it off your chest, but each time you rehearse that story, you get upset all over again and now you are 10 times more aggravated than you were in the beginning. Fast Company tells us:
“A half hour of complaining every day physically damages a person’s brain, according to research from Stanford University. Whether you’re the one griping or you’re the one listening, exposure to negativity peels back neurons in the hippocampus–the part of the brain used for problem-solving and cognitive function. Over time, complaining becomes a habit. If you’re surrounded by complainers, then you’re more likely become one.”
Wow. Complaining makes me lose the ability to problem solve and some of my cognitive function? No way. I take too much pride in that!
How to stop complaining:
- Become aware of any form of complaining: Yours and others. Notice the loss of personal power that you feel. Pay attention to how complaining makes you feel.
- Sever all ties with other people that complain. It is like second-hand smoke. It is extremely toxic. It will almost be impossible to stop your own complaining if you are in a toxic environment where others are chronically complaining.
- Change “but” to “and” in your conversations. For example, “I can’t stand when people ask me to do favors for them and I have to spend far more time than it should, but why would they impose on me like this? I can’t stand it, blah, blah, blah” becomes “I clearly do not like when too many people ask me to do favors and this week, I chose to do only three. That is better than last week. I am grateful I have a community that relies on me.”
- Change, “I have to” to “I choose to.” See the preceding example.
- Figure out the hidden gift in the situation. See the preceding example.
- Be grateful. Speak gratitude. See the preceding example.
- If you really want to use it to turn it into a healing experience, explore figuring out what wound complaining is covering up and deal with that.
The antidote to complaining is a new empowering narrative.
Beloveds, my invitation this week is that you weed out complaining. I encourage you to create a zero tolerance for complaining for a couple of weeks so you can hear its own unique draining cadence and learn to spot it before it heads your way. My hope is that you will change your narrative and become more grateful minded in your behaviors and your speech. This way you will experience feeling more empowered to change circumstances that you do not like.
Hugs and healing to you.
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