Complaining and processing are two different animals. When we are in need of processing difficult issues, getting psychological help to move through the labyrinth of confusion is a no brainer these days. We need help to get outside our neurotic minds and get the acceptance, compassion, and insight needed to move forward. Therapy can be a great source of help in navigating through painful problems. Processing is working through the problem. It is always apparent to me when someone wants to process. The ear marks of this kind of person are: being open to suggestion, curious about solutions, follow through on recommendations for change, and an ability to take full responsibility for the problem.
Complaining is something else. Complaining is actually an unconscious attempt to stay stuck in the problem. When we complain we are coming from a victim sub-personality that is just loving the complaints. This victim personality wants to stay a victim, grow itself, and outsize any problem we encounter. When we complain the reasoning is circular, often full of double binds, and blames others—the neighbor, the lover, the parent, the government . . . even God. Complaining is often constructed to convince a therapist that there is no way out of the problem— it just is what it is, and its really, really terrible. The complaining person can insist they are trying to work out a problem while they fight any suggestions for change, lack curiosity about how the problem came about, have poor follow through on recommendations to heal, and have a clear absence of responsibility about the problem in front of them.
In Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Travelled, he opens with a now famous quote about the differences between processing and complaining:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species, and not upon others. I know about this moaning because I have done my share. Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them? Do we want to teach our children to solve them?”
Indulging complaining can be truly toxic. The person who is a habitual complainer may feel better after “venting”, but they will eventually drive others away, suffer loneliness, experience chronic depression and anxiety, and have a tough time achieving goals. In addition, research shows that complaining neural pathways actually establish in a person’s brain over time that shapes their life perception—seeing life from an unfair, victimized standpoint. Complaining can decrease the size of the hippocampus in the brain — the part responsible for consolidation of information and problem solving. Continual complaining increases cortisol levels —- the hormone responsible for activating a flight or attack response. Ongoing heightened cortisol levels can result in high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and impaired immunity.
I was once with a group of people at a restaurant. Mary had her child Timmy with her. Timmy would literally hang on his mother, whine, complain, and collapse to the floor crying until she gave him candy— which Mary invariably did. Timmy was learning a cruel lesson. He was being trained to complain to get what he wants from life. When he reaches adulthood he will be faced with the cold reality that the world does not respond as kindly to complaining as his mother does. A friend of ours, Pamela, who is herself a very good mother, witnessed the tantrum repeatedly at dinner until she couldn’t take it anymore. Pamela finally pulled Timmy up from the floor and said, “Stop it Timmy. Stand up. You’re not getting any more candy today.” Timmy, shocked at the rebuke, stopped crying and clung to his mother, shooting a fearful glance at Pamela. The rest of the table smiled at Pamela.
Author Carolyn Myss calls chronic complaining “woundology”. That is, she argues that we can get so identified with our wounds that we learn a language of bonding with each other through talking about unresolved trauma and commiserating on the unlikelihood that we’ll ever fully recover. She says to break this toxic pattern we need courage— we need to be able to talk about our painful issues three times, then have the courage to stop talking about it. (She is not talking about severe trauma such as the death of a loved one).
We not only have to be aware of our external complaining but how we might be habitually looking at the world through a bitter lens in our internal world. “I never have enough money.” “I’ll always be alone.” “Why does this always happen to me?” “Why does God make me suffer so?” “I’m so tired.” “I just want life to end, it would be such a relief.” Can we have the courage to stop complaining outwardly or inwardly, start taking responsibility, and move forward? Focusing on gratitude and taking contrary action to the complaining mind are great remedies to the negative effects of complaining. “I’ll always be alone” can be met with, “I’m grateful I have friends. Joe is my friend. I can date. I’m going to call Anne for a date.” “I’m always broke” can be countered with, “I’m grateful I have this place to live. I have everything I need. I’m going to start looking for new job.” We need to be vigilant about complaining–even get accountability partners. I have a friend who went on vacation with a few women—each of whom had troubled children. Normally they would spend much of their vacation together anguishing over family woes. My friend said, “Let’s talk about the kids for an hour and then agree we won’t talk about them again. They all agreed, did just that, and they had one of the best vacations they had ever experienced together.