“Neurotics complain of their illness, but they make the most of it, and when it comes to taking it away from them they will defend it like a lioness her young.” –Sigmund Freud–
The father of psychoanalysis has some words for us today: Complainypants* complain of [fill-in-the-blank], but they
make the most of it really actually love having something to complain about, and when it comes to taking it away from them they will defend it like a conservative his guns.
(Listen: I have an uncle in Tennessee with a truck bed full of guns. I wouldn’t mess with that.)
So because I don’t want to go up against a lioness or my gun-loving uncle, I’d love to figure out a way for everyone to live well, complain less, and not feel threatened.
The first question to tackle is WHY in God’s grandeur do people “need” something to complain about?
I know I have a tendency to get caught up in the echo chamber of my own voice spewing verbal vomit of the complaint du jour (Mmmm, that sounds good — I’ll have that). And let’s visualize for a moment verbal vomit spewing in an echo chamber.
And if you’re more extroverted than I, perhaps you usher other fellow complainypants into your echo chamber. Now we have several people, in an enclosed area, verbal vomiting.
Uh, this is straight unsanitary.
But back to God’s grandeur.
God has created a pretty great earth for us to tinker around on. Just the fact that the sun comes up every morning is pretty awesome. (Do a quick poetry search of the word “aubade” — a poem celebrating the dawning of the day — and you’ll get pages of results.)
When I was a camp counselor years ago (shout out to Redwood Camp in the Santa Cruz mountains), I’d take my little elementary-school darlings on (very easy) hikes through the redwoods. WOW, would they complain. We are literally in the middle of the most magnificent redwoods on a beautifully sunny (but not too hot because it’s Northern California in the mountains) day, breathing in the fresh, crisp air with birds twittering in the background and the 9-year-olds are finding things to complain about. I had to institute a rule: if you complain about one thing, you have to verbalize five positive observations. And you know what? It worked pretty darn well. A potential complain-fest turned into a waterfall of gratitude.
It was a simple exercise in perspective that worked really well for 9-year-olds.
But I’d venture to say it’d work well for us humdrum adults as well. Because even though the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” we somehow continually hone in on the negative. And then talk about it. Maybe even out loud. And maybe even to other people. And before we know it — yep, vomit-covered echo-chamber walls surrounding us. It’s so gross in there, but we’ve acclimated. We don’t notice the vinegary, acidic throw-up smell. We’re not fazed
by the slow crawl
down the wall
and stomach acid.
Imagine being outside of the chamber and opening the door to that! And to see multiple people inside bobbling around? It’s enough to make a person sick.
Why, we might ask, don’t the people inside HOOF IT OUTTA THERE?
Well here’s where things get interesting. And sad.
When we get comfortable in our environment, it’s difficult to make a change — even if the change will benefit us and everyone around us. Just a quick assessment of American culture will tell us that we looooove being comfortable. (I wrote about that here.) And what’s more, when we get used to complaining-as-default, we forget how to communicate in any other way.
Go ahead and think of that person in your life who’s always complaining (maybe it’s you). If you’re in conversation with this person and you’re only allowed to talk about positive topics, would they (you?) have a difficult time coming up with things to say? The following isn’t shocking or new information, but I’ll say what many others through the centuries have said: It’s easy to complain. It takes more effort and creativity and confidence to speak about topics in a positive light.
Just take a minute and transport yourself back to high school, the land of gossip and cliques and lip smackers. What do you and your friends more often than not talk about — how well so-and-so did on her speech . . . or can you buhlieve Jessica posted a pic with Eric when he and Danielle just broke up last Tuesday? If it was the former, congratulations. You were a better person than I in high school.
(I’d like to take a moment and make a general apology about who I was as a person in high school. I wasn’t horrible, but I sure as hell could have been better.)
So far we’ve
- gotten comfortable in our environment (acclimated to the vomit pooling at our feet) and
- started to forget how else to communicate (complaining is easier, and we’ve become products of our environments).
And now . . . for a delicious dose of delusion!
When our complainypants voice is the only one we hear echoing back at us or we surround ourselves with other complainypants and their chittering voices or we seek out other complainypants to be complainypants together, we start to believe that these negative opinions are the
This is a problem. This is where we lose touch with reality. Perception becomes reality. And the perception? It’s stinky and gross.
This is a problem for the delusional Debby’s (
not to be confused with Debbie Downer) out there, but it’s also a problem for the positive Polly’s — unless they speak out.
So maybe you’re sitting here reading this post thinking, “I’m actually a pretty positive Polly most of the time.” Great! You have an important job to do: YOU, my friend, have to take down the delusional Debby’s, one Debby at a time.
When you are talking to a complainypants friend, thinking, “I don’t agree with him-her,” it’s time to get to work. You must speak up. You must voice your opinion. If you don’t, your silence will become validation to your complainypants friend that you share their opinion. Yikes.
This is also a problem.
Problem 1: Being delusional.
Problem 2: Perpetuating said delusion.
To recap, we’ve
- gotten comfortable,
- forgotten how to communicate in healthy ways, and
- become delusional.
Wherever you are right now, stand up. What is the thing in your life you’re complaining about? Now take a big step backwards. Think about what preceded your getting to the point of complaining. Why are you at a point in your life that you’re complaining about the thing?
I’m going to venture to say that one reason you’re complaining about the thing is that — in some way —
So before we trap ourselves in the verbal vomit echo chamber, chunks flying, let’s
Let’s realize that maybe complaining can possibly come from a good place.
Last week at my school was the whirlwind that was Homecoming Week. On Friday, each grade participated in a lip sync competition. This has become quite the big deal at my school, so naturally, whoever didn’t win was going to be mad.
I may have (horrifically) underestimated how angry the seniors would be if they didn’t win.
(They didn’t win.)
One senior girl charged up to me, complaining that the competition was rigged! She complained that the juniors were cocky and shouldn’t have won! She complained that the judges didn’t fill out the rubrics correctly! She complained. I was annoyed and taken aback and frustrated. (As student council co-sponsors, my colleague and I work hard to make homecoming games as fair as they can be, including creating rubrics to be filled out by unbiased judges.)
But as I was talking to my colleague after school that day, we both came to the realization that we’d rather the anger (and subsequent complaining of unfairness) than indifference. She complained . . .
because she cared.
Students bursting with school spirit, charging through a great week of playing games in the hopes of representing their grade well? I respect that.
So can we all take that step back together and assess why it is we’re complaining? Is it because we actually care about something? Perhaps there’s something we can do (action) to make the situation better before we even get to the point of complaining. Perhaps we can change our mindset and focus on the five other positive things going on.
Is someone else complaining to you? Encourage action. Or a shift in perspective. Remind them of the five other positive things going on. But speak up.
And give yourself (and others) some grace. Complaining is so ubiquitous it’s easy to get sucked in. And it may even stem from a good place of caring. So as we do in life every now and then, let’s take a step back (or a step out of the pool of vomit), lift up our head, reassess, and forge ahead as best we can to a life well lived.
*The term “complainypants” comes from a blog my husband and I enjoy: Mr. Money Mustache. Here’s a fun (but rated M for mature) article to check out: “How to Tell if You’re a Complainypants.”