The Art of Complaining
A Subtle Sign of Maturity
[This article was originally published here.]
There is always a reason to be angry. There is always something in our lives to complain about. Generally speaking, someone around us — a friend or coworker or, most likely, a partner — will say or do something hurtful — or just fail to do the ‘right’ thing.
It is inevitable.
The very fact that it is inevitable — and we know this — should be enough reason to be a bit kinder to each other when we can and not be so upset about disappointment when it happens. Still, we find ourselves getting hurt and complaining about it. I mean, how can we just accept that this other person was so careless about something that matters so much to us. It is so clearly their fault for being so unaware of our inner workings.
They are mean or inconsiderate or disrespectful or curt. It is our duty to punish them and make them suffer for it. We need them to know, in the worst way possible, how much of a failure they are. Because I mean, obviously their shortcomings to our expectations were done on purpose to hurt us. Therefore, we should intentionally try to hurt them… in a very excessive and disproportionate way.
The irony about how we complain is that we rarely look back at ourselves to see how we do it. We don’t observe how we respond to the slight that we feel was done against us. Yet, if we took the time to do it, if we made the effort to witness ourselves, we would see that how we react to these perceived injustices goes right to the essence of who we are.
Learning how we complain can make a difference between a life of perpetual disappointment and hostility and sarcasm to one of a tolerable, and possibly pleasant, co-existence — with ourselves and others.
To know how to complain is to master a very real and necessary part of the art of living. To be able to complain in a sane way to those who ‘do us wrong’ will lead to a better life that we and the people around us deserve.
In short, there are 3 ways we complain.
The first is the explosive yelling one where we first try to shrink our opponent through belittlement and then crush them with insults.
To the person having to endure this bombardment of hysteria, the other person seems like a hateful lunatic. Yet, beneath this empty bravado is extreme fright and disturbance from an overwhelming feeling of treachery.
For us, as the person complaining, it’s as if the other person has used a special, magical blade to cut our inner chord of self-respect and we must now scream our way out of our shame and confusion. And like a chihuahua, our bark may be loud and annoying, but we are actually very vulnerable. We are creatures beyond naked, without any sort of psychological skin, in a very dangerous and hurtful world.
Sadly, and probably obviously, our barking and biting pretty much comes with a promise that our grievance will never be heard. Having to face the rabid fury that is our chihuahua-esque persona, the person who offended us is now offended and any reason to listen to us has been burnt along with our dignity.
What’s worse, they may now pull out their own guns and intentionally aim to kill with their own words whereas before it was unintentional. Ultimately, nothing is achieved other than hurt feelings.
Explosive anger is one way we may complain, but there is also another group of people who prefer a colder approach. These types will put the cold war to shame with how well they can turn a home or a workplace into an icebox of hate and disgust and ugliness.
When we are like this, our loathing runs deep and (verbally) silent. We don’t even bother stating our complaint aloud. I mean, what’s the point? They wouldn’t understand anyway. And even if they could, we kind of feel like we don’t deserve to be heard.
This isn’t panic we are trying to hide behind our shrieking; this is a fundamental self-hatred that we have armored with cynicism and despair.
We are professionals at retreating into our cold and dark caves. We probably learned to do this young. The adults in our lives growing up were too sensitive or busy or, just simply, gone to ever hear us.
We learned to wash down our suffering and troubles with a shot of repressed aggression. We go about our day, fuming on the inside, with a brittle shell of courtesy on the outside specially put on for those characters who have upset us.
It’s a different form of complaining but equally ineffective as the more loud and hysterical way.
Thankfully, there is a better way to complain. There is a way to be mature in this particular aspect of our lives.
In order to get to this point, however, we must accept a slightly nonsensical idea as our foundation:
- We don’t deserve this meanness and/or pettiness
- Even though we don’t deserve it and we are receiving it, it won’t kill us.
There is a certain level of calmness and confidence that comes with being able to endure the punishment with silence and patience. It seems a bit masochistic to just take the hit from either the heatwave or the cold front (or both if you are as unfortunate as me), but there is a quiet strength to it all that feeds itself and allows one to endure.
‘To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.’
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I can attest, the waves do die down, and you will still be standing. And with each new set of waves that come in, you will become stronger and stronger. You can be thrown into a complete mess of hurtful words and wake up the next morning to more ugly faces and evil eyes and stand straight.
This isn’t to say we never react. We aren’t actual rocks, after all. We are human. Yet, the maturity comes in seeking a settlement of feelings and getting faster and faster at trying to achieve that restitution. Not the other person’s emotions, we can’t be responsible for them, but at least for our own emotions.
With the incident still fresh, we can gather ourselves and return to a more strategically calm manner as a person who is secure in the fact that we have a right to how we feel without punishing those around us with said feelings. We don’t allow the belittlement our opponent throws at us to bring us down to their level and fall into their desired circle of vicious nastiness that lasts hours or even days.
We say how we feel and then walk away rather than declaring that our adversary is absolute ‘wrong’.
- ‘You just don’t do ‘this’ or ‘that!”
- ‘You ____ me!’
- ‘You are ____!’
[Feel free to insert whatever adjective or verb your partner usually throws at you. There’s probably more than one. Am I right?]
Now, we do try to make them happy. We don’t make it that easy for them to find reasons to complain about life or being with us. Yet, be careful, even trying to make your partner happy can give them a reason to complain.
Nevertheless, we don’t hold on to the idea that we will be understood or accepted with an unbreakable faith. Even the closest person to us is going to disappoint our expectations of being understood. Truthfully, they are the ones who are capable of hurting us most simply due to the expectations we place on them.
Yet, whoever it is, as mature complainers, we learn to say how we feel without insulting the other person and then letting go of the results of whether or not we were actually heard and understood.
It’s a matter of being reasonable while at the same time open and determined.
As with anything in life, especially when dealing with other humans, a tremendous amount of compassion is needed to learn how to become a wiser complainer and human being. Yes, with others, but also with ourselves. We are going to fail, probably a lot, as we try to figure it all out and learn to better avoid our easy-to-fall-into reactions.
If we struggle to better ourselves in even these small, but regular, aspects of life, we should take this as an opportunity to look into ourselves and figure out what is going on. I mean, do I really want to be this way forever? Is it really that big of a deal (do the 5/10-year test)? Does it really serve any good purpose for me to react the way I do?
We have excuses up to a certain point. Our upbringing may not have been as ideal or loving as it should have been. But as adults, we have to teach ourselves how to take those first clumsy steps to learn how to complain, a bit more maturely.