On complaining

What is complaining?

Complaining is what happens when a problem causes enough emotional distress in a person that they have to air their grievances angrily. Usually, this happens if that person feels treated unfairly, has to stomach a failure or is subject to some other unpleasant experiences.


The contents of the complaining and the root cause are often related but not always the same. For example, a chess player who lost an important tournament game may complain about the conditions under which the game took place when in fact these conditions were perfectly fine and what he's really frustrated about is his own level of play. Stressful situations lower the threshold above which someone starts complaining. The emotional state of the person is a determining factor.

The cause of the complaining is often subjective and relates to unmet expectations. For example, someone might complain about difficulties walking because of an injured knee, but another person who is paralysed and wheelchair-bound does not complain. Being forced to lower one's expectations unexpectedly can be a cause of great emotional distress. The grievance that is expressed while complaining can only be fully understood in the context of that person's life and their experiences. That doesn't make the grievances any less real or serious, but knowing this helps putting things into perspective.

Underlying psychology

Complaining is often a coping mechanism. Expressing grievances and negative emotions is liberating and provides immediate relief from emotional pain. Not unlike painkillers, complaining can be habit-forming. Because the relief is immediate and so easily obtained, it is tempting to just stop thinking, give up and start complaining whenever setbacks or negative emotions are suffered. Difficulties are then rejected, rather than overcome.

Frequently expressing negative thoughts in a rage poisons the mind and clouds judgement. It is a real addiction that, when left unchecked, greatly affects someone's life by causing them to make poor decisions and live in permanent frustration. It also causes social difficulties because people who cannot stop complaining are unpleasant to deal with.

Identify and mitigate

Everyone complains from time to time. Often, that is harmless and we think little of it. But as described above, it can lead to unhealthy habits. It also requires a lot of energy and is usually very unproductive. We can address and prevent this negativity in ourselves and others.

To address it in ourselves, we must identify the thought patterns and anger as it happens - the earlier, the better. Equipped with the knowledge that emotions are running loose, we are empowered to choose to act in a productive manner instead. We can't just choose our emotions and we shouldn't suppress them, but with deliberate practice, it's possible to avoid acting foolishly and still accept the emotions. There's nothing inherently wrong with pointing out what's bad and frustrating in life. Sometimes, it is necessary to do precisely that, but it should be done fairly and calmly. We have to distinguish between when we're riled up and when we're calmly laying out the facts. What's important is to deliberately choose productive actions and avoid actions that cause harm and don't improve the situation at all.

To address the negativity in others, we also have to identify these patterns and emotions, but it's an entirely different process because it's not unfolding in one's own head and therefore, it requires empathy. The frustrated chess player may just need a bit of time to cool off. Other problems have to be addressed in other ways. Every case is different. We must not join in on the complaining, that just makes the situation worse. An important thing to note is that we shouldn't reward people for complaining and negativity. If they get their way by complaining, they subconsciously learn that it works and the addictive effect of complaining is reinforced. Even if we agree with the complaints, it is prudent to de-escalate the situation and discuss it in depth once the anger has worn off.


I've found that chronic complainers are often very unhappy people. Even if they aren't unhappy, their grievances often remain the same for years or even decades, despite the fact that many of them could easily be addressed. These people shouldn't be looked down on as grumpy and annoying, they should be seen as victims of an addictive cycle of thoughts and actions. Especially in today's connected world on the Internet, it is easy to find oneself enraged and in an emotional downward spiral. Entire communities are formed around shared anger and outrage when it would be so much healthier and more productive to bond over love and appreciation of something. If we simply turn our attention to communities that are wholesome and productive and spend our energy this way, we improve the situation.

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