Complaint City

A couple of weeks ago, a Monday to be specific, I had a bad day. A very bad day. Making a long story short, I lost one of my most prized possessions, a watch, somewhere between my gym and my home. This watch was special not only for its monetary value, and it did have monetary value, for me at least; but mostly for its sentimental value, as it was a special surprise gift from my wife about a year ago. I will go as far to say that it was the best gift I had ever received. And now, that prized possession is lost out there, floating somewhere in the universe.

Losing that watch was just one of the three very bad things that happened to me on this specific day. The others were, some could argue, even worse. But don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the details.

Now that you understand how bad my Monday was (it was really bad, like I mentioned), do you feel bad for me? Probably not. Because it is very difficult to care deeply about another person’s problems. We can sympathize, but rarely can we empathize.

So why then, while knowing this sympathy/empathy fact, did I go about that Monday wanting so badly to tell others about how very bad my day was going? Why did I want to tell my customer about my lost watch while he shared his business problems? (Seriously, I was thinking about it). Why did I want to call up my mom, explain to her how sad I was, and have her pity me? I even wanted to blurt it out to the teller at the gas station as I paid for fuel, “Hey, ah, pump number three, oh and I LOST MY WATCH TODAY. Yeah, bad day, I know, terrible isn’t it…”

Because it feels good to be pitied and to receive attention.

Oh, and I didn’t just want to do this, by the way, I actually did do it. I took at least five opportunities to tell someone about my problems. I was the Mayor of Complaint City, welcoming people into my city limits as visitors in what would be the worst tourist experience on earth. Thank God there is no Yelp review option for Chris, otherwise I would have certainly received zero out of five stars for being self-serving and uninteresting.

Why does complaining feel so good?

Because for a moment it is all about me, and the more I feel important, the more I crave that feeling. It’s like that crazy itch that won’t go away until you scratch the heck out of it, it feels nearly impossible to keep from going at it. Yet, the more you scratch, the less chance the infection has to dissipate. Said frankly, the more you complain, the worse your problems become, for you and for everyone else.

This is true because when you complain you are seeking self-fulfillment and you offer no value to others. And, since most of us are naturally self-serving, we will eventually care even less about those who offer nothing to us. Sure, in the beginning, we offer an open ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a bout of sympathy. But in the end, we naturally avoid, resent, or discredit those who consistently complain to us.

In this way, complaints become like that piece of spinach stuck between a person’s teeth. In the beginning, we are generous, helpful, and self-sacrificing. We say to him, “you have something in your teeth,” but after the tenth or fifteenth time, when we continue to see pieces of lunch or dinner in his teeth, we stop wanting to help and we actually start avoiding conversations with the poor guy. I apologize for the metaphor, but it’s too easy: make sure your social hygiene is kept, don’t leave remnants of negativity in your mouth when you talk to others.

baby in adult clothes.jpg

photo from mommyshorts.com

But complaining is so hard to stop. It feels good for the same reasons that crying felt good when we were infants. We cried because we wanted to be heard and to be helped. We cried because we did not have the ability to help ourselves, and in doing so, we received attention, pity, and yes, milk. Yet somewhere along the way, during our evolution to adulthood, we just kept on crying, wailing away like little babies. Only this time it came out in words like “I’m having a bad day,” or “I hate when so-and-so does such-and-such.” We continue to act like babies even in our silly grown up bodies. We are like the toddler dressed in dad’s suit and loafers, but instead of looking adorable, we just look ridiculous.

Here’s the kicker. The hardest thing to do when you are having a bad day is to withhold from complaining, yet ironically it is the thing that can make the most positive difference. We all know this truth even though we don’t want to believe it: by sounding the alarms and complaining aloud you actually make your attitude and your circumstances worse. But it is really hard to keep from complaining, isn’t it? I hate how hard it is! (see what I did there?).

Here are a few things to keep in mind next time you catch yourself in this moment:

  1. Complaining is like scratching an itch. Most times it will probably get worse the more you scratch.
  2. Complaining is not problem-solving. Complaining is like a baby’s cry for milk. Only complain if you have a solution to present. Or, if you want some milk.
  3. When you want to complain, if you must, complain only to one trusted friend. For most people this will be a significant other, a husband, or a wife. For others, it will be a close friend.

I wrote this not because I am faultless but in fact the contrary, because I have such a hard time avoiding complaining. If you have tips or thoughts on how to improve in this area, please leave a comment with your advice. It will be a big help to me and anyone else reading this.

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