The Curse of Complaining
Be less concerned with what you have than with what you are.
Think about your last couple of days.
How many times did you hear someone complain about something? Maybe it was a moan about something petty, like the weather, or a groan about something personal, like the holiday weight that they still haven’t lost, or a gripe about something more significant, like the economy or political circus.
My guess is you’ve recalled dozens if not scores of conversations, emails, texts, and tweets that involved–if not revolved around–complaining. Maybe you even joined in yourself.
We all grouse from time to time, but for many people, grumbling isn’t an exception, it’s a way of life. They’re obsessed with what’s wrong and vent about anything and everything without aim or purpose.
Why devote so much time and energy to whining when it’s scientifically proven to increase stress and anxiety levels, sour mood and lead to more negative thinking, and hamper progress toward solutions and goals? When 1/10th of that time and energy put into finding solutions instead could change things for the better?
Why are these people so committed to such an ineffective and pathological strategy?
For many, it’s because they love being a victim.
They love how it arouses sympathy, lowers expectations, excuses negativity, and relieves the burden of personal responsibility, and how putting their difficulties on display convinces people to judge them more leniently for their shortcomings and failures and praise them more enthusiastically for their successes.
Sigmund Freud commented on this, writing that “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.”
Don’t be one of these people.
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It’s Monday morning. A guy is curling in the squat rack. You don’t make enough money. The free coffee shop wifi is too slow. It’s cold outside in January. Your friend’s Facebook status updates always have typos. Someone left the toilet seat up.
Every one of us can find an endless number of things to bellyache over, but why dig the hole deeper?
“Everything that happens is either endurable or not,” wrote the legendary Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. “If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable, then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature.”
So don’t go looking for sympathy. Most people don’t care about your problems and many are secretly glad that you have them.
Don’t compromise your standards. No matter what you want to do, moderation won’t get you very far. Nothing succeeds like excess.
Don’t shirk your duties. Remember that the more you suffer voluntarily, the less you’ll suffer involuntarily.
Whatever you do, don’t whinge.
In 1961, a group of more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives to travel together on buses and trains through the Deep South, flouting Jim Crow laws. They would come to be known as the Freedom Riders, and they endured bitter racism, savage beatings, firebombing, and imprisonment.
Forty-five of the Riders landed in the maximum security wing of the Mississippi State Penitentiary for their nonviolent activism, and instead of feeling sorry for themselves or bickering amongst each other, they displayed remarkable solidarity and esprit, singing hymns, spirituals, and freedom songs.
This was unacceptable to the jail authorities, who threatened to remove all mattresses from their cells if they didn’t stop caroling. Soon after the ultimatum, one of the Riders, Hank Thomas, rushed to his bars, shouting for the guards to come get his mattress. “I’ll keep my soul!” he cried. This insubordination sparked the rest of the cell block to sing “We Shall Overcome” and hurl their mattresses against their cell doors to be removed.
Weeks went by and only a few of the Riders even asked for their mattresses back. Instead, most slept on steel springs and continued to sing through all of the punishment, including standard intimidation tactics as well as more extreme measures like drenching them with fire hoses and blasting them with giant fans at night to make it too cold to sleep and closing all the windows during the day to bake them in the Mississippi summer heat. None of it had the intended effect. The Riders refused to stop singing.
The moral of the story is simple:
If you don’t like something, do something to change it. Don’t complain, just work harder. And if you ultimately can’t change it–no matter how undeserved or unreasonable it is–then change your mind about it.
To quote Aurelius again, “Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.”
When someone deals mostly in complaints, all they’re really saying is they lack the gumption to act, to have the courage of their convictions. Instead, they sit on the sidelines and do the only thing they’re capable of: carping and criticizing those that are in the arena, struggling and striving. Pay these people no mind.