4.11. Why We Complain So Much

It’s not just about our feelings. It’s also about a social performance.

Complaining is healthy sometimes.

Sometimes it’s good to blow off steam. Sometimes it’s good to articulate the frustration you’re feeling to a sympathetic ear.

Heck, if you complain to the right person, in the right way…you might even get your problem fixed.

But be honest.

How much of the complaining you do is really productive?

How many of those conversations truly accomplish something?

How many of those imaginary rants in your head about this or that actually make you feel better?

I have a theory about why so many people complain so much.

Complaining is something we do when we feel powerless.

We complain about things we’re unable or unwilling to do something about.

If we could fix it ourselves, we’d just do it.

If we needed to ask someone to fix it, and we had confidence that they’d take care of it, we’d just ask them—without getting worked up or agitated about it.

By verbalizing our discontent with something we didn’t want to happen, that we were powerless to avoid or affect, we feel a little better.

We don’t feel totally better—but at least we said something about it. At least we got someone to listen and empathize.

But that’s not the whole story.

Because it’s not just about our feelings.

It’s also about a social performance.

We live in a competitive society. And people judge us.

So when stuff happens beyond our control that holds us back, or makes things more difficult than they could’ve been, or is undeserved or unfair…there’s more at stake than just the event itself.

There’s also the consequences that event might have on how people perceive us.

What if they blame us? What if they lose respect for us? What if they conclude that we got what we deserved?

So complaining is our way of signaling to others that what happened wasn’t our fault.

It’s our way of signaling that we have obstacles and impositions getting in our way, that we’re unhappy with those obstacles, and trying to deal with them as well as we can.

It’s our way of saving face, and maintaining our social status and dignity, even when things don’t go our way.

It can even become a sort of ritual, among acquaintances and friends—where even when things don’t really bother us that much, we still take turns shaking our heads and rolling our eyes and making snarky comments about things in our lives.

I think it’s fine to complain on occasion—especially when it’s about something that’s truly unjust, and it has a chance to actually be productive.

But be careful that your feelings of grievance—or your desire to absolve yourself from everything bad that happens in your life—doesn’t become an obsession.

In the end, you’re either truly powerless…or you aren’t.

Just do what you can…and make your peace with what you can’t.

If you have to communicate to someone that something wasn’t your fault, there are often other ways to do it without complaining, without being overly negative.

When you understand where complaining comes from, you’ll find yourself doing it less…and also becoming more sympathetic to those who do it chronically.


This is the 71st in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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