What's the point in complaining?

Complaining allows us to express our dissatisfaction with people and events but persistent complaining may be a sign of greater dissatisfaction within ourselves. Read more about what complaining can teach us about our true desires and needs.

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Complaining. We all do it and we are all subject to it. A complaint is a statement of dissatisfaction and a way of communicating our displeasure or disapproval. Many complaints exist solely to be expressed and even fewer are directed into demands or requests for change. Even when complaints are not accompanied by action they can serve a useful function in so far as they help us to cope with difficult circumstances. But we need to be careful around excessive complaining which distracts us from unresolved issues within our psyche, and prevents us from making meaningful changes.

The useful function of complaining  

Let’s face it, coping with problems over which we have no control such as the weather or train delays can be trying. Sharing our frustrations with others fortifies us and often gives us the resolve to continue going about our lives. Once our frustrations have been witnessed, and we have hopefully received some empathy or sympathy we feel better able to tolerate whatever it is spoiling our day. Giving a person a space to be heard, without judgement or jumping in to fix things for them can be extremely helpful. 

People who complain together tend to bond together. I once read about a dating agency whose selling point was bringing couples together on the basis of what they hated rather than what they loved. They clearly knew the power of bonding over a common enemy or bugbear. This is also evident in our increasingly polarised culture where we find safety and positive reinforcement in our chosen tribes, whether they are leave or remain, left or right wing, highbrow or lowbrow.  

A good ‘gossip’ can enhance solidarity and boost our feelings of right-ness. Indeed, it is sometimes necessary for people to come together to call out unwanted behaviour or practices. If we never talked people would continue to get away with unwanted behaviour and practices without check. Such discussions can be mobilising. The seeds of revolution and change begin when people come together and acknowledge a common problem.   

The Marrow of a Complaint  

Although complaining can serve a useful function we need to recognise when it masks a deeper issue. Complaints tend to be fuelled by frustration, anger, disappointment, hurt, envy or fixation on another person. Like a dog with a bone they grab us within their sharp teeth and won’t let go. We may try to hide our true feelings, bury them or shake them off but they hold on. What we need is get to the marrow at the core of the bone, at the core of our soul, for that is where we discover the source of our vulnerabilities and our wounds. This is the part of us that requires healing and attention.  

When we learn to acknowledge and sit with our wounds they can begin to transform. We can soften them with curiosity and empathy rather than judgement. As the respected psychotherapist Carl Rogers said, ‘the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.’  

So long as we are gripped by our complaints, and the feelings that fuel them, we are cut off from our empathy and compassion towards ourselves, the very components we need in order to heal.  

What may be hiding behind our complaining?  

If you find yourself drawn by a persistent complaint ask yourself what else might be going on. Here are a few possibilities:  

Helplessness – complaining is a common recourse when we feel we can’t do anything about a situation. If there is nothing we can do we can at least make ourselves feel better by letting others know.  

But feelings of helplessness can also be rooted in our belief that we are powerless. We may lack the authority to demand change, feel scared of confrontation or don’t feel we deserve to get what we want or need. These can be long held beliefs built up over our life experience and take conscious effort to shift.  

Being honest with ourselves about the true source of our helplessness can be the first step towards re-owning your power. Instead of judging any ‘weakness’ use self-compassion and understanding in order to take care of the part of you that feels vulnerable and helpless.  

Projection – this is when we disown qualities about ourselves and ascribe them to another person. A clue that we are projecting is if we feel fixated on a particular quality in another. For instance, we may enjoy bitching about someone who talks too much but it could mask our own unease with being talkative or taking up space. If we were taught to be modest and quiet we may yearn for more attention. The problem is that these processes happen unconsciously, and we need to catch ourselves doing them in order to recognise and take care of the unmet need.  

Envy - Attacking people that we envy feels easier than staying with the discomfort of what we feel we lack whether this relates to success, status, love or many other things. Envy puts the focus on other people and prevents us from taking responsibility for what we are missing and desire in our own lives.  

Negative beliefs – when we have strong negative beliefs such as ‘I’ll never be successful’ or ‘powerful people can’t be trusted’ we will likely search for any evidence that supports these. Our complaints reflect our beliefs and try to win people over to seeing the world as we see it. But our complaints may indicate that we are holding too rigidly to a particular view. When we are rigid in our thinking we cannot draw on our creativity, spontaneity and our authentic selves. Our energy is taken up with supporting our established views rather than fostering growth.  

We all have core beliefs and if we reflect on them we can usually find understandable reasons why we hold on to them, they are there to protect us and keep us safe, but they can also cut us off from other experiences. The key is to identify them and to ask whether they are still useful.  

What is the alternative to complaining?  

There is a temptation today to try to replace complaints with positive thinking, to turn a negative into a positive, and sometimes this can help. For instance, we can challenge a belief that ‘bad things always happen to me’ and begin to see that good things happen too.  

We can take our complaints seriously but if the feelings that fuel them have us within their grip we can pause to ask ourselves what else might be going on. We can ask what we would rather have and how can we get it.  

When situations don’t meet your expectations be honest about where the fault lies. If the problem lies elsewhere, or with another person, you have to weigh up your options. You could raise the issue with them, choose a different personal response or seek support from others.  

Always ask what the desire is at the root of your complaint. Knowing this can help you to mobilise towards it.  

Learn to communicate in a way that allows your voice to be heard. Complaints can sound passive aggressive and are too easy to ignore. Learn how to ask directly and clearly for what you desire, such as I would like this… or Have you thought of doing it this way… Avoid using attacking phrases that cause defensiveness such as You always… You never…  

It takes courage and honesty to admit to our deeper struggles but if we can accept, befriend and work with our struggles, if we can be gentle rather than harsh with the things we find difficult, we begin to heal and build lives that are in greater harmony with our needs and desires.







Melissa Cliffe

I am an experienced Gestalt psychotherapist and work with a range of issues including midlife, highly sensitive people, Third Culture Kids, depression, anxiety, relationships, identity, low self esteem, existential questions and more.