I picked up The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way To Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, Enhance Self-Esteem, by psychologist Guy Winch, in hopes of learning something about the chronic complainers in my life.
But the book taught me as much about myself as others.
Despite the many years that have passed since, I still wince remembering my last months on a job that had gone bad. I became the person whose friends ducked for cover when they saw me coming because they knew to expect a litany of complaints about my miserable life.
And a few years ago, when I was again floundering professionally, I realized with horror that friends had started looking at me with pity. It was an awful epiphany. As Winch points out. “By succumbing to the special attention pity offers us, the convenience of lowered expectations, and other secondary gains associated with being objects of others’ sorrow, we become victims in our own eyes as well as those of others.”
I am going to imprint those important words on my brain. I don’t want friends pitying or dodging me.
And while I’ve been feeling bad about wanting to avoid the chronic complainers in my life, this book helped me understand the risks of complaining for the sake of complaining.
Rather than citing empirical research, Winch bases most of what he writes on his own experiences and his work as a therapist. But his hypotheses about the risks and benefits of complaining bear testing in the real world.
Returning to my original intent, I asked Winch, via email, a few questions about chronic complainers. (Not me, of course. Other people)
Your book focuses on the benefits—economically, emotionally, and in relationships–of effective complaining. What differentiates positive from negative complaining?
Positive complaints are like good project managers—they know how to get results. Complaining is not about being right or proving a point, it’s about getting a resolution. Negative complaints are ones that have no purpose other than to let off steam. They don’t change anything and they often make things worse (perhaps because we lack the necessary skill sets to complain effectively). Complaints, especially those that are meaningful to us, provide us with golden opportunities to do things such as clear the air in a relationship, or feel empowered, or improve our communities. It’s a shame to waste them.
Why do people get stuck in a complaining rut? Is it because they complain ineffectively or do you think they get something positive from it?
Unfortunately, there’s something quite broken in our complaining psychology—which is the perceptions, feelings and beliefs that get triggered when we have a complaint or dissatisfaction. No matter how frustrated we are, we believe that addressing our complaint to the person who can resolve it (be it our spouse, colleague, or customer service rep) will resolve nothing and only lead to an argument or a confrontation. So we choose to vent to our friends about it instead and end up spending just as much time, effort and aggravation (we relive the angst every time we tell the tale) as we would have had we complained productively in the first place.
When people understand the relationship and self-esteem costs we pay for ineffective complaining and learn the correct techniques, they break out of the rut and complain much more effectively.
What do you think of the idea of what I call “recreational bitching and moaning”? Is there social currency to griping? At what point does it stop being recreational and start being annoying?
Venting our feelings can be very useful when it is not possible for us to resolve the complaint in that moment for whatever reason or when the matter is too insignificant to pursue but irritating enough to nag at us.
Complaints also serve social functions, such as impression management and bonding opportunities (“OMG! You hated that movie too? We’re like twins!). But once we begin to sound negative a substantial amount of the time, we’re no longer recreational moaners—we’ve turned pro. We’re chronic complainers.
In discussing chronic complainers, you say there’s a point where people’s reaction goes from compassion to pity. Is there also a point of compassion fatigue?
Absolutely! There are those rare people who suffer one terrible misfortune after another, but the vast majority of over-complainers really don’t have enough material to support their complaining habit. They either retread the same complaint territory over and over again, or they complain about increasingly insignificant things (“That was the third busted teabag this week! I’m cursed, I tell you!”). Both of these can trigger compassion fatigue in listeners, not to mention eye rolling.
You also say that many chronic complainers don’t recognize the moment when compassion ends. Does this mean it’s up to people around the chronic complainer to complain about all the complaining? How? Is that effective?
Chronic complainers don’t see themselves as being negative. They see the world as being negative and themselves as merely reflecting that reality. Therefore, getting across to them that their complaining has become problematic is by no means easy.
In my book, I describe a family therapy case in which the father was a chronic complainer. I gave him a “daily complaint budget” of a certain number of complaints per day which he was not allowed to exceed. But that only works once you have the person’s cooperation. The best and safest way to raise the issue with a chronic complainer is to first express compassion for their hard time but then to simply draw their attention to how negative they sound. And then duck.
Visit Dr. Winch’s website and watch the trailer for The Squeaky Wheel here.