What, Exactly, is Complaining?

Two DoubleX friends are embarking on a month-long attempt to quit their kvetching that they have dubbed the Whiners’ Guide to Not Complaining. In it, they agree that although their wry, sarcastic style has led them to great personal and professional success, they could perhaps consider altering it just a tad–just a smidgen, perhaps–in an attempt not so much to alter their own black-humored, cynical personas but just to be more mindful of what’s hipster veneer and what’s becoming more like a way of life. They’ve dubbed this week’s goal “mindful complaining.” One says she hopes to preserve a critical demeanor and “maybe even some irony,” while the other plans to stop complaining entirely about the small things and quit “excessively complaining” about the big ones. They hope the rest of us staffers will sign on. I’m game, but as I started to pop a pledge onto the comments page, I stopped. What, exactly, does complaining mean, and what would less of it entail? Can I blog complaint-free?

On his website, A Complaint-free World, Will Bowen defines a complaint as an expression of “grief, pain, or discontent.” My Microsoft Word dictionary offers:

com·plain vi
1. to express unhappiness about something
2. to say that you are experiencing something, especially pain or an illness
3. to accuse somebody of doing something illegal or undesirable, or make a protest about something

Hmmm…I’m not sure I can stop doing that. I’m not sure I want to. I am, after all, often unhappy, and I am certainly experiencing something, and being unhappy with and experiencing certain things has been the underpinning of this blog for months, if not since day one.

Are you not, truly, here to listen to me whine? Am I not writing here because you will listen to me whine?

But maybe it’s time. Will Bowen (and I know these things because my lovely colleague Jess looked them up, not because I did) “also says that when people are complaining, ‘they are talking and thinking about what they do not want in their life and, thereby, attracting more pain, grief and discontent.’” Now, Sam doesn’t buy this–she thinks it’s tantamount to saying you bring cancer upon yourself with negativity and can make a new car appear in your driveway just by wishing it so–but on some level, I disagree. I once had a job I loathed, one that literally gave me ulcers and caused a doctor to threaten me with surgery and give me a list of acidic foods to avoid–and I had a colleague who also loathed the job, and we would go to lunch, and talk about how madly, passionately we loathed the job–until one day, she didn’t go. She was going to try a new tack, she said. She thought that maybe if she stopped talking about how much she hated the job, and just tried liking it for a while, she’d feel better.

I slunk away–and very quickly into a new job–but it worked for her. Avoiding the beacon of negativity (that would be me) allowed her to find things she liked about our workplace, and a couple of years later, she was still there–not through inertia, but because she’d found a way to make it work for her. It sounds like one of those Martha Beck stories, doesn’t it? Only I completely fail to be the life-changing heroine of the piece. But I do seem to have learned–over a decade later–something of a lesson: Complaining begets complaining, which begets more complaining, so on and so forth, and this is not a sentence that’s going to end with anything particularly positive coming of it. Only that final definition of complaint: “to make a protest over something” ends in change. And I do believe I am ready for some change.

And so, in that spirit and after much thought, I hereby sign on to the Non-Whiners’ Challenge. I promise to continue to relate insane scenes of kid-non-compliance and to update regularly on my ongoing battle with the crap that’s beginning to ooze out the windows of our home and onto the driveway, among other popular topics, but I also promise to quit the gratuitous generalized “but I didn’t really know how hard this was going to be stuff. It’s true. I didn’t know, but who ever does?

Honest assessment will continue. For example, I can tell you that in the past few weeks. I’ve regarded what I would consider to be Rory memorabilia–her attempts to write her name, for example, or a birthday block given to her by her school–with some dismay. Obviously if we make a place for these things, it means–well, it means she’s staying. And while I absolutely no longer wish to send her back, I haven’t really quite made room for the idea of Rory in sixth grade, or high school Rory, or Rory coming home from college. I’ve adjusted to her presence, but I find, for reasons I’m not quite clear about, that I haven’t fully accepted her permanence. That’s not a complaint, it’s both a fact and a mystery. Who realized they were two separate things?

What I think I can let go of is the need to berate myself over that fact. I feel the way I feel, and my feelings are changing. I think, if I’m honest, that hanging on to the negative aspects of the ways I’ve felt–the complaints, the whining, the but she’s not fitting herself into my exact life schema and although the other three never do I somehow didn’t get that we weren’t adopting a cute picture of a little girl but an actual, not always particularly cute, little girl–it’s time to yank the focus back from all of that. Was I drawing in more negativity? I think I was. There have been moments when I have positively reveled in how badly everything was going. That–if that-s the kind of complaining we’re giving up–that I can sign on for.

2 Responses to “What, Exactly, is Complaining?”

  1. Mizz.Givens says:

    I love your honesty. And I wish I had a brilliant answer about Rory’s permanence in your life but I don’t. I think this is something you will discover on your own and eventually, you and Rory will be tight and you’ll have things that belong to just the two of you.

    Ah, bitching and moaning. I used to be the queen. It’s a way of drawing other people into your misery so they can validate how jacked up things are for you, so you can continue to wallow. That doesn’t mean your complaints aren’t valid or real, but complaining is counter-productive. Once I stopped feeling sorry for myself about Zion’s disabilities, I was able to move into a space where I could help him more effectively. While complaining I was crippling him because I wasn’t allowing him to accept things as they were – I couldn’t accept it, either. Anyway, good luck.

  2. Tom Alyea says:

    Thank You for sharing your story about our program. If there is anything we can do to help please don’t hesitate to contact us. There are lots of tools and information on our website (www.acomplaintfreeworld.org) to assist in this journey.

    Tom Alyea
    President, A Complaint Free World