14 Dec 2018

Complaining is usually better than exploding

Denying our discontent can cause obsessive thinking, chewing over situations that remind us of our unsatisfied demands and lead to chronic stress.

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Complaining is usually better than exploding - NewsMavens
Woman screaming, PixaBay

The following fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with the American psychologist Guy Winch first appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in November 2018.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: Complaining has become widely popular. Yet why is it still held in disrepute among those who cultivate the idea of “positive thinking”?

Guy Winch: Most people associate complaining with pessimism -- with being a constantly dissatisfied bellyacher -- but this is not entirely justified. I agree that we grumble a lot and could easily do without half of our complaints because they do blacken our emotional landscape, but there are also grudges that reflect our deepest needs and these require action.

Here’s my idea: “Out of all your complaints, choose 5 that annoy you the most, try to sort them out and forget about the rest.”

Also, there’s a huge difference between letting something go and not expressing something that’s eating us up from the inside. That could be dangerous.

AJ: How can we do this?

Some people proudly say: “I NEVER complain!” But what’s the point of that if it turns them into walking time bombs?

The denial of discontent can lead to obsessive thinking, chewing over situations that remind us of our unsatisfied demands and cause chronic stress. Such a person is constantly agitated, depressed and tends to act without thinking.

The “I never complain” attitude also impedes communication in a relationship -- people have to be able to discuss even the most hurtful or uncomfortable matters. There’s nothing more devastating for our mind than the feeling of powerlessness.

A person who claims that nothing bothers them automatically deprives themselves of the opportunity to solve their problem and improve their situation.

AJ: On the other hand, there are those who complain all the time and about everything.

I’m not entirely sure whether or not some of us are born with “chronic moaner syndrome” but such an attitude can certainly be acquired.

For example, nearly every child goes through “whining phases”. But some parents say: “I can’t understand when you grumble like this. Perhaps you could try and speak more clearly?” and in this way they encourage their child to express their complaint or request constructively.

Of course, there are also mothers and fathers who fulfil a child’s every wish and are willing to do anything to make their little one stop whining. This only teaches their child that this is an effective method of getting what they want and over time, whining becomes an integral part of child’s personality.

A chronic whiner often tries to portray themselves as a victim: “Poor me”, “Why do bad things always happen to me?!”.

AJ: What do chronic whiners expect from others?

Emotional confirmation.

They want to hear that they actually are the most ill-fated and unlucky people on the planet. It brings them relief.

AJ: But each one of us goes through phases in life when everything goes wrong. Divorce, loss of a parent and sometimes it’s really hard to find a silver lining in the cloud.

Agreed. That’s when people come to see me. But I wouldn’t be able to help them if I just listened to their complaints and nodded my head in sympathy.

I always warn my patients: “We’re here to improve your situation but it won’t happen if we focus exclusively on the negative aspects of your life.” If someone wants to complain, they can do it with friends, strangers on the train or they can talk to a bartender.

 AJ: You teach your patients how to complain effectively...

Correct. It’s called the “complaint sandwich”.

AJ: And what’s in the sandwich?

First of all, we need to make sure that our dissatisfaction is directed at the right recipient. Then, we start our complaint with an ear-opener -- a positive statement that will make the complaint easier to absorb and will help the recipient become sympathetic.

AJ: So that’s the top slice of bread?

Exactly. The meat in our sandwich is the actual complaint. It shouldn’t be too thick.

AJ: Meaning?

We can’t solve 10 problems at one go. If we want to tell our partner that we’re fed up with them being always late, we shouldn’t discuss all 35 cases of their late arrival that happened during our 3-year relationship, but only refer to the most recent situation. It’s far less overwhelming than: “Because you’re ALWAYS late!”.

The bottom slice of bread should help the listener digest our complaint, such as a positive statement that will increase the listener's motivation to help us. It should convey the message: “I’ve just told you what bothers me and if I manage to resolve it, I will feel better in our relationship”.

AJ: How to get rid of the anger we might feel before serving the “complaint sandwich”? Staying calm throughout the conversation with our partner might be a challenge if we’re mad and frustrated.

Anger is often the result of stockpiled, unspoken grudges. My philosophy presumes that if all matters get resolved on the spot, our frustration won’t accumulate and the “complaint sandwich” will prove effective.

AJ: Do men and women express their complaints differently?

I’m not a big fan of generalization but women are usually more inclined to share their feelings, especially with other women.

And here’s how men resolve their conflicts: one of them goes: “Come on, mate...”, the other replies: “I know, man!” and it’s done. The first sentence means: “You know what? You’ve hurt me”, and the second one: “I know I did and I apologize”. If this works for them, that’s fair enough but if the matter is serious, they might need to discuss it more thoroughly. Talking openly about problems increases our chances of achieving a desired result.

AJ: In your book you refer to some of your patients. My favourite character was Rose -- an elderly lady who spent half of her life struggling with treatment-resistant depression.

My first encounter with Rose was one of these moments in the therapist’s career, when you think to yourself: “Oh my God! This is impossible!”. Due to her severe depression, Rose had been receiving electric shock therapy for 6 months. When she came to me she was dejected,  spoke very quietly and very little. One day she told me about being involved in a “fight” contributing to her local community.

She was in a good condition, so she decided to help. It turned out that her activism spirited her up, brought back her zest of life! She didn’t need to go back to hospital for a long time. The transformation that took place each time she started talking about the case was unbelievable: the tone of her voice suddenly changed, so did her facial expression and body posture. There was fire in her eyes! I was looking at her in disbelief wondering: “Is it the same Rose?”

Then and there I decided that once in a while I would ask her to recall that story to give her a jolt of energy. And whenever she was dissatisfied with a product or with the service, I would encourage her to resolve it. And every time she came to see me, I prayed that she had something to complain about.


Guy Winch -- American psychologist and psychotherapist. Author of many books, including The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem.

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach


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