Why People Complain SO Much (and How to Deal With Them)

People complain. A LOT. Complaining is negative, exhausting, and overall just a waste of time! So why do people complain so much? Why do people have so much to complain about?

This will probably sound familiar to you: it’s the holidays and you’re excited to see your whole family all together in one room. Just then Aunt Cathy locks eyes with you. You instantly turn to run in the other direction as if you never saw her at all. At this point you are really hoping she isn’t following you to get your attention, but you don’t dare turn around to check and see.

We’ve all had to avoid the ‘complainer’.

Aunt Cathy is the person we all avoid at family gatherings because all she ever does is complains. She complains about all of the problems she has and why they are so much more serious than everyone else’s problems. Aunt Cathy explains how everything she tries to do is impossible, as if the whole world is against her. She seems to bring the entire room down to a horribly negative place. It’s almost as if Aunt Cathy has never had a single good thing happen in her entire life!

I’m guessing that since you are here, you probably have a specific person in your life who is wearing you a little thin from all of their complaining. Perhaps it’s your partner or spouse, one of the members of your immediate family, your best friend, or maybe a colleague at work. It may even be you who is complaining excessively, and just haven’t realized this was a problem until now.

Now is the time for you to learn how to deal with people who complain so much, and to make sure you aren’t someone else’s Aunt Cathy!

Why do People Complain So Much?

In Will Bowen’s excellent TED Talk “A World Without Complaining”, he explains that the five reasons people complain so much are to get attention, to remove responsibility, to inspire envy (or brag), to make themselves more powerful, and to excuse poor performance. Let’s dig into these a bit deeper with a few examples. Keep your special complainer in mind as you read through each of the five reasons.

1. People Complain to Get Attention

People love to get attention. When we are young, we get used to being the centre of attention. As we age, we either grow out of this expectation, or become stuck in it. While it is okay to enjoy being the centre of attention, some people go about getting attention in unhealthy ways.

Some people complain to seek out attention and feel a connection with those around them. Everyone needs to feel human connection. Some people find the easiest way to connect with others is through complaining. Therefore people complain to get attention from others and to feel connected to others.

For example: your spouse comes home from work complaining about how much they hate their job. Your spouse is looking for you to give them attention, and listen to all the things that went wrong in their day. In most cases, people complain for attention so that you will validate their feelings toward the bad day they just experienced. To them, venting about their work situation is a way for them to connect with you through conversation while getting the attention they need (even if it is brought on by negativity).

If someone is complaining to get attention, the best thing you can do is redirect their thinking to something more positive. You could remind them of all the great opportunities they have had as a result of their job. You could ask them to tell you something good that happened in their day or something they love about their job instead. In turn, this will redirect their thinking to less negativity and allow them to connect with you in a healthier way rather than complaining.

2. To Remove Responsibility

We carry a lot of responsibility in our lives. We are responsible for our families, our jobs, and our own wellbeing. With so much to juggle, it makes sense that people complain! How are we supposed to balance all of these things and keep each one from interfering with the other!?

Some people complain to remove responsibly. These people complain to get themselves out of doing a task that they don’t want to do. These people complain to make it seem as though the task at hand is not possible. Since it isn’t possible, it isn’t reasonable to expect them to complete it! This is someone who complains but does nothing.

These types of people who complain have to tell a lie to themselves. They have to make up an obstacle that is preventing them from reaching a goal, and then complain about how massive the obstacle is.

Now, I am one of those annoying people who do not believe that anything is impossible. So when these types of people complain, it has no impact on me. I do not give sympathy to people who complain about things that they want to pretend are impossible. It is a waste of time! Instead of complaining, let’s talk about a solution that will help you make the impossible, possible!

My husband used to work an insanely demanding job as a teacher in a prestigious international boarding school. The expectations of the teachers were unreasonably high and left little time for self-care. He would come home every day and complain. The things he complained about were valid things to complain about, however, he wasn’t doing anything about it.

If I tried to offer suggestions, there was always an obstacle that removed his responsibility of solving the problem. He was truly unhappy with his work and needed the courage to make a change. Instead of wasting our time complaining, we used this time to brainstorm solutions to problems. Whenever there was an obstacle, we thought long and hard about whether it was possible to remove the obstacle, or whether it was something he was making up to remove the responsibility.

Instead of wasting his time complaining about a job he hated, he decided it was time for him to pursue work that brought him more joy. He now has a flexible job that provides him with much more time for self-care that in turn helps him complain much less. As a result, he now feels confident that quitting teaching was the best thing he ever did!

Don’t let the people close to you off the hook. Instead of letting them complain to remove responsibility, ask them how you can help them make it possible. Redirect their thinking to help them omit the lie they are telling themselves about the task that makes it impossible.

Someone who complains but does nothing isn’t looking to solve the problem. They are looking for you to validate the obstacle they have made up. Instead, show your support by helping them make something possible that, to them, feels impossible.

3. To Inspire Envy (0r to Brag)

People complain as a way to impress other people with their superiority. Wait… complaining is a form of bragging?

Yes! People complain as a way of showing that the things they complain about make them ‘better’. Usually, people who don’t have a lot going on in their lives complain about stuff to show that their problems are worth complaining about.

For some reason, people complain to add a ‘dramatic flair’ to their otherwise undramatic lives. These people want to brag and make others jealous of the problems that they have to live with on a daily basis.

For those of us not interested in listening to complaints, these types of people are very irritating. We all know someone like this. You can identify these people very easily in conversation. If you complain about something, they will try to out-complain you!

People like to feel superior to others. If there is a way to show others that they know more, or have had better/more interesting experiences, they love to brag about it!

When people complain to inspire envy, they want you to validate them. They are hoping that you will take this time to compliment them and feed their ego. “Wow, the problems you deal with are so much more complicated/interesting than mine!” You definitely don’t want to validate these types of complaints.

These types of people can be hard to deal with. Finding a way to work gratitude into the conversation can stop these types of complainers in their tracks. When people complain, they have a hard time thinking of things that they are grateful for. Someone who is complaining to brag will be forced to stop and genuinely reflect on the thing they are complaining about.

4. To Make Themselves More Powerful

People complain because negativity sells. We buy into complaints because the reality is we all have something to complain about!

During elections, how often do you hear a party talk about how great the other party is doing. No! If you want to get people on your side, you have to complain about all of the bad things the other party has done!

Some people complain to make themselves more powerful. By complaining to people with similar opinions, these types of people can get support from others. These types of people are dangerous. With enough support, their negativity is validated and can turn into action.

People who complain to gain power want your help with drawing others to their cause.

If you are one positive person in a sea of negative people, it can be tough to maintain your stance. We see this a lot in toxic work environments. These are the offices where the employees are disgruntled and complain a lot. If you work in an environment like this, you will feel the pressure to change the way you look at your work. Even if you are a person who finds the good in things, the negativity will drain you.

If you are close to a person who is complaining to bring others down with them, it may be time to set boundaries, communicate them, and stand to your ground. If you don’t, the positivity flame you work so hard to keep burning will sadly burn out.

Misery loves company. Don’t let yourself be it!

5. To Excuse Poor Performance

No one likes to accept responsibility for failure. As a result, some people complain to excuse poor performance on something they have failed at. If they can complain about something that explains why their performance wasn’t their fault, then they can’t be held accountable for what happened. This is another clever trick our brains play.

We see examples of this behavior everywhere in our lives:

  • Students who get poor marks complain that they have a bad teacher.
  • Employees who do not meet deadlines complain about their co-workers slowing them down.
  • Children who don’t finish their chores complain that their siblings didn’t help.

The people complaining in these examples don’t want to take blame for not completing the task they were required to complete. These types of people complain that things are not their fault, and make up a way to deflect the blame to someone else. They make excuses so that they cannot be held accountable for a poor performance.

People who complain to excuse poor performance are fun to deal with because they basically just don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions. Validating these sorts of complaints is not a helpful way of dealing with these sorts of people.

These types of people do not see the value in using a growth mindset to rethink setbacks as growth opportunities. Failure is the best teacher. In failure, we learn how to improve for next time. This is an essential law of personal growth.

Instead of validating these complaints, ask the complainer what they could have done to ensure that they completed the task assigned to them, or what they could do next time to make sure it doesn’t happen again. These types of people do not like to admit fault, so be sure to have a healthy dose of positivity ready.

Help People Complain The Right Way

Most people will agree that complaining is annoying, draining, and a waste of time. However, my goal is not to say ‘don’t complain’.

Complaining is okay to do, if you are complaining correctly (yes, there is a correct way to complain).

Complaining is our way of expressing that we are not satisfied with something in our lives. Doing this the right way is a healthy form of self-care. However, we mess it up when we start to complain to the wrong people, or without an interest in a solution.

To complain correctly, you need to raise the concern to the right person and ask for help with finding a solution. You also need to want a solution.

To help this make sense, consider the following example: Imagine that your Internet has just gone down and has been out for several hours. It is unlikely that you would go and complain to your family about this. Instead, you would phone your Internet service provider, explain the situation, and ask for a resolution. If you are not satisfied with the resolution, you would continue asking until you are satisfied.

When you have a problem, you need to communicate your problem effectively to the right person who can help you find a solution. If you do anything other than this, you are likely aiming to get attention, remove responsibility, brag, gain power, or excuse your poor performance.

If you are close with someone who complains but does nothing, keep this Internet example in mind. It may even help to share it with them! Look for these five reasons that they might be complaining to you. Get to the bottom of whether or not they are actually looking for a solution. Look for any made up barriers that they may be adding in to remove their responsibility.

To support someone who complains but does nothing, offer to keep a tally of how often they complain in a given 24 hour period. Write a note of what they were complaining about. At the end of the day see what it was that they were complaining about and discuss whether these things were necessary to complain about. Discuss the five reasons people complain and see if you can work together to get to the bottom of the reason behind each complaint.

In just a few short days you and those around you can cut complaints in half to:

  • feel less emotionally drained, anxious, and angry throughout the day.
  • see more positives in everyday life.
  • feel your energy levels increasing throughout the day.
  • act in more loving ways to those close to you.

We all have hardships in our lives. We also want support from those closet to us. It’s time we start communicating in an effective way about our hardships. Complaining to the wrong person will only keep your eyes focused on the present instead of moving problems to your past.

Don’t forget to share this post with your friends and family on social media! Especially the ones who complain the most! This could be the insight and motivation they need to make a major lifestyle change!


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