THE BLOG
05/15/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2015

Are You Complaining Your Way Through Life?

Two weeks ago, I asked Are You Trying To Change The World Through Anger? Many people read this article and several hundred added their comments to the piece. Last week's article, Could You Be More Loving? Please? garnered a lower readership and less than a hundred comments.

Both articles lead to a thoughtful set of comments and interactions between readers - well for the most part anyway. There were a couple of odd comments, including this one: "Could I be more loving? NO! NOW GO AWAY BEFORE I CALL THE POLICE!"

Not sure if this is comedy, tragedy or just melodrama. I chose the LOL route.

As you will have no doubt noticed, the national mood appears to be increasingly angry. Articles, TV news stories, panel discussions, conventions of the angry and whole movements disguised as Tea Parties seem to be popping up all over the place. Beyond noticing, it could be that you are one of the many who are thoroughly fed up with our current state of affairs.

As I have been witnessing the increasingly caustic nature of what passes for dialogue these days, I couldn't help but notice the underlying tone of complaint that many carry in their discourse. We seem to be encountering more and more angry people venting a wide range of complaints.

Even complaints beget complaints. It occurs to me that many of us our trying to complain our way toward improvement. I find myself wondering what would happen if we could engage one action step forward for each complaint issued?

What Do You Hope To Gain By Complaining?

Many years ago, a teacher of mine helped me zero in on my proclivity to complain about various aspects of life. Other people got better breaks than I did, my job was unfair, people didn't treat me right, and on and on.

A long time student of Fritz Perls, the "father of Gestalt therapy," my teacher helped me dig for the underlying message and purpose in my frequent complaints.

He asked me a fairly simple question: what do you hope to get by complaining? That one kind of brought me up short for I had never considered that there might be a purpose beyond simply complaining.

My somewhat lame answer had to do with wanting things to be different.

He asked me how complaining would make anything different. Of course, I had no good answer. Pressing forward, he asked me to consider what would have to be true for the complaints to go away.

One answer was that I could just accept things as they were and there wouldn't be anything to complain about. OK, fine. That could be true. In fact, I have learned that acceptance can be a key to experiencing life in greater balance, peace and equanimity. At least for some of the time.

However, as we dug even deeper, he helped me discover a powerful message I had for myself, to myself, that was hidden inside the complaint. When I was complaining about how other people seemed to catch more breaks in their lives than I did and how my job sucked and my boss was incompetent, what I was really saying to myself is that I wanted things to be different. I wanted my life to be different.

I know, duh! However, hidden in the complaint was also a kind of demand and sense of entitlement that I deserved better, that the world owed me a better set of circumstances. Not only did I want things to be better, someone else owed it to me.

So my friend and mentor asked me what I would have to risk in order to get what I wanted, in order for the complaints to go away.

That one stopped me for a little bit. The more I pondered the question, the more I realized that the way out of my complaints and into a more fulfilling experience involved me doing something about the condition. No matter whether it was more a fulfilling relationship, a better job, or a better living situation (I was living in my car at the time), if anything was going to change, it was going to come down to me doing something about it.

That may be as obvious as the day is long, but it still didn't quite click sufficiently for me to get going. So we dug some more.

Complaints Are Signs of Something Preferred, But Not Risked

That's when I discovered a life-changing awareness: complaints are signs of something preferred, but not being risked.

As long as I hang out in my complaints, I get to keep imaging that not only do I want better, but that I deserve better. And I also get to pretend that I would do better, "if only." If only they would just get out of my way and let me run things, boy would things be better around here.

There are several troubling aspects to this kind of thinking and not just the inherent hubris that it takes to hold such a thought. What if I am capable of making things better but just not willing to risk finding out?

What if "they" did let me run things? And what if things didn't get any better? What if things got even worse?

Complaining is a great way for me to not only pretend that I deserve better, but that I would be better off for it, and that things would work out just the way I imagined in my mind. Pretty much the perfect no-risk scenario - I get to keep telling myself, and anyone who will listen, just how much better things would be if they let me run things.

The only fly in this ointment is that I wouldn't risk stepping forward to see if I could actually make the difference I told myself I wanted. So, I get to live in my perfect fantasy of a better life and let everyone else know that they're screwing up.

Kind of sounds like politics, doesn't it? The other party is screwing up and we could do so much better, if only . . .

What difference would you like to see in the world? Jobs? Housing? Healthcare? Hunger?

Are you doing something about what you say matters or are you just complaining about it?

I realize that things are difficult, that the world isn't fair, that the "fat cats" are in charge, and all kinds of other things are stacked against you. So what?

What's most troubling to me isn't that we have a host of important social problems to solve. What's most troubling to me is that we seemed to have substituted personal involvement with angry people trying to complain their way to a solution.

I know the challenges are immense, no matter which challenge you pick or what your preferred solution would be. The key is to translate all the energy that goes into complaining into some kind of action. Take the risk to get involved and make the difference you can.

Rosa Parks took a small step and look where it led. Obviously, she wasn't the only person who cared, nor the only one who took a step. But take a step she did.

What step could you take, no matter how small? Would you rather risk engagement or would you prefer trying to complain your way to a solution?

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.

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If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.

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