We all have off days. Days where the sky seems metallic grey rather than vibrant blue and smiles have an edge of irritation. Sometimes, it can be healthy to complain; to vent as it allows us to bring things out into the open where there is a greater chance of them being dealt with constructively, rather than being suppressed and pushed away.
However, we are not speaking of these periods we all go through, but rather the attitude of complaint that characterises some people. Ask them how they are, and you are met with a litany of woes and problems. The silence around them is punctured by sighs and deep breaths and nothing goes right for them nor is anything fair in their world.
Their attitude is like an aerosol infection that contaminates the environment around them. Whether they are family members, friends, or work colleagues, we come away from interacting with them feeling exhausted, claustrophobic, and grey.
How do we protect ourselves from the negative influence of such people? As much as we would like to tell our colleague or family member to change their attitude and their outlook, such an approach is rarely successful.
One of the reasons chronic complainers find it challenging to change their perspective is because it is learnt behaviour from an early age. Complaining was a tool they used to gain attention and be noticed within their family system. Consequently, complaining has become ingrained and part of their self-identity. Suggesting the person changes can threaten their sense of who they are. The other important factor to remember is any behavioural pattern repeated often enough, particularly when a child is young will result in changes to the neural wiring of the brain. What this means is the more a person repeats sad, negative, defeatist thoughts the more the neural patterns are rewired so negativity become reinforced and positive emotions are not recognised or noticed.
Consequently, telling our friend, family member or colleague they need to change only re-emphasises their negativity by convincing them everyone is against them.
The issue is, how do we protect ourselves?
Firstly, we need to set clear boundaries as to what we are prepared to listen to and discuss. Chronic complainers often want to ruminate and go over the same situation or topic time and time again. We have all been in situations like this. It is neither helpful for our own peace of mind or beneficial for the person who is chronically complaining.
It can be challenging setting boundaries; we feel unkind or that we are being too harsh to our colleague or family member. However, it is important to become comfortable setting our boundaries in manner, that is firm, kind and acknowledges what the chronic complainer may be feeling.
Secondly, we need to avoid giving or suggesting solutions to the person who is complaining. For every solution we suggest, the person who is complaining will come up with reasons why it will not work. Part of the characteristic for the majority of chronic complainers is black and white thinking. Solutions generally require the ability to see compromises and a willingness to give these compromises a go, something chronic complainers have extreme difficulty with. Rather than suggesting solutions it is better to ask the person what they want to do? Many times, the person will come back with a response along the lines of “I don’t know what to do, that is why I am asking you”. It is easy to allow ourselves to be flattered and drawn into responding with a solution. We need to maintain our boundaries and our ignorance regarding what would be the best solution for the person and allow them to discover that for themselves.
Thirdly, we need to be straight forward in asking them what is one thing that has gone well for them during the day. This is useful for the person who complains because it is requiring them to notice positive things that have occurred and which they have discounted or not noticed.
Chronic complaining is not harmless, it is toxic to relationships and to workplace culture. We need to maintain our boundaries and not allow such behaviour to continue and to drain us of our energy and enthusiasm towards life.