The Value of Complaining


I want to puzzle through something that’s been bothering me lately: Why do people complain?

The interesting thing to me about complaining is that people are often talking about real obstacles–having a lot of work, being tired, dealing with a manager that disagrees with them. But somewhere that discussion about the real obstacle becomes a complaint session that just seems pointless to me. My attitude is often, “Fine. Jane disagrees with you. What are you going to say to convince her?” Or “Fine. Jane disagrees with you. Accept it and figure out how to make her ideas work.” Or “You know this isn’t going to change, and it will always bother you. Maybe it’s time to leave.”

My running idea is that complaining is a form of wish-fulfillment. When you say, “Why doesn’t my idiot manager just see that I’m right about this?” It’s like a day dream, same as imagining winning the lottery. And some people spend their lives in the day dreams, rather than putting together a plan to make that million dollars or accepting that they can’t and instead trying to budget their time. Though I think that complaining is more specific–its wish-fulfillment about your problems going away.

I definitely think people complain too much, but is complaining always pointless? I once attended a seminar by Jean Moroney on “Tackling Hard Thinking,” where she suggested complaining as a productive method. When you are stuck on a problem like the above manager situation, she suggests taking a few minutes to complain on paper about the situation. By doing that, you can clarify the problem, going into why your manager is stuck in her ways and how things would be better if she agreed. And that gives you more ammunition in creating a plan to actually change her mind or greater conviction that she’s beyond argument. I think this is another way in which complaining is like wishing. The value of fantasizing about winning the lottery is that you clarify exactly what you want but don’t normally let yourself think about. And then you can think about whether you actually do have the ability to get those things.

The other value of complaining is that it’s definitely better to get your emotions out than repress them. If you gave yourself a standing order against complaining, you might be cut off from knowing what was actually bothering you. Now that I think about it, that’s another way in which the value of complaining is clarity, about yourself rather than about the things outside of you.

So I guess where I’m at is this: do your complaining. Get clearer about yourself and the rest of the world. Then get on with things.



  1. Hi, Randal,

    Thanks for the mention of my class. I just wanted to add a little more advice about the technique from the class, which is complaining on paper.

    1) Do it on paper, not out loud. Complaining to other people can hurt morale. When you do it on paper, you become your own best listener.

    2) After you’ve spent a few minutes complaining on paper, read back over what you wrote with a “fishy eye.” You’re looking for exaggerations and distortions. Ask yourself, “is this literally true?” about each sentence. This helps you get objectivity on the issues, and makes the process objective.

    The complaints that pour out of your subconscious when you let them are emotional. You are using “complaining” to access all the emotionally relevant information on the topic.

    But once you have it out and into consideration, you need to go back into a logical mindset to see what’s true, what’s false, and what you’re going to do.

    Jean Moroney

  2. And a thank you back for the elaboration, Jean.

  3. It’s interesting. While I do get annoyed by people who complain without doing anything in response to the circumstances they are complaining about, I agree – complaining serves a real purpose. I think a feeling of happiness comes from a sense of control, and that often times, complaining comes in the form of “this thing sucks because it isn’t the way I want it to be”. In this situation, the most productive thing to do is to formulate a plan of action to change the situation, or to acknowledge that it’s just not in your control – that is, to accept it. But the act of complaining is simply an expression of that emotion of frustration, the feeling that something is out of your control or not the way you want it to be. Regardless of whether it is actually in your control or not, expressing the emotion probably does have value.

    Sometimes, I think we are just looking to acknowledge and recognize that frustration in the act of complaining, and other times, we’re just looking for someone to express our emotions to, to feel connected, and to get another point of view.

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