Whenever I hear someone complain, I notice one consistent thing: They are arguing with “what is.” In other words, they are resisting reality, which if you think about this, doesn’t make much sense.
But we all do it. I do it.
Here are some complaints I’ve heard lately:
“My daughter’s room is a mess. She’s so lazy and inconsiderate.”
“My boss completely dismisses me at staff meetings. He’s such a jerk.”
One of the things complaints and complaining all have in common is the Second Arrow effect. It’s a Buddhist concept where the first event—or first arrow–occurs i.e. the messy room, the dismissive boss. Then we inflict further pain on ourselves by adding a Second Arrow. Do you see the Second Arrows, in the examples above?
“She’s so lazy and inconsiderate . . . He’s such a jerk . . . It’s ridiculous.”
The Second Arrow is when we take something we already perceive as bad or wrong, something we think “shouldn’t be happening,” and then create an additional judgment about it. In an instant, things go from bad to worse. The Second Arrow is the nail in the coffin of our misery, which we then share with anyone who will listen.
Maybe you’re wondering, But doesn’t complaining help you solve the problem? So what, you’re asking me to be superhuman and perfect?
I’m inviting you to notice. To whom are you complaining, and do you really want to move toward a solution? Most of the time, when we complain, we are calling to be heard. Tara Brach describes fear as “vulnerability that wants attention.” I believe complaining is simply vulnerability that wants attention. We all want to be seen in our social interactions. The problem is, complaining exacts a price from the listener.
I know the axis of social commerce revolves around complaints about weather, our President, gas prices, the Stock Market, but frankly, I’m interested in deeper, more interesting things about you. Elizabeth Gilbert said recently, “Your fear is the most boring thing about you.” I feel the same about complaints.
I wonder if complaining is a way to prevent a real conversation from happening. It’s easier to complain about the 9 degree weather than to express gratitude for down coats and warm gloves, to express joy at the sight of someone’s rosy cheeks, or glee over the fact that your car started without a hiccup. Complaining puts a wedge between you and me.
There really are a million other ways to train your attention than to argue about what is true, which gets to the very soul of complaining.
I try not to complain. Debbie Ford used to say, When you complain, you are always the victim. That has stuck with me. I notice if I do cave into complaining, that I’ve lost my prowess, my ability to flirt and play, in that moment. “Poor me, look at what I have to endure!” Most of the time, the complaint is over something small and temporary anyway.
Complaining casts a temporary spell on the listener that you are powerless. Is that really what you want to convey?
Oftentimes those who complain elicit sympathy from us. But when I respond to a complainer with sympathy, I’m giving more than I received. Complaining and sympathy are not equivalent social currency. Complaining comes off as low energy, even negative. Sympathy is higher along the continuum. If you’re like me, you notice people who complain more, and steer clear of them. That’s reason enough for me to really think before I complain.
I want to be known for my vitality, my ability to contribute, and for my value. Complaining affects the way people perceive you, and whether, and how often they choose to engage with you.
My first rule of engagement when I’m really on my game—and believe me, I’m not always—is, Give more than I get. The minute I complain, I’ve lost the game.