• Eric Bricker, LMHC

Stop Complaining; It doesn’t Help

In 2017, I discovered a colony of over 500 bats residing in the attic of our family home. Due to state wildlife regulations, and other complications inherent to flying mammal invasions, it took us over four months to evict them. A condition of the special removal permit issued to me by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was that I was personally responsible for rehoming the 100 flightless baby bats that were left behind once the flight-capable members of the colony left. I’m not kidding. Some nights I would just stand in the driveway and watch them circle the peak of our rooftop. They reminded me of the opening credits of Scooby-Doo.

During this calamitous period of my personal history, I developed an acute and severe case of insomnia. It was not unusual for me to be awake for periods up to 48 hours without ever achieving more than a momentary doze, followed by a startled wakening that was often accompanied by heart palpitations. I began to unravel in ways that are still painful to think about. Three months into this, I was laid off from my job in behavioral health management. Two weeks later, my mother died.

I was profoundly depressed, and I soon began to experience obsessive self-pity. I ruminated constantly over my sad state of being, and when I wasn’t thinking about it, I was talking about it. I was a living promotional campaign for the product of human unhappiness. My family and friends were all there to help, but I couldn’t hear any of them. Eventually, they stopped trying. It was obvious that I wasn’t listening.

A Moment of Clarity

I was spending time at the dog park with my faithful companion Rocki, our American Bulldog, when I had a sudden realization and corrective emotional experience. At once, my attention gravitated toward a very anxious and reluctant dog as he was being dragged across the threshold of the entry gate. It was sad. He cowered behind his owner and squealed, tail tucked in between his legs, eyes darting anxiously around him. However, it was the reaction of the other dogs that was most profound.

"Hey, who brought the cool kid?"

All at once, each of them seemed to stop what they were doing as they converged on the nervous rookie. They circled around him aggressively although none of them appeared intent on hurting him. However, they barked and growled and feinted half committed lunges at him. Much to my disappointment, even Rocki lazily meandered over to the fracas and let loose a couple of unenthusiastic barks, which earned her a prompt time out beneath the gazebo. Fortunately, the owner finally had the good sense to take his dog home before the poor thing was permanently traumatized.

Something dawned on me in that moment and I cringed as I arrived at the unpleasant realization that I had been behaving much like the anxious dog. The people closest to me had been kind enough not bark at me but I’m sure they were nonetheless fed up. For me, that was the last the of the complaining.

Complaining Can Literally Get You Killed

In nature, there is a universal repulsion to the excessive demonstration of fear among one’s companions, particularly among socialized species that live cooperatively. In his landmark book, On Aggression, legendary animal behaviorist Conrad Lorenz describes that all aggression within animals is utilitarian. Primarily, aggression without the aim of death among socialized animals exists to establish social order. This occurs for the benefit of the survival of the pack. So, perhaps it could be that overt demonstrations of fear pose a threat to the entire group, and are thus instinctively met with hostility. That’s my theory anyway.

Think about it. We all know that attitude is infectious and that most of us don’t like to be around people who are negative. In the military and the workplace, we refer to this attribute as morale, and it is known that anxious complainers will impact the morale of those around them. In times of peril, this behavior may even put others of their group at risk by reinforcing doubt and thus undermining confidence in the team. We’ve all been and worked around complainers, and most of us try to avoid them. The unfortunate reality of excessive complaining is that the complainer is actively alienating valuable potential support which will actively increase one’s sense of isolation and despair.

Why do we do it?

· Would you mind lowering the bar just a bit?

In his seminal work, Games People Play, Eric Berne refers to the game of “wooden leg.” The manipulative nature of this psychological game is to convey the message that we are of diminished capacity, and therefore expectations should be lowered. Excessive complaining is often used to convince others that we should not be held accountable for our behavior and that we should be excused from the responsibility of having to accept consequences. “I’m just really disorganized. You know that’s why I’m never on time, right? I can’t help it.”

· Someone fix this for me!

Excessive complaining, especially whining, is often experienced and received as socially regressive and immature. When people with dependent personality traits complain, they can sound very childlike and helpless. The secondary gain here is that if we complain often enough, someone will do for us what a more empowered version of ourselves would be doing for ourselves. Literally, we tantrum like frustrated children who want our parents to tie our shoes.

· This must be the worst thing you ever heard, right?

It’s healthy to seek validation from supports when things go wrong. Hearing words like “I’d be upset too if it happened to me” can reaffirm that our conscious experience of disappointment is normal. We’re not failures. Others feel as we do. Now we can accept an unpleasant experience and begin to process solutions. Complaining is different. Complainers place a lot of emphasis on the problem in an effort to enroll others into their misery. The secondary gain here is that the complainer can justify his own unhappiness. It’s a dysfunctional form of self-soothing. Remember, misery loves company. The term ‘help-rejecting complainer’ refers directly to the behavior of one who consistently complains while actively dismissing advice, support and potential solutions from others.

It’s All About the Solution

The first step toward any meaningful discussion about a problem is clarity. If we are actively seeking to enroll another person into our mess, it’s important that we are first honest with ourselves about our intentions. Why do I want to bring this up? Why do I want to discuss this problem with this individual? What do I hope to get out of this discussion? Am I being mindful of the boundaries of this relationship? Am I being considerate of the other individual?

· Communicate clearly with yourself first.

What do I want? There are different reasons that we bring up problems with friends, family, romantic partners and co-workers. Maybe I just need someone to validate what I’m experiencing, or perhaps I just want to vent. Maybe I’m looking for advice and potential solutions. Maybe, I’m looking for some tangible support or actual physical assistance. Whatever it is, I should have a clear idea of my motivation for discussing problems before I do so.

· Set clear goals for the discussion and communicate them.

“Hey Mike, I have this problem and I’m looking for suggestions on how to handle it.”

“Ann, I’m pretty mad about something and I’m calling you up just to vent. Do you have time to listen to this now?”

“Jen, I’m freaking out over this housing contract and I have no idea what I’m looking at. I know that you have a lot of experience with this. Is there any chance that you can sit down with me to review these documents?”

· Pick the right person.

We all know at least one person who will complain to anyone who will listen. Whatever you do, don’t become this individual. Be mindful of how others will experience your words within the context of your actual relationship with them. For example, venting to a supervisor for the sake of venting itself may not always be the best policy in the workplace. Random complaints about work can be interpreted as a reflection of your attitude as an employee. This is information that can become part of how your overall performance is evaluated. Going to that same supervisor to express some difficulty in performing a new task and asking for additional training is far more appropriate within the context of that relationship.

· Most importantly, listen.

During moments of extreme anxiety, we can become a faucet of fear and negativity. For the person on the other end of that transaction, it’s often overwhelming and anxiety provoking. Remember that meaningful conversations are about give and take, so please don’t turn the discussion into a monologue. If we show up in an extreme output mode, it will be clear to the other individual that they are not going to be heard. Solutions can’t be uncovered when we are not listening to them.

Ultimately, we don’t always have a choice about what happens in our lives. However, we always have a choice about where to stand and how to show up. Identifying as a victim robs us of our own resilience to grow and learn through adversity. It also robs us of the opportunity to connect and share in the strength of others. No one can truly be there for us if we are not first there for ourselves. There is a great deal of strength in accepting our world as it is right now while empowering ourselves to create the world that we want. Show the world that you are ready to invest in yourself even during bad times, and others will be there to invest in you.


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