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The virtue of being a complainer

Woman with arms folded looking irritated

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 01/08/23

It's a problem to complain too much, but you're good company, and there's a right way to do it.

I’ve always been of the opinion that a steady indulgence in complaining creates an unhealthy, negative outlook. People who habitually complain struggle to find positive solutions to setbacks, and their cynical words begin to shape how they think. Complainers have always seemed less happy than optimists, almost as if they talk themselves into being unhappy. In this sense, complainers are their own worst enemy.

Whenever I catch myself falling into a pattern of complaining — which happens more than I’d like to admit — I realize that something has gone off-kilter. Something is bothering me and I’m having trouble putting my finger on it, so I corner some poor friend and vent. I go on and on, fixating on my unhappiness, and won’t let my friend get a word in edgewise. It’s super annoying, I’m sure.

Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of a gripe session like this. If so, you probably know that the complainer really has no interest in hearing a solution to the complaint. At the very least, it’s nice to feel heard. Sharing a complaint is an easy way to bond, especially if you both share the same opinion. It helps to be told that your perspective has value. Complaining draws two people closer together because both feel validated and supported.

The problem is that we complain way too much

It’s not uncommon to complain up to 30 times per day, but I simply don’t see how this is healthy. I’d hate for all my interactions over the course of a day to be this negative. I’d like to think I can bond with my friends in other, more interesting and positive ways.

Complaining feels so good once we get going, though, that it’s hard to stop. It becomes a Festivus airing of grievances. But if we become too consistently negative, those friends who at first were understanding will melt away because they know the chat always devolves into a venting session.

Further, what I’ve noticed is that it might feel good in the moment to let my negative opinions fly free and fast, but it leaves everyone feeling worse in the end. Frequently, I reproach myself later and promise I’ll never behave like that again.

This is the downside of complaining.

It’s in the Bible

I can’t help but notice, however, as I pray through the Psalms during my daily prayers, that the Psalmist does a lot of complaining. So much so that Scripture scholars refer to a certain type of Psalm as a “Psalm of Lament.” In other words, the Psalm is a complaint session with God.

As a priest, people often come to me and express guilt about how they’ve been complaining to God, or even blaming him for the bad in their lives. I tell them that God can handle it. In fact, as the Psalms show, done in the right way, complaining is very much part of a real, unvarnished, healthy relationship. A strong spiritual life – or marriage, or friendship – includes the occasional gripe. It’s how we decompress and move on. Honesty and transparency is vital to any relationship.

We all need to complain from time to time, but there’s a right way

First, frequency is important.

Indulging in complaints should be far more rare than 30 times per day. To me, that high of a rate of negativity indicates an addiction to drama or a perverse joy in feeling like a victim. Notice the Psalms aren’t cover-to-cover complaints, but there are plenty of Psalms of thanksgiving, praise, and joy. For every complaint, remind yourself of two (or more) things for which you’re grateful.

Second, complain to the right person.

Don’t complain to someone who will be negatively affected by your problems and, in turn, grow gossipy and cynical. Don’t continue to complain about the same thing over and over to multiple people. Say it once to a trusted confidant and be done with it.

For instance, I have a group of priests with whom I share complaints. They’re understanding and discreet. I would never share those same complaints with anyone else. The Church isn’t perfect, but a complaining, negative priest can make it seem downright terrible when, in fact, the Church is wonderful. In many ways, the Catholic Church has saved my life. It would be a shame if a habit of complaining obscured that fact and me forget it. When I have complaints, I express them to the right people and then leave the complaint behind.

Don’t seek out confidants who won’t challenge you if your complaint is baseless. It’s fine to recognize a shortcoming, but it becomes unhealthy when all you do is talk about it instead of finding a way to either correct it or correct your own attitude towards it.

Third, complain for a specific reason.

Process an emotion. Assess the situation. Find a solution. The times I feel worst are when I know I’ve been spewing toxic negativity for absolutely no reason.

Complaining, like everything else, can be a vice or a virtue. It’s all in how we handle it. Perhaps the real gift of complaining is the realistic acknowledgment that life isn’t perfect, but everything will still be okay. As the Psalmist says, “I pour out my complaint before God; I tell my trouble before him.” You can always talk to someone and feel understood. None of us is ever alone.

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