Many people don’t remember Puddleglum (a Marshwiggle) from The Silver Chair, which is, I think, #6 of the Chronicles of Narnia. I think he’s hilarious. Every time Puddleglum says something, it’s a prediction of doom, an expectation of disaster, or a complaint.
“Good morning, Guests,” he said. “Though when I say good I don’t mean it won’t probably turn to rain or it might be snow, or fog, or thunder. You didn’t get any sleep, I daresay.”
Eeyore, of A.A. Milne’s beloved Winnie-the-Pooh series isn’t much better. The small, blue donkey is like a wet, wool blanket ready to be thrown on any hint of fun, excitement, or adventure; particularly if Tigger is involved.
“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
“So it is.”
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”
Literary complainers can be very funny. Real life complainers—not so much. People who gripe, whine, complain, or as my British friends say, ‘whinge,’ are difficult to be around, particularly when this seems to be the only thing they do. Their response to anything is to point out flaws, mistakes, or impossibilities. Some take it even further and develop the habit of making ‘conversation’ by speaking of life as one, big, unsolvable problem.
I’m talking about those people who seem negative by nature, and when solutions are offered in response to a complaint, there is always a reason why nothing will work to resolve the problem. These people are “help-rejecting complainers,” and they are bad for our health.
According to research, being unable to get away from a chronic complainer impacts quality of life and actually begins to “…peel away neurons in the hippocampus.” (Help! My brain is dying!) Furthermore, if we are continually exposed to complaining, e.g., work, school, home, etc., we are much more likely to pick up the behavior ourselves. Not cool.
Most chronic complainers are not interested in solutions. It is the act of complaining itself that is the goal. In that case, other solutions are needed.
Give the complaint back. Ask, “What are you going to do about it?” This puts the responsibility for a solution back on the complainer. Either s/he will respond with possible solutions, which generates a real, productive conversation, or s/he will stalk off in a huff because your response cut off the opportunity to continue complaining.
Remove yourself from the conversation. When someone begins complaining, simply excuse yourself. Just like that. Say, “I’m sorry. You’ll have to excuse me, I need to run.” Then do it (not literally. Just walk away). Someone I know often responds to complainers by saying, “All complaints must be in writing and the deadline for submission was last Tuesday.” Then he grins. If the complainer continues, he says, “No, really,” and walks away.
Activate your ‘Happy Bubble’ (or “Shields up!”). When it’s absolutely impossible to get away from a complainer, save your neurons and mentally retreat. I imagine myself in a bubble no one else can see and the complainer’s words are hitting the bubble wall and falling on the floor. I nod, and smile politely, (which puzzles the complainer because a complaint is always negative) and as soon as possible, change the subject or excuse myself from the complainer’s presence (see #2).
After reading The Silver Chair to my daughters, they picked up the habit of responding to complainers by repeating Puddleglum’s mantra, (in a laughably sad voice) “And we’re all going to die, I shouldn’t wonder.” Twenty-plus years later, in our family, this response is an instant cue that someone is complaining.
“Aversive interpersonal behavior” is a problem for many because a culturally-mandated social framework conditions us to “be polite.” Think about it – the rules we learn about being polite will keep us engaged with someone who is breaking those very same rules. Complaining is not a socially acceptable behavior; therefore you are not bound by social conventions. As you extricate yourself from the complainer’s brain-killing orbit, be kind. That’s all that’s required.
I don’t know about you, but I like my brain and I want to keep all the neurons I have. Life is too short to listen to complaining.
Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg, RPC, MPCC-S, DAAETS, ACS