Complaining feels good, at least temporarily. It’s like getting some relief by scratching an itch. But scratch too hard and for too long, and you can hurt yourself. Your skin may break and bleed. And as your wound forms a scab, it starts to itch all over again. So the attempt to initially relieve your itch can turn into a vicious cycle.
“You want something, you must complain. Everything also complain” was the first piece of advice I received when I immigrated here. It was from an older uncle, telling me about how he got all his nieces and nephews to simultaneously call a business and overload their service centre with the same complaint (sort of like a real-life DDoS attack).
I’ve also been told that complaining is “the Singaporean way”. Some even called it one of Singapore’s favourite pastimes. To many, voicing one’s frustrations and grievances is viewed as “a positive act of problem identification” and people caring “enough to speak up” about something.
But the grumbling I hear and read on a daily basis these days isn’t merely “problem identification”; it’s purposely disrespectful, dogmatic, and divisive. And people who complain this way are not actually willing to listen to the other side. They just want to rant. When it reaches this extreme, we need to question if it is doing more harm than good.
How Complaining Harmed Me
I used to complain. A lot. But several years ago, I stopped complaining (at least publicly). Now, if I have a complaint, I’ll express it in private. If the complaint is against a person, then I’ll speak directly with him/her, and make the effort to be respectful. For me, not publicly venting or voicing my disappointment has changed me in profound and unforeseen ways.
What did I used to complain about? As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, I have a rare, untreatable brain condition that at times, affects my quality of life. When you have a health issue, it’s easy to find something to complain about.
Other things that I would yammer on about include the heat, the humidity, the crowds, and any delays in public transportation.
Why I Stopped
Simply put, I realized that it wasn’t doing me any good. A little venting can be good, if it’s mainly focused on problem solving and working out emotions. But once it turns into your primary coping mechanism, you end up going down the path of wallowing, blaming, shaming, and fault finding. Especially when you complain daily and often (as I did), it can quickly turn from being constructive and problem-focused, to being destructive and people-focused; from things within your control to things outside your control.
At the time I stopped, I was in a very dark place. And I realized that not only was complaining doing nothing for me, it actually kept me wallowing in my problems. Because complaining kept me immersed only in my own feelings, it didn’t allow me to see or focus on any other thing. Another side effect of complaining is that one can take things for granted. It’s very difficult for gratitude and grievance to exist within the same space.
How My Viewpoint Changed
These are common things people say to me, and I have written examples of how I would respond in the past versus how I’d respond today.
Comment: OMG, you have a terrible disease, how do you cope? And you’re so young too!
(Past response) It sucks that modern medicine has not figured it out yet. And because the condition is so rare, doctors don’t want me as their patient. They’re not comfortable with monitoring me, so I get passed around from one to another. Why can’t they get it right? And why couldn’t I get this disease later in life, maybe when medicine has advanced some more? I’m always the youngest patient at NNI.
(Today’s response) I was supposed to die. If I were born 20 or 30 years earlier than my birth year, this thing would have definitely killed me. So yes, I’m young. But I’ve already “cheated death”. If I did die today, I wouldn’t see it as “I died too young and before my time”. Rather, I see it as I was given extra years. And for that, I’m grateful.
Comment: Why did you move here, the cost of living is so much higher than in the States?
(Past response) Yeah, I can’t believe how much cars cost. And how the same products are way cheaper in the States than in Singapore. I mean, aren’t these products all made and shipped from China? Something is just not right about that.
(Today’s response) There are reasons why some goods are cheaper in the States (political, financial, and militaristic reasons), but actually, aside from cars and Chinese-manufactured goods, many things are cheaper in Singapore. Regardless, this is an opportunity to challenge me to think differently about my expectations and my lifestyle, and reconsider my “wants” versus “needs”.
Why You Might Want to Stop Complaining & How to Stop
People say complaining makes them heard. And they feel it’s essential for them to be heard. But I don’t think it’s necessary to complain (at least, not in the same way as people typically do) in order to identify or report a problem. You can talk about a problem in a manner that does not require ranting, wallowing, or reliving your frustration.
As someone who wallowed in pity for months, let me tell you what complaining has the potential to do.
1. It can cause you to assume the victim role, which strips you of your power. When you play the victim, you have no control. You’re essentially waiting for outside intervention, for someone to right the wrong, take the blame/responsibility for your dissatisfaction, and make everything ok.
2. It can close your mind to other views and perspectives that may be critical to identifying, solving, or avoiding your problem.
3. Complaining can rekindle frustration and emotional discomfort, making it difficult for you to move on.
4. Complaining can generate a very negative vibe, and others (especially those who are positive and helpful) don’t want to be near you. Instead, you’ll attract other complainers, who will keep you in this cycle of commiserating and reliving awful feelings over and over again.
5. It can cause you to cast judgment on other people’s character and assume the worst in them, rather than focusing more on the problem or situation.
6. It can make you less grateful. And without gratitude, it’s hard to really enjoy and appreciate life. So ironically, complaining about how you’re life sucks creates that reality (a self-fulfilling prophecy).
Some people try to stop complaining by taking a 21-day challenge. Other people suggest that before you complain, “sandwich” it with two positives — compliment, complaint, compliment. There are other common tips such as setting aside a time and time limit for complaining. Some people find solace journaling their frustrations instead of voicing them.
I’ve done all of these methods. For me, some work better than others. But I found that the way to stop is just to practice. And practice. And practice.
One particularly helpful thing I do now is to reframe the question. Instead of “why me?”, the question to ask is “why not me?”. Instead of asking “why is the cost of living so high?”, some alternative questions are “why isn’t it higher?”, “how much should it be?” or “has it been artificially low for all these years, and now it’s catching up to other nations?”
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but simply asking them can remind me of three very, very important things — (1) there’s a lot to be grateful for, (2) life doesn’t care about fairness, and (3) we’re not entitled to anything in life. Your satisfaction in life is not guaranteed. But challenges are how a person grows and builds character, and overcoming challenges is (ironically) one way to find real satisfaction in life.