How to Stay Positive When Everyone Around You Is ComplainingBy Jessica Cassity
It’s already hard enough to stay positive when faced with your own problems. But it can be even more challenging when you’re also living through the everyday frustrations of the people around you, doled out in the form of one-line gripes on Facebook, soliloquy-style venting sessions from family members, and demoralizing complaints at the water cooler.
Misery may love company, but in our culture of complaining, it’s important to balance your empathy—or annoyance—with your desire to remain positive. “When people complain, others tend to join in or get irritated,” says Robin Kowalski, PhD, professor of psychology at Clemson University.
“When you join in, it becomes a one-upmanship. If one person complains about something blowing down in their yard, the other person finds something to outdo their complaint.”
On the other hand, if you aren't in the mood to hear someone else's gripes, you might shut down or get frustrated. Neither strategy is likely to improve your mood; in fact, chances are high that both you and the complainer will feel worse than before.
That's why it's important to come up with a strategy for confronting complaints. Everyone complains, but not everyone knows how to handle it. It can get old to hear a steady onslaught of complaints, but it's important to remember that we all have to vent sometimes. The better you're able to be there for those around you, the more you'll get that support back.
According to Kowalski, there are three main categories of complainers, each of which should be handled in a different way:
The Occasional Complainer
If you have a friend who’s mostly positive and optimistic, but every once in a while needs to talk through her problems or vent about an experience, listen up.
Chances are that she simply needs a sounding board, validation, or suggestions on how to deal with a difficult situation. That’s why you might not even think of what she’s doing as complaining—we all need to blow off steam sometimes.
So really listen to what she has to say and be a supportive friend, offering the type of feedback she needs, says Kowalski. No doubt the roles will be reversed at some point. When they do, you’ll be glad to have someone you can call upon.
The Stuck-in-a-Rut Complainer
Imagine your normally cheerful colleague has started to have some troubles at home. For the first few weeks or even month, you might listen with attention and try to be supportive. But after a while, the "he said/she said" complaining starts to sound a little like a broken record. Nothing is progressing and no new details are being shared.
You get the sense that your friend believes that the more she talks about this problem, the better she’ll feel or the closer she’ll be to a solution. However, all that seems to be happening is that you pretend to be immersed in a very important-looking spreadsheet when she approaches as a way to shield yourself from her complaining.
If someone you know is stuck in a cycle of complaints, you might be able to help coax them out of the pattern, says Kowalski.
So how can you redirect the conversation and help someone break free from this rut? If your friend simply wants to be heard, you could give the conversation several minutes, then try to shift subjects outright. (“Speaking of awful co-workers, have you seen that new TV show about bad bosses?”) That way she'll feel validated but the conversation can move on from that negative place.
Strategy number two: Help her see the silver lining to a situation. (“It’s so unfair that you have to pay that much for your doctor’s appointment, but at least you’re closer to paying off your deductible.”)
While it's not your job to solve her problem, if you see a potential solution, speak up. Recurring difficulties are often the result of poor communication—your friend might be complaining to everyone but the actual source of her frustration. If so, encourage her to reach out: it works.
“We did a study where we had people imagine they were dissatisfied with a certain person,” says Kowalski. Some wrote a letter addressed to the person they were unhappy with and others wrote a letter to the researchers, explaining why they were upset with that person.
Not surprisingly, the ones who faced the problem head-on felt better than the ones who didn’t, most likely because they were actually doing something about the situation, not just talking about it.
The Chronic Complainer
The chronic complainer can always find something negative to comment on. For a while, you may think this person is simply stuck in a rut—that once their lot in life changes a bit they’ll become more optimistic and happy.
You may even engage in some of the above tactics, trying to help them see the positive or find a solution for their problems.
But chronic complainers are not trying to make the problem go away. In fact, they probably derive real value from the time and attention they get out of complaining.
These people are called “help-rejecting complainers,” says Kowalski, and they can be difficult to deal with and hard to be around. While it may be in your nature to try to “fix” problems—be it challenging situations or negative attitudes—it’s important to know that you are NOT going to change this person.
Instead, focus on your own coping mechanisms, such as minimizing contact with them. Because of the constant negativity, it can be important to set up clear boundaries for yourself, such as steering clear from one-on-one time with these people.
Let’s say you share an office with one of these types. You might start to wear headphones at your desk, post a sign that says “complaint-free zone,” feign being busy when she wants to vent, or attempt to ignore her outbursts. If you consistently find ways not to engage, Cathy the Complainer will eventually seek attention elsewhere.
And if you start feeling guilty, remember this: Their endless complaining and your quest to help will be a frustrating experience for all, so think of your sanity and do your best to limit your exposure.
Once you start paying attention to who's griping and how they gripe, you'll have a better chance of hanging onto your happiness in a world where everyone seems to be complaining. Then you can decide for yourself how best to offer support—or run the other way.
Jessica Cassity writes about health, fitness, and happiness for publications including Self, Shape, Health, Women's Health, and Family Circle magazines. Her first book, Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You was published in 2011.
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