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The Function of Complaining & Transforming Sour into Sweet

Photo: Thomas Quaritsch

When I was a younger I complained a lot. From childhood to young adulthood, I often criticized and complained on our family outings as if I was being paid to spoil the trip for my parents.

There's a classic picture of me and my siblings at the San Diego Zoo to illustrate this. We flew all the way to California jut the three of us and our mom, and we visited places and monuments that I was thrilled to see like Universal Studies, beautiful beaches, and Charlie Chaplin's star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But when we went somewhere I wasn't thrilled about, or if something happened to upset me, I was sour the rest of the outing. When my mom was unlucky, I was sour the rest of the day. This was how I operated. It was like someone changed the default setting from "sweet kid" to "sour puss" and totally forgot they could readjust the settings. From sweet baby, to cute toddler, to annoying tween and later teen.

In the picture at the zoo, my siblings look fine, but I've got my hand on my hip, my head tilted in dissatisfaction, and a clear expression on my face of disappointment and obvious resentment for being there. If I had the bravado to show you the picture (which I don't), you'd definitely interpret my body language as saying: "Mom. You clearly failed in your responsibility to give us a fun day and now you're taking a picture at the absolute worst moment when this permanent expression obviously communicates this failure. I will make sure this looks bad for you ON CAMERA!" For years, this 8x11 photo was framed and displayed.

How miserable!

I've changed so much, thank goodness. I would even argue I'm a different person. These days, I can fully enjoy myself and show it and I do my best to get those around me to enjoy as well. Now and then I can't shake something off for a bit, but for the most part I'd say I've succeeded in this realm.

Now that I've experienced both styles, I can see when my old tactic is being employed. I mean, I used it for years! I was a pro! I'm noticing that the people who use this tactic around me the most are people I love and whom I've been around a lot. My oldest son, for example, is ten-years-old and at a ripe age for complaining now that he's shaping his likes and dislikes and finding himself. He's changed quite a bit on our outings, learning well how to use this style. He was once more open to experiences, and now he's closing himself off. Others who do this around me are certain relatives I've known my whole life. They are expert level tacticians.

I'm starting to wonder: What is the function of complaining when we're with people we love? I say "with people we love" because I don't think it happens with strangers or friends in the same way.

This tactic is a performance. It's literally a show. It's an act. Sometimes it's only one act, like in a play of many acts. That's when you're lucky. It doesn't last long. Other times, when you're unlucky, it's a full out interactive opera that can last an entire day. The show of dissatisfaction, this performance, doesn't really happen when we're with strangers. Even if we're complaining and sulking in our minds, we aren't comfortable enough to sink into a bad mood and complain all day out loud when we're around strangers, acquaintances, or even casual friends. Typically we want people to like us, so we act likable. We even do and say things out of character to keep up the likability act. That's what social pressure is all about. We're pressured into acting like we're enjoying ourselves even if we aren't. Or, we actually try to enjoy ourselves so we don't spoil it for everyone else. That would make us look bad! Unless, of course, the trend was for everyone to be complaining!

Some people who do verbalize their dissatisfaction are just incessant complainers and really don't know how to be any other way. I know people like this, and again, I've known them my whole life. The other day I attended a family gathering. Having been told the gathering was in the basement and to enter from the backyard, I did. You know, I was just following directions and, to be honest, I was also happy to be informal so I could relax a little. But the gathering wasn't in the basement after all. And it was much more formal than I imagined. My son and I ascended the deck stairs to find a circle of dressed up relatives totally silent in their seats staring at us. It looked like a great opportunity for fun and laughter to me! Instead, they stared us down like we were uninvited neighbors crashing their party. One blurted out, "Why would you come from the backyard?" Um. That's a great question! And definitely a great way to say "Hello! So good to see you! Glad you made it!"

Some strangers use complaining to bond. In this way, it's socially acceptable. Like my friend's neighbor who I finally got around to meeting when we were all pulling weeds around the respective properties. In the very first conversation she complained and complained: About the garbage pick-up services, about pulling weeds, about... I blocked the rest out. She was searching and searching for common grounds of dissatisfaction. "Ugh... life sucks, doesn't it? Doesn't it just suck!?", stated in less obvious words.

What this woman was trying to do was bond with me through suffering. She's used to suffering, sees herself suffering all the time, and she wanted to make sure I shared that suffering with her. If I did, we'd be best buddies. If I didn't, we might just wave now and then, if at all. Well, the latter happened.

And I think this tactic with people you love isn't too different. Deep down we want to bond with each other. When we complain, we get a lot of attention. When we get attention, we're satisfied. We might even get what we want. But we aren't really satisfied because it's not the right kind of attention most of the time. Sure, our complaining might be met with, "Oh, no, you aren't having fun? What can I do to help you have fun? Oh, you don't like this? Okay, we'll do something else. Oh, you don't like this food? Okay, let's get you something else." But a lot of the times, especially with family or a significant other we're overly comfortable with, essentially people we take for granted, our complaining is met with irritation, judgment, resentment, or even anger.

My dad, a really positive and fun-loving guy overall, would get so angry with my sulking behavior because he wasn't a complainer. My mom, on the other hand, just complained back at me. It was a good show, I thought!

Now that my children are getting older, there are behaviors that I have to deal with to help them and myself. The younger one is fun-loving but can be overly aggressive, over-confident, reckless, and devious. The older one complains, sulks, can be passive and lacks confidence. My responsibility as a parent is to help balance themselves and my behavior is key to that. My behavior is partly what got them here in the first place. And my behavior will partly be what gets them to an improved place.

To help me, I've been listening to the audio version of the book, "Ignore It! How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction" by Catherine Pearlman. It's so easy to get sucked into negative behaviors and it takes so much effort to counteract those attention-seeking behaviors. And that's the number one point of this book: All behavior has a function. The function of "behavior problems" or "undesirable behaviors" is that it gets the child attention. Sometimes it even gets them what they want. When we get attention we think we're getting love. When we get what we want we're satisfied. But... the better kind of attention to receive is actual love and positive feelings, not pity or irritation or worse, anger. So the idea is to extinguish the undesirable behaviors (complaining, whining, name-calling, hitting, compromising parental rules, not listening, lying, stealing, insulting, etc.) and replace them with desirable behaviors (cooperation, listening, civil behavior, respecting others, kindness, sharing, honesty, etc.). Then, everyone can enjoy themselves on this adventure called... family!

The Function of Complaining

So it got me thinking about the function of complaining. The little ones complain, and the big ones complain. Why and when do children and adults complain and whine?

First, there's an element of comfort that has to be present. We complain and act out with people we are comfortable with. We're comfortable with them because we know that our parents, partners, spouses, siblings, won't leave us just because we are complaining and acting out like a sour puss. That is exactly what "taking for granted" means. We don't have to be at our best, because they're stuck with us, unlike friendships, casual and close, which we can choose to end. In friendships, there is less of a "you're stuck with me" attitude.

Second, there's an element of attention-seeking. Complaining might actually work in our favor in that we receive attention from people who can be often busy doing something else. We feel we don't get enough loving attention, we want more of it, so we seek it, albeit incorrectly. Sometimes whining and complaining is the only way people hear us. They don't hear the nice requests or the loving behaviors; they're too busy, the behavior is too subtle. So, we have to make it obvious that we need attention. Or, we don't even know how to ask nicely because we learned that whining or complaining is how to communicate. So we whine or complain when we are requesting. Some people only criticize when they are requesting. That happened to me recently. A relative criticized me for placing the lemonade she asked me to make on this side of the counter instead of that side of the counter. She could've just requested that I move the lemonade, but she had to put me and my good efforts down in order to request, passive-aggressively, that I move it to her idea of the right place. A need to control was also part of the issue. So was the fear that she wouldn't be the perfect hostess if something was misplaced. Lots going on there.

Third, there's an element of getting what we want. Complain enough and the person you're with will get fed up and give up. "Fine, here! I give up! I can't listen to this anymore! Thanks for ruining the day, you little brat/unloving spouse/annoying partner!" Complainer is satisfied. But there's a catch. At some point, depending on age and maturity, the complainer will be satisfied for a split second and then feel guilty that they're making the person they love sacrifice their own desires. The complainer has confirmed that they ruin things. That's when we, complainers, immediately respond to efforts to appease us and, refusing to be pleased, say "Fine, just do what you want! Forget it. Let's just stay. We'll do what you want. I don't care anymore." And then no one knows what to do next because everyone is giving up. We're all stunned and frozen. It's hilarious and sad all at once and I know this one really well. I've been on both sides.

Fourth, some of us have a hard time just enjoying ourselves. There's an internal script that says: "I only want to do what I want to do. My idea of fun is not your idea of fun. You're making me do this. I have no control. I'm miserable." There's some belief lurking in there that says "I don't deserve to enjoy myself. I don't enjoy anything that I don't choose. I have no control." This is really obvious when we might actually be enjoying something deep down inside, threatened by this possibility, we don't want anyone to know and we try to ignore it! So we cover up our possible enjoyment with complaining and make it impossible for ourselves and others to enjoy the moment! We whine. We say this and that sucks. Because someone somewhere told us we aren't allowed to have joy, even if that someone was ourselves. Maybe we feel we aren't good enough to enjoy, feel joy, have fun. We might only know how to enjoy ourselves when we're alone so no one else sees us happy or when we're others whom we feel understand us. Maybe we feel it would be selfish to enjoy something, which women often feel, or it would make us look vulnerable, which men often feel. This is the saddest function of complaining: self-denial to maintain a false image. I think it requires the most work to turn around.

The fifth function of complaining communicates to the other person that they aren't good enough. This is pure projection. "You're not good enough. The activities you choose are not good enough." These underlying messages beneath the complaining are really about the person complaining. The complainer doesn't feel worthy or good enough to receive joy, so they pitch that feeling right back out to the person they know it will hurt the most. "If I can't have fun, I'll make sure you can't have any either. Life sucks, and you better know it!" At the same time, the complainer wants to feel separate, independent, and maybe even better than those in their company.

There's much more to explore when we're thinking about the function of complaining, whining, or criticizing the choices of others. But I wanted to go through the list that came to my mind as a reminder that my behavior has the potential to help or hurt others. I want to help, not hurt.

Choosing Sweet Behavior to Counteract the Sour

In my life, I want joy. I want to be able to encourage joy for others. I have a feeling that you and I want similar things. Sometimes that means going out on a limb and acting silly, reaching in for my inner comedian and that of others. Let's learn to make light of the situation!

Personally, it takes effort to open up and be funny with anyone. I only ever knew I could be funny with people I felt close to who appreciated me for me. But I learned I can be funny in more situations and so I'm tapping into this other part of me. It's the best way to reach the people I love. Fun light humor has helped me especially with my older son. It's a major success when I see him change over from sulking opera singer singing songs of misery and disappointment, to stand up comedian who is happy to make others happy even if it's joking about the horrible situation he was forced into. You know, like when we're at the beach.

Everyone loves comedy! We love to laugh! I've found laughter as the best way to get others to lighten up, myself included. In fact, my partner uses this strategy with me if I get into a sour sulking mood, and most of the time it works. If it doesn't work, there's a matter that really needs a discussion. That's how I know if it's a petty thing I'm sulking about or something that really needs attention, conversation, and exploration. But, I'd say, any sulking, itself, could use attention and exploration down the line; these moods are the unconscious mind expressing itself. What is it saying? That discussion for another day.

Acting contrary to someone else's bad mood is not just difficult, but it might seem counter-intuitive. Isn't that lacking compassion? Well, it depends. Why is the person in a bad mood? Did something hurtful, upsetting, or sad affect their mood? Then, it's time to listen and honor their feelings. But, is it because they didn't get their way just to get their way? They'd rather be playing video games? They want the lemonade here and not there? Okay, then it's time to engage slap-stick humor, internal comedian, laugh and be light, don't take it seriously, poke a little fun: It's time to lift moods.

Lift up! Prove to the unconscious mind expressing itself in sour-puss behavior that it's okay to have fun! You can prove this also by showing affection even in their sulking behavior. Hug, kiss, walk hand-in-hand, tell the person you love them dearly and share some reasons why, whatever helps that person feel better. Despite the circumstances of not getting what they want, they can still feel good with our encouragement. Consider that it's your responsibility to know what makes the people you love feel genuinely loved. Consider that it's your responsibility to always be learning about them because we are all always changing. On the flip side, we cannot expect people to dig us out of our bad mood sulking whining complaining criticizing behaviors. We have to realize that dragging others down hurts all of us.

Attention is not the same as love. But love does require attention.

We are so easily adaptable. We can adapt to complaining and to misery by getting angry or complaining back. Or, we can do something else that takes a little extra effort. When we make the effort, we are helping everyone around adapt to joy. It's worth the effort. Sometimes it takes one person to dig deep, reflect, see the behavior for what it is: a desire for love and attention. Encourage the people you know and love to shift away from habitual complaining and don't respond to it. Refrain from engaging the complaining and counteract it with something joyful. Let the person who thinks they want the sour side of life realize they actually deserve the sweet.

Most of the time the complaining person isn't in the position to look into their unconscious life and understand their complaining for what it is. When that conversation can be had, much has already changed. Instead, just refrain from engaging complaining in order to make it disappear. Forget totally about feeding on the sour and instead offer something else. Genuine loving behavior heals.

Find the sweet side of life and please share.

With Love,


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