When Complaining Is OK, and When It Isn’t

Complaining: we all do it. Dr. Elizabeth Williams breaks it all down from a Buddhist psychologist’s point of view.

Elizabeth Williams
27 August 2017
Photo by Kevin Spencer.

On the Buddhist path, we are specifically warned against complaining mind. Several Tibetan mind-training (lojong) slogans exhort us to practice with it: “Drive all blames into one.” “Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment.”

Even the basic instruction to “self-liberate” applies. The path asks us for an appropriate sense of responsibility, fortitude, acceptance, flexibility, self-reliance, and kindness. It seems self-evident that complaining is unwholesome, unhelpful, impolite, and counterproductive.

But what about, say, complaining to the doctor? Is complaining ever in accord with the dharma?

My concern here is the naked, or basic, complaint: the expression of a wish for oneself or one’s circumstances, to be other than What Is.

Many times when we say “I’m just venting,” that’s just ego attempting to re-label behavior so we can get away with complaining. But there are, in fact, incidents of pure venting. Also, there is complaining whose main objective is not to unload energy but to fuse with others. This is communitarian complaining—an opportunity to bond with others in our mutual humanity. Then there’s instrumental complaining, an oblique way to request help. For people who might feel embarrassed to ask directly, this is socially acceptable help-seeking behavior, disguised as complaining. For example, in a locker room, an old person may mutter something like, “Oh darn! I dropped my hair brush,” as code for, “Could you kindly bend down and retrieve my hair brush?”

My concern here is the naked, or basic, complaint: the expression of a wish for oneself or one’s circumstances, to be other than What Is. This is the complaining that we are warned against.

The germ of the Naked Complaint is dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness. Before we go further, let’s review the common elements of complaints:

First, a priori, to complain there must be a self; this self is construed as separate from the impingement, and it constructs some not-okay dissatisfaction/agitation/anxiety. Second, to complain is a social action: there is a speaker and at least an implied listener (who in turn may or may not respond with affirmation). And, third, perhaps most obviously, lodged within complaining, is blaming. Sometimes this is subtle or even covert. (For example, blame could be couched in a traveler’s, “Oh no! The van driver left already.”) And, of course, complaints also often ascribe fault, which brings in the dualism of good and bad.

What, then, is complaining mind? “Make it stop! Take it away!” says the complaint — as though the universe or life itself were obligated to deliver to us only pleasure. Complaining is an attempt to transfer our suffering to someone else — to “transfer the load of the ox onto the cow.” The person who whines or complains is externalizing their unwillingness or perceived inability to live in What Is.

Take for example, this often-heard line of neurotic discourse: “When I think of all the people who really have something worth complaining about, I realize that from that perspective I should be grateful for how good I have it. But….” Then the speaker elaborates how unique or severe their situation feels, or (they might well insist) is.

This kind of defense sets up the false dichotomy that some problems are worthy and others are not. The assertion is an invitation to join the complainer in his implicit belief that he deserves to complain.

So-called naked complaining expresses and at the same time reinforces a perceived helplessness, hindering us from owning our ability and responsibility to work with our situation. When engaged in naked complaining, the complaining mind, in denying the situation/experience, is separating itself from community, in effect, from (mature) humanity. It is no surprise, then, that such complaining feels burdensome to the listener. In fact, this may be its defining characteristic. It’s inappropriately dependent and needy.


So, is such complaining always just an immature, neurotic act? When is complaining appropriate?

Well, there’s actually appropriate complaining. In appropriate complaining there is no hint of blame, nor of denial, nor of resentment. This is “The Chief Complaint,” nomenclature borrowed from Western medicine, meant to resonate with the appropriateness of complaining to a healer or physician; for in that case it is describing an experience to someone whose function is to help. There is functionality at work here. In the case of interpersonal appropriate complaining, the relationship is also naturally and mutually enhancing and sustaining: it is sharing. It comes from a mature, open-hearted, healthy place. Usually it asks primarily to be heard. Sometimes it overtly requests help here as well (creating a loop that seeks completion). It is an expression of the human condition — a grief, as opposed to a grievance. It seeks only to connect.

In appropriate complaining there is no hint of blame, nor of denial, nor of resentment.

Again, a complaint takes two. But if someone asks “how are you” in a casual way and the response is a complaint, it feels heavy. It is a one-way communication; there is no acknowledgement of a potential response. A complaint just sits there, proclaiming a viewpoint, static and dead. On the other hand, if the questioner is inviting a burden to be shared, the exchange can feel completely interconnected and equal. It is in the listening as well as the transmission what will emerge. There is an opportunity, with sharing, that is cut off with complaining.

Thus, Basic Complaining can be defined by how it feels: burdensome to the listener. Lumpen. Dead. And this feeling in turn arises when the complainer is not owning his (perceived) suffering. It’s the disowning of reality. It is the disowning of the reality of sharedness. The type of complaining that is essentially sharing feels to the listener quite different from basic complaining. It is unifying.

If you don’t know which type of complaining you’re engaging in, ask yourself: Where was I coming from, what was the wellspring of that complaint? In lojong terms: “Of the two witnesses, hold the principal one” — one’s own discriminating wisdom.

That lojong slogan prompts us to always maintain our grounding, to resist the pull of the “outside,” that is, the pull of the belief that there is an “outside” and an “inside,” and by so doing to include everything, holding Right View, so that in “holding the principal one” of the slogan, this principal witness (or witnessing function) is itself a centered, relaxed, open-hearted awareness.  If we observe dispassionately but carefully, we are able to see our own feeling-tone and our motivation. We can see and acknowledge, for example, a tinge of aggression or the need to put ourselves on top of another, or, in this case, a refusal, however subtle, to remain present and connected through an aversive experience. Complaining is always an attempt to run away from home.

By remembering to “hold the principal witness” we can check that we are in accord with the dharma and feel the truth of our actions for ourselves. In that way, we keep tabs on ourselves and vigilantly guard our true sanity.

How can we quit an unwholesome habitual pattern like complaining? Many methods work; the behavioral model of simply noticing we acted this way — i.e. moving a plastic bracelet from one wrist to the other — is a fine, elementary one. A more advanced technique would be to think before we speak or act in any way, to stop and examine our state of mind, and ask “Am I hoping to get something out of this utterance?” We hold ourselves accountable.

We must have the personal integrity to be brutally honest with ourselves. Then we can inquire, “Where am I coming from here?” Am I seeking to escape, to unload my feelings onto someone else, to induce a change I’m too intimated to request overtly? Or am I opening up, perhaps taking what feels like an emotional risk, in order to more fully connect with another person, to be in a state of sharing and in fact oneness?

Elizabeth Williams

Buddhist psychologist (retired) Elizabeth Williams, Ph.D. supervises new therapists at Rutgers Graduate School of Professional Psychology and practices with Princeton Buddhist Meditation Group (Tibetan) and Cold Mountain Zen in New Jersey.