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  • Writer's pictureJulie Love

Complaints Department

No one likes a complainer, and yet we all do it. Something bad happens, something unfair. We are upset, angry even. And we want to tell others about it.


There’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with anger (along with all its smaller cousins – irritation, frustration, annoyance, indignation). Anger gets a bad rap – people are constantly saying “Don’t get mad” or “I shouldn’t be upset.” But anger has its place – it’s an Ethical Emotion. It is, like anxiety, a Call to Action. When something is wrong, anger moves us to make it right.


But sadly, more often than not, we just complain about it. That’s where the system breaks down, because we usually don’t complain very well. We don’t look for a way to fix the problem, we just want others to support our righteous indignation. We want to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, and share our anger. Pretty soon you have a crowd of people, filled with the urge to Do Something and often only a tenuous understanding of exactly what problem started this whole thing, let alone how to fix it. Best case scenario, they’re left feeling unpleasantly impotent; worst case scenario they take poorly aimed and disproportionate action.


It is possible to complain productively. You are in an uncomfortable place; you need to find a path out of it, not just gather more people into your misery. So instead of the comfort of agreement, seek out someone who challenges you, who encourages you to think about what the anger is calling you to do. (If their response feels unsatisfying to you, it’s probably a good sign.) Is the goal tangible action, to ensure the Bad Thing won’t happen again, or to pay some form of compensation? Or are you wishing for a different past, and actually need to focus on the emotions? Is the anger a shield or distraction, helping you avoid other feelings? Would viewing it from another’s point of view move you away from Right/Wrong and towards a more nuanced understanding?


It's hard to disrupt our pattern of habitual complaint. Complaining and agreeing with complaints tend to draw people together. The gravitational pull of negativity is pervasive, and our brains default easily to it. You’re having a good day, and one bad thought or experience can ruin it – but when’s the last time good news abruptly “spoiled” your bad mood? Shifting a bad mood takes persistent effort. We have to consciously look for and hold onto positive experiences and thoughts. Plus we need to resist the urge to put them on a scale, dismissing them as worthless unless they completely balance whatever pain we have.

I worked on a unit once that had a wonderful way to do this. They had a decorated shoebox, the Kudos Box, with paper and pens near it for people to jot down any positive observation they had about anyone else on the unit. Then the notes were read aloud in a weekly group. The nurse that day collected the notes for all the nurses, putting them up on the wall in the medication room. The Med Room, being locked and only accessible to the nurses, was the ideal place to go when overwhelmed and upset. A kid would attack me, I’d go to collect myself in the Med Room… and find myself facing a wall covered with scribbled notes: “Kudos to Julie for teaching me to knit.”

“Kudos to Elizabeth for being so patient with me.”

“Kudos to Lynlee for always greeting us with a smile.”


And reading those would spoil my bad mood.

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