Turning complaining in to a healing practice

When people think of empathy, they tend to see it as a soft skill, full of yielding and niceness.

That’s a part of empathy, but there’s a deeper and more full-bodied form of empathy that helps you engage with people when they (and you!) are not feeling nice at all.

In The Art of Empathy, I share a number of relationship skills for dealing with conflict and repairing bonds, and this is one of my favorites: 

Conscious Complaining with a Partner

This quick and intentional relationship practice is an excellent way to de-steam without blowing up, and it can help you create stronger and more honest relationships.

In this two-person practice (which you can quickly teach to a loved one) one of you will take the position of the listener, while the other will complain consciously. Then you’ll trade places; it’s very simple, and each partner gets a turn of 3 minutes.

How to begin

Let’s start out with you as the first complainer: You can start out with some verbal recognition that the complaining needs to happen.

In our family, we say, “I don’t need you to fix me. I just need to complain.”

Then, you’re allowed to bring up whatever’s bothering you for 3 minutes —“Things are just rotten, this situation is bothering me, and things are too hard,” etc.

Your partner’s job is to support your complaining with helpful yeahs and uh huhs— no advice, no suggestions, just support. Your partner’s job is to create a safe haven for your complaining — which immediately makes it less toxic.

An important note: There’s a rule in partner complaining, which is that the complainer can’t complain about the listener — because that wouldn’t be fair. If someone is willing to provide support for your complaining, then complaining about them would be cruel — it would be like taking a hostage.

If there’s conflict in your relationship, this is not the right tool to use. Conscious Complaining is for times when the problems are outside the relationship of the listener and the complainer (there are two practices for trouble inside the relationship in The Art of Empathy).

When you’re complaining, you can name – out loud – any emotion you feel. You may want to have your Emotional Vocabulary List open so that you can be very articulate about how annoyed, disappointed, uneasy, distrustful, or humiliated (etc.) you feel.

Identifying your emotions increases your emotional skills

This process doesn’t need to take forever; in our workshops, we find that 3 minutes is usually all the time each partner needs. It’s an amazingly quick healing practice.

Learning to feel and name your emotions will help you become emotionally fluent and increase your Empathic Accuracy – but more than that, the act of naming your emotions can help you focus and organize everything you’re feeling.

Complaining consciously with a partner is an excellent Emotion Regulation practice that will help you become more skilled in the presence of every emotion you have.

Your partner will also receive an excellent gift – which is a chance to practice their emotion work out in the open, instead of being a receptacle for the unconscious complaining of other people. Everybody gets a healing in this practice.

When you feel done complaining (you don’t have to run out the timer), you end your turn with gratitude, “Thanks — that’s been bothering me,” or “I didn’t realize I was carrying that much stuff around — thanks!”

Now, it’s your partner’s turn

Then, you get to trade positions — your listener now gets to complain consciously for 3 minutes while you listen and provide support and perform openly-acknowledged emotion work.

When you’re both done, the session is over.

You’ll be amazed at how productive (and funny) this complaining technique is.

We’re all urged to be positive, nice, and peppy at all times — which means we’ve got to repress most of our emotions, reduce our Empathic Accuracy, and lose our Emotion Regulation skills.

Often, repression will kick our emotions into repetitive feedback loops, but Conscious Complaining lets us tell the truth and restore our healing emotional flow.

The benefits of Conscious Complaining with a Partner

Conscious Complaining is a great all-around stress-reliever, but when you can complain with a partner, there’s a special set of additional benefits:

  1. This practice teaches you how to reach out (instead of isolate yourself) in a conscientious and boundary-respecting way,
  2. It teaches you and your complaining partner new ways to function around pain and trouble, and,
  3. It gives both of you the opportunity for your emotion work to be requested, respected, and performed intentionally.

See if you can find more than one complaining partner to share this practice with. If there’s someone you regularly call when you’re tense and cranky, they’ll probably jump at the chance to perform emotion work in a more intentional way.

And if there’s someone who regularly complains to you, you’ll probably love the chance to bring your own emotion work out of the shadows and create better reciprocity in the relationship.

Consciously complaining with your friends is a wonderful way to clear the air and be emotionally honest in the presence of others, and it sets healthy behavioral boundaries around a behavior that’s usually unconscious and unrewarding.

In this practice, each of you takes responsibility for learning how to name and listen to your own emotions, and this will increase your emotional skills.

Complaining! It’s now an empathic healing practice!

Note: I modified this partner-complaining practice from the book Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want by the late, great Barbara Sher, who writes about how important it is for you to complain openly (in a safe and healthy way), rather than shut down and lose your emotional honesty and integrity. It’s an excellent book (it’s now online for free, because Barbara Sher rocks!).


16 Responses

  1. Michael Stumpf
    | Reply

    Hi Karla great piece, could you talk about the difference between Conscious Complaining and Venting of the past. I feel there’s a difference, checking your input.
    Thanks, Peace Be With You

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Mike; it’s nice to hear from you! Thanks for your good question. In Conscious Complaining, you can certainly vent about the past or the present, but the difference is that you’re bringing consciousness to it, and inviting a partner to help you move through rather than just get stuck there.

      People are rarely allowed to complain, which means that they can’t move through problem areas with the help of all of their emotions (not just the happiness-based ones). This practice welcomes complaining, which makes it immediately less toxic, and makes a space for a person to hear what they’re saying in their own complaining. It’s remarkably quick, too: I just did a retreat where we found that 3 minutes per complainer was WAY too long; 2 minutes is more than adequate per person (I’ll include that in the post, thanks!).

      Another aspect of this process is that it has a beginning, where you ask for a person’s help in complaining, a middle, where you complain for 2 minutes or so, and an end, where you finish and give thanks before the other person has his or her turn. In unconscious complaining, things can just drone on forever, and relationships can get very uncomfortable, as we’ve all experienced. This process detoxifies complaining and makes it into an intentional practice; it’s a form of channeling emotions. So those are the differences between complaining consciously and venting. Thanks for asking!

  2. Michael Stumpf
    | Reply

    Hi,Karla thanks for the response. I like your way of understanding the difference of the two, it matches my felt sense of the two.
    Thank You,

  3. Ira Woodward
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    Well, I can’t complain about this post! Well… I don’t know why I *would* anyway 😉

    But yeah, complaining is something I was musing about recently. I was thinking: people always talk trash about complainers– but aren’t they actually complaining about complaining?

    Maybe that’s unfair of me. I’ll tell you though, as a traveler who has logged plenty of frequent complainer miles on the relationship road, I know how I feel when I hear another smiling lecture about the purely positive pathways to peaceful conveyance.

    I feel great! 😀

    Anyway, glad to see you’re still at it. Though I do miss your posts on the Remembering the Solstice blog. Glad you have a comments section here though!

    Well, that took a few more than two minutes– but I ain’t complaining 🙂

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Ira!

      Yeah, complaining is definitely something that gets shoved into the closet with all the unwanted behaviors. I made it a solitary skill in The Language of Emotions for that reason, but when I wrote the book on empathy, I made it into a partner practice.

      I notice that complaining tends to make people feel less empathy for the complainer, and this is a nice way to help people expand their empathy range and make room for the actual emotional lives of real people instead of always expecting that everything will be peachy.

      Missing the Solstice! I was just at the Solstice blog yesterday cleaning up some posts, and I have some writing about ritual that’s percolating. It may actually be a post that can fit comfortably on both blogs, which may be an interesting commentary about the gradual integration of my two lives. Thanks for checking in!

      • Ira Woodward
        | Reply

        Ritual is something I was thinking about recently, too. Very curious to see what you have to say.

        Missing the Solstice seemed more personal, though I haven’t really looked around this site much. Big fan of bringing oneself into things I am 🙂

        Here’s my thought: The anti-complaining attitude is an authoritarian one. At least that’s what I see in practice. If we were all involved in making decisions, why would we complain? We’d just bring it to the next group meeting. And anyway, it seems to me if the goal is actually to improve group functioning, a healthy social attitude is to give complainers the benefit of the doubt, otherwise we have a tendency toward stifling innovation and promotion of conformism.

        Of course we all know that person who seems to really get a kick out of raining on everyone’s parade. And that person usually is the last to volunteer to do the time-consuming and otherwise undesirable grunt work of the group. I certainly know a few people like that anyway.

        Just a few 😉

        Well, I’m looking forward to my evening enjoying a local arts walk in the soft setting sunshine. Hope you have bright plans as well.


        • Karla
          | Reply

          Ira, I like your sociological approach to complaining as an issue of authority. Nice!

          I talk about gossip in that way in the empathy book. When I see a lot of gossip, which is a social form of complaining that travels in informal communication networks, I look at the authority structure. We tend to want to blame the gossipers, but gossip is usually a response to unhealthy social systems, either authoritarian ones where power is too tightly held, or loosey goosey ones where there is a power vacuum. I love the sociological imagination; it’s one of my favorite ways to approach things.

  4. Ira Woodward
    | Reply

    Yep, sounds like we have a similar analysis.

    I remember learning as a kid in sunday school about ‘lashon horah’ which i guess translates as evil tongue. I took it to heart, but when dealing with adult situations i quickly learned talking behind backs isn’t always so bad. It can be hard to live with people!

    We wanted to create cooperative roommate arrangements, and we did– we shared our love *and* our grief!

    No regrets, though sometimes the repair work is a lot trickier than making the mess in the first place.

    Hm, seems i’ve wandered far afield here. Made my best discoveries that way! Always nice to come back home though. No need to complain when you’re comfortable.

    And you’re right, i think, about loosey goosey systems having the same problem. My view is that people always wield power in a group, it’s just sometimes it’s harder to see who and how. Still, it’s better when the wizard is a sad middle-aged man who means no harm, whether or not he devised an elaborate system of smoke and mirrors to obscure his true identity.

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