Do you ever indulge in a decent bout of good old complaining? Maybe with a willing and agreeable friend or colleague, agreeing about your opinions over a steaming cup of coffee or fill-in-the-blanks with the beverage of your choice?
Do you also sometimes find that when you’re hanging out with someone and commiserating about something together, you feel really good during the conversation, but then later, you feel worse, or at least not better?
This happens especially when we’re complaining about something or someone. It feels like we’re connecting, being heard, seen and understood when we’re commiserating, but if we do it a lot, we wind up feeling worse in the long run.
Here’s my bold assertion: complaints are contagious and commiserating makes you miserable. Gaining agreement that you’ve been done wrong might feel good in the short term, but if it’s where the conversation stalls out, all you get is to win is unanimous agreement that you’re losing.
Complaining and commiserating aren’t necessarily true connection: they’re collusion.
Officially, collusion is defined as secret cooperation or conspiracy in order to deceive others. It comes from the Latin, colludere, which means “secret agreement.”
Oooh. Secret agreements! How clandestine!
In this conversation, I’ll just use collusion to refer to when we get together with another person and share complaints and get agreement about how right we are to have those complaints. Collusion allows us to gain consensus in our complaints and solidify our victimhood.
Collusion means we’re conspiring together to create agreement about something and validate our thoughts, feelings and experience. When we have a complaint and find ourselves drawn to others who feel similarly, we’re likely to build our case even more strongly that we are right and they are wrong.
From there, we build out our arguments and draw our sides. And the more right we are, the less likely, willing and able we are to hear or understand anyone else’s perspective.
When we do this, our survival mechanisms—our automatic responses to our deepest fears—start egging each other on and feeding each other’s complaints and negativity, righteousness and indignation. You know what I’m talking about, and so do I.
It’s much easier to collude with others than it is to trace backwards from your complaint to identifying the desire or need that isn’t being met and is therefore triggering your fear. It’s easier to get agreement that you’ve been done wrong than it is to see from someone else’s perspective and understand where they’re coming from, even if you still don’t agree with them. It’s easier to stay a victim—even if it sucks—than it is to take responsibility for however something went, and change it.
It’s easier to collude because it doesn’t require that you change what you think, what you feel or what you do.
Let me just say that first of all, I get it: it’s feels extremely validating to have someone else agree with us that we’ve been wronged, or better yet, that we are right and therefore someone else IS wrong. Sweet, sweet righteousness. Unfortunately, this conversation keeps us in the role of the victim, which isn’t particularly empowering or satisfying.
I’d like to clarify that I’m not saying that complaining is wrong. Far be it from me to make anyone else wrong for something I can also do a lot of, if I’m being honest.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with complaining or even commiserating from time to time. We all need to let off a little steam sometimes, and having a good whine, grouse or grumble can feel like it temporarily unwinds our wound-up-ness.
Venting is not just okay, it’s important. Feelings can tend to get all bunged up when we don’t let them move through us—particularly the negative ones. You know, those feelings we’re not supposed to have, even though we all have them. Expressing what’s there to be expressed is an important step in clearing the energy that’s gotten all backed up.
You can’t leave a place before you get there. So whatever you’re not allowing yourself to feel is gonna feel real sticky if you are trying to ignore it or suppress it. Good luck with that.
I think that it’s important to understand the intention of our complaining and commiserating. If we’re doing it with awareness and intention, then we can also choose when to be done griping and move into what’s next.
But when we find ourselves stuck on repeat, complaining about the same thing or person over and over again, it’s a pretty good indication that we’re not moving through our circumstances, we’ve moved into them. We’re making a home of our complaints, choosing paint colours and complementary furnishings.
When complaining and commiserating becomes comfortable and familiar, we’re inadvertently giving permission to our circumstances to be the authoritative agent in our lives. It’s not very satisfying, but then at least we’ve got something new to complain about (our powerlessness), so we get even more stuck.
When we collude, we find support and evidence for our limiting stories. Think about it: when we have a complaint, isn’t it SO gratifying to hear someone say, “Oh, I KNOW exactly what you’re talking about!” Confirmation bias takes over, meaning we all start to hear and see only what we’re looking to hear and see.
We all tend to find what we’re looking for, after all.
We’ll find evidence to corroborate our stories, regardless of whether our stories make us feel better or worse, whether they empower us or disempower us.
If I’m sharing a frustration with someone and I find myself feeling more angry, more resentful, more powerless and more frustrated, then I know I’ve been finding collusion for my limiting beliefs and stories.
If, on the other hand, I’m clear about what I’m ultimately looking for that would move me forward from where I’m feeling stuck, then I can ask for what I want: to be heard and understood AND to have help in seeing past my blind spots and moving past where I’m dug in.
Next time you find yourself complaining or commiserating with someone, check in: are you colluding? Is the conversation serving your fear or your growth? What do you really need and want from the conversation? How could you get those needs met without backing yourself into a corner of victimhood, resentment and righteousness?
That might be a more interesting conversation. What do you think?