There's a story about a Native American tribe whose women sit in a circle in the evening and tell each other what happened to them during the day. When one of these women is full of woe, the group gives her three circle times to unburden herself and express her misery and unhappiness. The other women listen, they commiserate, and then they respond with all the wisdom they can muster to offer sympathetic support. If the same unhappy woman tells the same tale a fourth night, however, she receives a very different reception. Without a word, the others get up from where they sit. They create a new circle, and they leave her alone.
Everyone knows what to expect: three shots at whining, and then it's over. Most of us don't have such a ritual in our culture, unfortunately, but we need to find one, or we may hear ourselves whining about the whiners.
Reasons To Whine
To complain is a way to express our feelings of powerlessness. It could even be seen as big anger emerging in the form of a small voice. This happens most of all when we don't know how to change a situation or how to comfort ourselves. For some people, to complain is self-soothing — they feel a sense of catharsis after ridding themselves of negative feelings.
To complain also has value as a means to connect with other people; we all know the idiom "misery loves company." Some families nitpick and find fault with each other constantly. Their criticisms are the glue that binds as they unload their frustration or fury with the raging parent, the bullying brother, the self-centered sister. When there's no ability to change the situation, to moan and eye roll offers some relief. Complaining and whining can develop into relationship habits.
Another motive for complaining is avoidance: to sidestep the actual feeling of grief over a loss, or to avoid making a scary decision, say, to leave a relationship or a job.
So its not without a purpose, but can easily become a habit long after the purpose has been fulfilled and make the moaner and everyone around them miserable.
How To Deal With Complainers
We're all familiar with the useless ways to respond to another person's complaints: offer solutions, suggest that things aren't as bad as they seem, or contest their point of view. In fact, the harder we try to fix an issue, the more the unhappy person will respond with reasons why our ideas won't work.
The following steps may not solve anyone's problems. But you will be able to duck out on the seemingly endless torrent of negativity from someone with the need to complain. Like the Native American women, you may offer to listen to the complaints three times, and then move on ...
Acknowledge the situation and the person's feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. Say something like, "I can see why you feel so upset, and I get that you don't feel you can do anything to change it."
It's important to reassure the person that they're not crazy to feel the way they do. Often people who are caught up in whining actually are trapped in isolation. However tiresome or annoying it is to hear their constant complaints, they do feel miserable. Letting them know simply that you hear what they're saying helps break their sense of isolation.
At this point you can ask them what they see as options, and what they want to happen. There's a small chance this kind of question may help them out.
In any event, you need to begin to distance yourself to avoid being victimized.
3. Set limits.
You've listened and you've affirmed the validity of their outlook. Now it's time to set your own limits.
Remember, a person whines because they haven't found a way to change their situation. If you get caught in the same trap, you'll soon be doing the same thing. They whine about their situation, while you whine about them whining.
Stop the vicious cycle by telling the truth. Simply, without judgment — but with firmness — say something like, "I know you're hurting, and I'm sad to see you this way. I also know that I can no longer listen. It won't be good for me."
Then you must firmly exit the conversation by saying something like, "I know you feel sad, and I can't help you, so I'm not going to talk with you about this problem any longer. I'm happy to help you find someone who may be able to help you more than I could: a counselor, perhaps, a minister, a therapist. Would you like me to help you find someone, or are you able to do it yourself?"
For your own health and sanity, stay with this exit strategy, and repeat the process as often as necessary to leave this conversation behind.
When we're around a chronic complainer, we can feel like the victims of an energy-vampire, which drains us so that we end up feeling as powerless as they do. Or we can feel like their negative energy is actually entering us. Remember, however: no one can make us feel this way unless we allow them to.
As you look for a way to protect yourself, you may even inadvertently ease the troubles of your complainer, so that they may find their way out of their obsessiveness. Whatever they decide to do next, however, you'll no longer be caught in their web.