How do I deal with people that complain?
January 2, 2015 12:47 PM   Subscribe

I have a variety of issues to deal with, but the one that's been bothering me the most lately is that I can't stand being around people who complain, even if it's not directed at me. As an example if a friend complains about a bad dish and sends it back, even if they're completely justified, I get really uncomfortable and feel strong anxiety. I can't deal with my cat whining or someone else's kids crying. How do I learn to deal with this better?

As background I'm somewhat on the autism spectrum, and also suffer from depression and anxiety, which I am treating mostly successfully. I think my sensitivity in this area is a combination of my issues with emotional filtering (I often "sponge" up emotions that I think others have), and growing up with two out of my 4 parents being very hard to please. So whenever I perceive that someone is complaining around me my anxiety kicks in, even if it has literally nothing to do with me.

Does anyone have first hand experience with learning to deal with this? I've talked to my therapist about it and he has general advice but nothing specific. The only two techniques I really use to deal with it are to just leave the situation and distract myself from the issue, or to silently curse at the person/animal complaining to try and relieve the anxiety. My sensitivity to complaints has been a bit of a problem in relationships so I'm very interested in ideas. Thanks!
posted by JZig to Human Relations (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Instead of removing yourself from the situation, which is not always possible, or distraction, which doesn't seem to work well for you, you could try empathy. You already feel empathy for the complainer anyway, as you're "sponging" up their negative feelings. By embracing it, you may be able to neutralize it.

"Sorry, man, I hate it when my food is bad too."
"Yeah, but they're replacing it. It's no big deal."
"You're right. It's no big deal," ...and carry on with the conversation.

Or a baby's crying, think to yourself, "That baby must be teething. Poor little guy. It must be painful."

I think the anxiety and discomfort are coming from the disconnect between what you're feeling and your attempt not to feel it. So accept your feelings and embrace your natural empathy. It might seem like you're needlessly wallowing in other people's problems, and indeed you are, but practice this for a while, and it might not feel so encompassing. You'll have some control over it. At the very least, you won't feel so anxious about it.

As far as complaints within relationships, they would be harder to deal with because they could directly involve you, but I still think starting from a point of empathy would help.
posted by Leontine at 1:19 PM on January 2, 2015 [14 favorites]

I sometimes get really uncomfortable when someone complains (if I think their complaint might lead to a confrontation). What has helped me is to just recognize that it's happening: my friend is complaining and my anxiety about confrontations is spiking up; my friend is not putting me in any danger and yet I am feeling anxious. It doesn't "cure" my anxiety but it does help me to create some distance between what is happening and how I am reacting to it. In response, I might take a deep breath and tell myself, "I'm feeling anxious and that's ok." For me, just acknowledging what I'm feeling without either letting my emotions dictate my response or telling myself that my feelings are wrong, just accepting that I'm having them, can be helpful for reducing the intensity of my anxiety.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:01 PM on January 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Your sponge point reminds me of myself. My therapist pointed out that some of my anxiety around situations like these was that I was putting myself in their shoes to my own detriment. Imagining how deeply uncomfortable I'd be if I sent food back, or how much pain I'd have to be in to cry like that, or how unbearable I'd find it if the criers were my kids. Because I tried very hard Not to whine, their audible pain made me feel like I was doing something I didn't want to do, merely because I was witnessing it.

So you can feel the empathy mentioned above. But then remind yourself that they aren't you. They cry for other reasons; their parents can handle it. They aren't embarrassed by sending their food back, and their actions don't reflect back on you.

So for me it wasn't that I was unempathetic. It was that I felt their pain too keenly and felt somehow responsible for it. I had to remind myself that I'm not responsible for anyone else's feelings. Unless the hard thing is a) an emergency and b) I can take useful action, like calling 911, I remind myself that it's Not My Problem.

Especially when the pained being is an adult, I literally will tell myself in my head "this is not your problem, they are an adult, they will deal with it as best they can".

Good luck - sometimes the removing myself and distracting myself are also helpful additions, but for low level stuff, these realizations helped.
posted by ldthomps at 2:05 PM on January 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

This might seem obvious, but it helped me so much to realize that I could use the same techniques to calm myself no matter what was triggering my anxiety. I didn't need 10,000 approaches, one for each of the 10,000 ways my anxiety can be triggered. I just needed a small toolkit of options that usually help me calm down in most situations. Leaving the situation is in my toolkit, and it helps to keep it as an option -- sometimes it's the best thing.

Anxiety makes you feel like you have to solve the immediate problem right away (for example, make the cat stop whining), and at the same time being in anxious distress mode makes it impossible to use your best problem-solving skills (for example, it's hard to stay in problem-solving mode and think through whether this is the cat's usual level of whining that just needs to be ignored, or whether the whining might be for a reason you could do something about, such as feeding the cat or scooping the litter, when anxious brain is screaming "run away" or "curse you, cat.")

Try adding some breathing and/or counting exercises to your toolkit. There are some here. Choose one to practice frequently, daily if you can, at a time when you're calm and won't be interrupted. Then when your anxiety gets triggered by a complaint, try the calming exercise right then. It might help you calm down enough to think through how you plan to deal with that particular situation.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 2:08 PM on January 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice! I quite like Leontine's answer and related points, I'm going to try and empathize more directly, I agree that some of the anxiety probably does come from trying to fight my natural empathy here.
posted by JZig at 2:54 PM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have similar urges in a lot of situations (your restaurant example is spot-on for me!) and I think they're related to anxiety too. I've found that when I thought about what was going on, my anxiety is related to a larger issue of wanting to control or steer conversations I'm in or around so that everyone is "happy" (in quotes because my idea of happy may have nothing to do with what makes another person happy in their conversations).

I've worked a lot over the last few years to step back when I feel the need to jump into a conversation. It's helpful for me to repeat to myself that I do not get to decide how other people's conversations/interactions go, and that I'm not in charge of how people who aren't me interact with other people who aren't me. It's not an easy shift to make, which I definitely know! But it has helped quite a bit to have some phrases like that I repeat inside my head when a situation like this is making me uncomfortable. I'm much better able to deal with, say, a friend sending food back at a restaurant without feeling like some part of the night has turned awkward and horrible. I can think of it as just a normal thing that happens at restaurants.
posted by augustimagination at 4:07 PM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree that empathy is a great approach, and I would add to that self-compassion--recognizing that it's hard for many of us to bear complaining, whether it's directed at us or not. When I was parenting a baby, I found it helpful to frame my irritation at crying (and, later, whining) as a biologically adaptive sort of human interaction. Crying and whining (and, by extension, complaining) works by causing itritation and discomfort in the hearer, who then takes action to stop it by figuring out what is wanted or needed and delivering it. This is how babies have gotten fed and survived over these many years; overall it's a pretty effective solution.
posted by dreamphone at 4:11 PM on January 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Well, I'm with you on a friend sending back food-- unless its really an egregious error, like they ordered a vegetarian burrito and received a beef burrito-- watching an adult send back food, or complain about service, kind of mortifies me. They seem self-important and petty and spoiled and juvenile. And that makes me feel judgmental, then guilty for feeling judgmental, so it's a whole ball of issues and the only way I can deal with it in the moment is to grin and bear it as just one of those social things I'll never fully understand so I have to be okay with it. (Because as obnoxious I think complaining to service workers is, it'd be 100x more obnoxious for me to succumb to my anxiety and be a jerk to the friend about it.) A mantra that works for me here is "it's not my problem, it'll be over soon."

But the baby and the cat things, those are innocents; they can't help it, they are not capable of being rude or petty. So perhaps a mantra like "they can't help it" will do the trick.
posted by kapers at 5:31 PM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also, if in your last sentence you meant romantic relationships, I think you'd do well with someone who is not a "complainer." (Personally, if a guy complained his food was bad on a first date, that'd be the only date.) Some of us are just more sensitive to negativity and that's okay.

You still have to deal with their legitimate relationship grievances, though. But I find that's a lot easier when they are not always "bitching and moaning" about every little thing, as my Grammy used to say.
posted by kapers at 5:39 PM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

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