I realized as I was walking my dog last night that there’s a sub-species of the Chronic Complainer who really should be recognized.
This is what I call the “Competitive Complainer.”
A conversation with a Competitive Complainer (CC) goes something like this:
CC: Good morning? How are you?
You: I’m a zombie. I only got two hours sleep because my son had croup last night. I can hardly think straight.
CC: You think that’s bad? I was up all night with a vomiting dog.
CC: How you doing?
You: Pretty overwhelmed. This project seems to be getting more complicated by the hour.
CC: Well at least you don’t have 322 unread emails in your inbox.
Conversations with Competitive Complainers tend to be baffling. You don’t know what happened; you just know you didn’t get any empathy. In fact, you’re now being asked to give sympathy to the complainer when in fact you were hoping for a little comfort yourself.
The Kinder, Healthier Approach
If you’re confused about whether you’ve just been one-upped in the complaint department, take a moment to ask yourself if the conversation could have gone a better, healthier way. For instance, when you mention you were up with a croupy child, a healthy person would respond “Goodness! Is there something in the air? I was up with my barfing dog all night!” or “I’m so sorry! How is your son this morning?” Or, “Oh dear. I’ve been through that. You must be exhausted.” Or even: “That sounds terrible. what is croup anyway? My kids never had it.”
(See how in three of these options the listener doesn’t even mention her own misery? Instead she is simply empathetic? It’s such an exciting way to respond and so sadly underutilized.)
Similarly, in the work scenario, a healthy person might respond to a co-worker’s admission of being overwhelmed with “Yes, I’ve heard that project is complicated” or “this time of year is crazy here” or even — hold onto your socks — “can I help in any way?” or “do you need to ask for more resources?”
Taking Care of Yourself
Once you recognize a Competitive Complainer, there’s no sense continuing in the conversation. It’s not just unpleasant; it borders on verbal abuse, because the CC is dismissing your concerns and yanking the conversation back to herself. You’ll never get empathy from these folks and you certainly don’t want to get into an argument about whose lot is worse. Instead, smile brightly, say, “Sounds rough!” and get thee to some hot water, a tea bag, and a friend or colleague who has a little more room in his heart.