Story: What Am I Really Complaining About?

For the weekly videos, I now tell a story. I’ve realized that for me, and I think for many people, a story is what holds my attention and makes a point most powerfully.

This week’s story: What am I really complaining about?


This story reminds me of what Mindy Kaling said in her happiness interview (yes, that’s right, I did an interview with Mindy Kaling):

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Mindy: When I was 18 years old, I took a semester off from college and was an intern at Late Night With Conan O’Brien. It was the most glamorous job I ever had, and I idolized the writers there. I remember lying in bed every night telling myself that if I ever got a job as a comedy writer, I would be so happy and all my dreams would have come true. Six years later I got that job, working on The Office. I felt incredibly happy and grateful for a about a week, and then a whole new set of complaints set in. This would’ve shocked and disgusted my 18-year-old self. It’s helpful to remember the younger version of me because it reminds me to feel grateful when I want to be snotty.

How about you? Have you ever been able to stop your complaining, by asking yourself, “What am I really complaining about?”

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  • Yes! This is so effective at putting things in perspective. I learned this from your book, where you discuss reframing a situation. For example, I stressed for a long time over two important people in my life fighting for my time and attention. One time, when they both wanted to do the same activity with me, I felt so torn and frustrated and complained about having to choose between them. But then, I took a moment to think about how lucky I am that I have two people who love me so much that they want to spend as much time as possible with me. That’s definitely not something to be complaining about!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great way to re-frame the situation!

  • Carla

    I definitely agree. Complaining seems like the easier path rather than counting our blessings. It is so easy for me to feel frustrated at the end of a long day at work, instead of being grateful to have a job that supports me.

    Gratitude can really lift your spirits when you can stay in that mindset.

  • Abby

    If only I could find a sneaky way to get my sister to see this without my hint. “Oh, you’re complaining about your job after complaining about NOT having a job?” Or maybe I shouldn’t complain about my sister because at least I HAVE a sister who calls me. HUMBLED!

    • Veronique

      I find with people like that there is no way to do it. My mom is like that. She will complain about something, say not having a comfortable chair in a certain spot, then when I go shopping with her and buy her one she complains about it being in the way! So I just ignore the complaints, understand it is her happy place to complain and rather than try to point out the positive, which I have noticed irritates her, I change the subject and steer it on to something funny or fun.

      • Abby

        Thanks for your reply and the tips 🙂

  • Rachel

    This sort of ties in with hedonic adaptation. Something seems fun and exciting in the beginning, then we adapt, lose appreciation, and find things to complain about. It’s just the way we humans seem to be wired.

  • HL

    Good points, Gretchen.

    I have read that we complain when, and because, we don’t take 100% responsibility for our lives. The problem is always OUT THERE. It’s always someone else’s fault. Woe is me! While it may feel good temporarily to place the blame elsewhere, it is ultimately disempowering, because we’re implicitly saying that we have no control over improving our situations.
    Therefore, when we take responsibility for our lives and everything in them, the complaining oftentimes disappears. Or maybe it’s the other way around, that if we stop complaining, the responsibility we take for our lives increases. A virtuous cycle.

  • Kate

    I try to remind myself of this issue when I feel dissatisfied with my apartment (rent’s too high! crappy electric stove! cold in the winter! etc.).
    I firmly remind myself that I moved to this apartment & town four years ago to get away from a terrible bedbug infestation. Every day that I get to have my things around me, and not have my clothes in plastic, and go to bed without parasites drinking my blood and leaving me itchy is a GOOD day.

  • Veronique

    Several years ago a friend was in a rut. I didn’t feel her constant complaining was improving her situation. Spending time with her was becoming a chore and I was beginning to find that she seemed to complain about the most ridiculous things almost as though to prove that her life was somehow more bleak than anyone else’s. One night she was sitting on my couch staring at my fireplace and asked if my husband and I ever used it. I told her we had one in our bedroom so used this one less. She told me in a very bitter voice that if she had a fireplace like that she would use it every night. I looked at her in surprise and reminded her that she had a lovely fireplace in her duplex that she never used. Her answer? It wasn’t as big as the one I had. About a week later I called her and gently mentioned to her that her negative attitude and apparent need to collect and lament all the small annoying occurrences in her life that we all experience may be contributing to her being down. She did not call me for a month but when she did I was very happy to hear that though she had initially been quite angry with me she decided to try to stop complaining and being negative. She said it took very little time to start feeling better and that she had since joined a gym and had met some new people. She thanked me and though she does still tend to be a person who zeros in on life’s petty annoyances I can now joke her out of a bender!

    • gretchenrubin

      I love the example of the fireplace. So funny, so true. When you’re in that complaining frame of mind, it’s easy to complain about not having things that you actually have!

      • Veronique

        Yes it was actually her fireplace comment that fuelled my courage to say something to her (after a year and a half of her fairly constant complaining). It was so absurd to me! Also have you ever noticed how quick we are to point out the faults of others that we ourselves are most guilty of? What is that expression? When you are pointing a finger at someone there are four more pointing right back at you. I did a double check before calling her to make sure I wasn’t on a complaining binge too!

    • molly

      Great story about the fireplace. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve probably had such moments in my life. Glad your friend finally decided to take the constructive criticism and stop complaining.

  • marci

    Funny. I was trying to make this point with my teen son and his friends
    the other day who were comparing their lives to their friends’ in a
    neighboring rich suburb. Those wealthy kids complained about having
    just an Iphone 4S instead of an Iphone 5 and were upset about how much
    homework they would have to make up when they went to Mexico for spring

    “(Rich Suburb) problems” were not problems, the boys said.
    The rich kids should try life on the other side of the tracks. They
    didn’t even have smart phones, just crappy phones where they could
    barely text. They did homework at home not in Cancun. Their baseball
    team couldn’t afford new uniforms or groomed fields. They lived in small
    houses and could barely fit all their stuff in their closets. The list
    went on…..

    I asked them what would someone in poverty say about
    their “problems”? Surprisingly, the boys got it right away: we have a
    cell phone and friends to text and we go to a school that challenges us.
    We have free time to play baseball and aren’t forced to work to feed
    our families. We have so much stuff we can’t even fit in our homes.

    Perspective is everything. “First World Problems” are not problems.

  • ms.gcameron

    I’m really enjoying the storytelling format and particularly enjoyed this one.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for letting me know! I really appreciate that.

  • Jeanne

    In moments like you describe, my friend (now husband) would ask good-naturedly, “are the diamond straps on your shoes too tight?” It gave me a laugh and made me aware of just what I was saying.

  • Sarah hp

    I think it helps me to compare my experiences to that of my husbands family. They live in a developing country. It really makes me see many of my complaints are very much first world problems. I was upset one day because I couldn’t afford to buy my daughter the expensive type of scooter all her friends have but then stopped myself being so indulgent. I never have to worry if I can feed her which I know at times is what my sister in law faces with her soon.

  • bill

    I have an old laptop computer which is more than 5 years’ old.Last year, I bought a 3g mobile phone which I wanted to mainly use it to surf the web.Because I don’t have land line adsl connection in my living place.I found the screen of the mobile phone too small and was a little upset about it.One day I found I can use the laptop to connect with the mobile phone and by acting as a wireless router,the mobile phone can help me surf with my laptop.Later I wish I could have an ipad which I couldn’t afford,because how cool it si to use the ipad to connect with a wireless keyboard,and I hate my old-fashioned laptop.But today, suddenly, when I looked at my old laptop,it is a tablet+keyboard!
    And I think Anything we complain is actually a part of our own life.