Complaining, The Ego, and Personal Responsibility

I’ve wanted to write a post about complaining for a while now- but this week the timing seems perfect. Between people at work complaining about the weekend being “too short”, to the the hundreds of tweets asking President Obama to forgive student loans, to the constant stream of articles in mass media lamenting the income gap, and the supposed decline of the middle class- we are all starting to sound like a bunch of whiners.

Complaining doesn’t stop at issues of income and work, nearly everyone nowadays is diagnosed with some kind of obscure allergy or illness- and as far as I can tell, they relish talking about the extreme hardship of it all, in depth. You can read numerous blogs about the privilege of certain groups over others, and if you look hard enough it seems that everyone claims they are being discriminated against for one reason or another- there are even groups run by straight white men who crusade to protect “men’s rights”, which they feel are being violated by women and ethnic minorities. There’s fat shaming and skinny shaming and mental illness shaming and poverty shaming and wealth shaming. People are angry at the government, at private corporations, at commercialism, at credit card debt, at poverty, at healthcare, at higher education, at religion, at democrats and republicans.

The ego is a tricky thing, it doesn’t always function in our actual best interests- and in the case of complaining, I believe we can hold the ego fully responsible. The basic idea of a complaint is that YOU are experiencing something unfair that YOU shouldn’t have to deal with because YOU are better than x,y, or z. This is not the same as fighting for a group’s basic human rights (like protesting for the liberation of North Koreans, or the civil rights movement in the United States), which is clearly worth fighting for- this is about the impact that (non life or death) day-to-day life has on you.

It’s pretty easy to understand why complaining is so rampant if you really begin to think about it. I think that most complaining can be broken down into a few categories:

1. People like to feel like they are making it against all odds. American’s love a good underdog, and we love to think that we’re all that underdog- but we aren’t. If you look hard enough, everyone has advantages and disadvantages. Everyone has things they have overcome in their lives- this isn’t heroic or inspiring, it’s just life. Many people vocally and internally romanticize their struggles to make themselves seem and feel like they have accomplished more than they actually have. They like to revel in how disenfranchised they are, rather than in how lucky they are or how much they have. I have heard people who beat cancer talk about it like it was nothing, and I have heard people with peanut allergies act as if they can barely function in society.

There are many people who come from truly impoverished and war torn countries to the United States and raise themselves to upper middle class in one generation– these people tend (in my humble opinion) not to be huge complainers about petty things like work hours- but actually quite grateful. There are also well off people who get Master’s degrees in poetry or philosophy from expensive and elite private institutions, only to graduate and complain about not being able to find a high paying job. The former example may actually believe they are luckier than the latter, not just that they worked very hard and earned it- and the latter group may truly believe that their lack of financial success is all just because the cards are stacked against them. This is the power of the ego,  it can warp a harsh reality into something manageable, or a cushy existence into something insurmountable. This brings me to my next item:

2. It is easier to be angry at something external, than to take a long hard look at yourself. This is the source of a lot of angst, as well as the repetition of mistakes. It’s easy to identify this in terms of relationship issues: everyone knows someone who has “bad luck” with every person they choose to date, or someone who can’t keep a job because every boss they have has it out for them. This is an extreme example of the delusion the ego can bring- even when it is apparent to everyone around them, these people would rather believe that the world is out to get them than to look in the mirror.

When it comes to the topic of personal responsibility versus blaming, people are quick to point out unfair things in society as the reason for their woes. As long as there are human beings on earth, there will be things that are unfair. If I had a magic wand, I would wish that all education would be stellar and free to everyone, I would wish that all people had exactly equal rights, that no prejudice existed, that all healthcare would be outstanding and available and free, that their would be no poor health or disabilities, that every neighborhood would be 100% safe, that there would be no violence or war, that everyone have enough food, and that all humans could pursue exactly the kind of life they wanted. Of course this is absurd, it is not the nature of this life- and we have to learn to accept it (not in the usual sense of understanding it intellectually- but in a deeper and more spiritual sense of true acceptance).

What we can do is begin to honestly differentiate between what we can change and what we cannot. I cannot change the percentage of taxes taken from my paycheck, I cannot change (today at least) the amount of money I make. But I can look back in time and see how in the past I was not efficient with my money, I incurred stupid credit card debt, and I should have saved more but I didn’t- I have three years of work behind me that I basically have nothing to show for.

Now I save more money, I don’t rely on credit (and I never will again), and I got rid of a major unnecessary stress in my life. If I had been unwilling to assess my own behavior honestly, if I had not sought out more information and rigorously educated myself about personal finance, I might have continued down my financially unstable path for twenty or thirty years, all the while blaming the government, unequal pay structures, or my own earning potential. It’s not always about changing your situation completely, some things are impossible to change completely (like a physical disability)- it’s about looking at the cards you have, and seeing what you can do to play them the best way you can- and ignoring the things you truly have no control over.

3. If everything isn’t hard, then its all been handed to you. What I mean by this, is that if you go against the grain and don’t complain and aggrandize the struggles you have overcome, people begin to accuse your life of being magically easier than theirs. I tend not to talk about the difficulties I have experienced in my life, I find it unpleasant to dwell on negative things. As an effect, I am often told that my success is luck, that my accomplishments have been handed to me, that my good relationships are just temporary, and that I am generally the exception to the rule.

You see this a lot online as well, whenever anyone writes optimistically about their accomplishments there are sure to be hundreds of naysayers quick to explain why x,y, or z, was so easy for the writer and why it would be totally impossible for them to achieve the same thing. These people tend to view optimism and proactive positivity as a threat to their own way of life, better to believe the extraordinary is impossible than to question why you have achieved so little yourself.

My overall takeaway from all of this can be summed up in one simple line:

The ability and willingness to admit your own failures and shortcomings is not a weakness, it is the single greatest strength any person has.

Honest self-evaluation is the only way any of us will ever find the power to change the things we can actually have control over. The more I do this, the more I find myself opening up to possibilities, and generally experiencing less negativity and dread and more optimism.

Taking responsibility requires some tough truth facing, but it also puts you in the driver’s seat of your own life. Instead of helplessly shafting responsibility to the government or the media, or whoever else is easy to blame- it puts you in charge. Complaining does nothing to help anyone, it merely spreads around a sense of helplessness, victimization, negativity, and a lack of gratitude.

4 thoughts on “Complaining, The Ego, and Personal Responsibility

  1. Agree, agree, agree… definately number two, I think are what’s hardest for people. Actually having to take Responsibility for our own life… 😉

    And I especially like your overall takeaway – so true.

    Great post..,

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