Complaining vs. Commiserating

Let me set the scene: It’s Friday at 5pm, you’ve had a really rough week and a trusted colleague invites you for dinner or drinks and a little destress session from a long five days. You join them and a few other co-workers at the local bar or restaurant and the stories of the week start. Who had the worst student interaction, who had the worst duty call, who experienced the most ridiculous request from a parent, or perhaps the worst interaction with a supervisor.

We’ve all been there. We’ve commiserated and felt the sense of relief about having conversations with people who get it. Not with your parents who perhaps don’t really understand your job or a partner who empathizes and supports you, but doesn’t share your world, or friends who are still a little confused as to why you haven’t technically left college. There is something liberating about commiserating with people who simply understand.

I must admit that I am a member of this club. I have a group of six former colleagues who have since moved throughout the country, but we share a group text that has been going for the better part of two years. We’ve shared joys and sorrows, engagements, pregnancy news, the adoption of a wide variety of pets, and job search woes. What I love the most about this group of friends is the diversity of our conversations. Are there moments of pure steam-letting about colleagues, co-workers, supervisors, or University politics? Of course, but that is not the main connection to one another.

This leads me to question, when does commiserating in a healthy, reflective way border on complaining for complaining’s sake? I can’t help but think of all of the Twitter accounts that are based on the idea commiserating (or complaining), depending on your lens. Some of those accounts include SAProblemsBadSAPro, BadHallDirector, SAProSarcasm, BadSAPro, BitterSAPro, ResLifeSpouse, BitterHD, and the list goes on and on and on! Combined, these accounts have thousands of followers.

Are these accounts, and more specifically, conversations that in reality are complaining, moving our field forward? Are they doing us a service by pointing out the areas of frustration and tension or are they simply a way to play the “one up” game and think your woes are the worst?

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One thought on “Complaining vs. Commiserating

  1. Tyler Miller says:

    Great post with great questions – I tend to try an avoid the “one up” or “oh, yeah? well one time on MY campus” game. There are times for it, for sure, to know you aren’t “alone” in those dark thoughts in those moments you are ready to take up wine as a long term hobby. It just sometimes gets out of hand when everyone goes around and “one ups” each other. I don’t think that is very helpful in the long run – it tends to minimize the feelings of despair at the time, and turn the focus off of the colleague or friend who is struggling and onto another.

    My experiences with complaining have a lot to do in situations in which I am “stuck.” When I feel like there is no avenue for overcoming the barriers placed in front me, I tend to want to complain or “commiserate” more. When things are productive, or when barriers placed in front of me are truly opportunities for collaboration or innovation, then the complaining stops and the brainstorming or out of the box thinking begins.

    So does complaining move our field forward? Not directly, but it can be useful when some great people get stuck in situations that they cannot get out of- in the short term. Having people around you to say “it gets better” or “keep learning in your environment so you know what to do when you are in a position to make a difference” is very helpful.

    Unfortunately, in many situations people respond to the complaining with the “i’ve had it worse.” To me, This is NOT helpful. Often times folks are looking to know

    My recommendation to those in situations where you are aware you are playing the “one up” game – consider what you can do at that moment to encourage and support instead of joining in the game. You’ll make a big difference in someone’s life by validating their experiences, and telling them you understand what they are going through – not by sharing a story of your own of how bad it was – but by sharing hope – and helping that colleague hope for the future – that this experience they are going through will make a world of difference for when they are further along on their professional journey. You’ll be glad you did (and so will they)

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