Complain or act – you choose

Instead of just complaining, consider your options.  Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

In every moment you have a choice – to complain about how things are, or to do something to make things slightly better.

Amazingly, many of us spend inordinate amounts of time complaining.  To complain is to express your discontent about something.


Historically, complaining has a root in the behaviour of animals when they express displeasure to each other.  Sending out a signal of displeasure enables others in your social group to respond in a way which better matches your pleasure.  In this way, a member of a dog pack, for instance, with higher status, might express to a dog of lower status that they are unhappy with the behaviour of the other.  The other will then respond to the implied threat by modifying their behaviour.

When an animal of lower status in a group complains back, it is less likely they will get what they want, since they do not have the ability to use implied threat in the same way.

You can see the same dynamics in modern human society.  If the authorities complain to you about your behaviour, you may modify your behaviour in order to avoid sanction.  But if you complain to the authorities about their behaviour, your complaint may well go unheeded, because powerful people and organisations may not have the same incentive to adapt to you.

This explains the general feeling of powerlessness among ordinary civilians, compared with the use of enforceable threat by the more powerful in society.

Occasionally, you may find yourself in an organisation that is highly responsive to complaint – but this is an exception rather than a rule.


Because of the above mechanism, complaining does not usually work very well if you are relatively powerless.  It does, however, work quite well if you are powerful.

The hierarchy of power in most organisations is like a pyramid, with fewer people at the top.  Therefore, for most people, complaining is counterproductive.  Given the predominance of animal instinct in humans, the most likely response from those with power, is to resent the complaint.

This means, in practice, that making a complaint is a form of self-harm, unless you know the recipient of your complaint is kindly, and highly positive about complaints (which is rare).


A better type of response, is to choose a responsive action which improves the situation.

Supposing you are the less powerful member of a partnership.  You have discovered that, if you complain about something, the other person becomes resentful, takes the criticism badly, and responds defensively, even wanting to harm you.  If you think this is unusual, then observe more keenly the behaviour of many, many humans, and you may see that it’s overwhelmingly common.

You may go back to the drawing board and wonder what may work.  I suggest there are three main forms of action which are better than complaining:

  1. Withdrawal – if you are unlikely to get a good response, then go and find a different person to relate to.  This is possible with friendships, but less possible in politics, or in families, where you are generally stuck with what you have.
  2. Reorganisation – just as workers in the past have organised into unions, you can seek to reorganise your surroundings to shift the power balance.  Examples include reorganisation of societies to include democratic redistribution of power; also the introduction of laws to require complaints to be addressed.
  3. Appeal to peers – you might choose to re-address your complaint, not to the original addressee, but to others who have suffered in a similar way.  This can act as a prelude to the previous item, reorganisation.
  4. Negotiation – if you can find something more than the basic animal instinct in your fellow humans, then you can appeal to that.  This has to be done carefully, as the basic resentful animal response is so strong.
AN EXERCISEThe next time you feel like complaining about how things are, consider whether your complaint will actually achieve anything constructive.  If it will simply make relationships worse, and lead to a battle, then have a think about your alternatives.

If the battle isn’t worth it, could you simply withdraw?  If the situation is unjust, could you combine with others to do something to create a more just situation?  Or could you appeal to the higher nature of the person causing the suffering?

Negotiate, reorganise, withdraw – all potentially better options than simply complaining.



We all get the urge to complain.  Among the powerful in many animal societies, expressing discontent can produce tangible results.  However, in modern human society, most of us are relatively powerless.  For the powerless, complaining often leads to negative results.

A wiser option is to consider three other possibilities:

  1. Can you negotiate, appealing to the other’s higher nature?
  2. Can you reorganise, combining forces with peers to change the power dynamic?
  3. Can you withdraw, finding a better environment elsewhere?
By contemplating your options, you can avoid a life of perpetual battle, where you are always complaining, and others are always reacting resentfully and making your life difficult.