Uncovering Your Commitment Behind Your Complaint
It is easy to have a long list of complaints these days, from rainy weather to worrying about the state of the world. Complaining can be the trait of the victim mentality, or it can be the secret that unlocks what you really care about.
Harvard professors Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan have coined an unusual phrase: “Behind every complaint lies a commitment.“
Think about it. You don’t complain about things you don’t care about. You complain because there is something you are committed to. A complaint means you care enough to say something. When you care deeply about something—to complain— you are committed to that “something.” Hence, there is always a commitment behind a complaint.
In Donna’s book, Who Do You Want to Be on the Way to What You Want? there is a moment in the story when Sophia, a master coach, shares this point with RJ, her headstrong CEO client. In this brief excerpt, Sophia asks RJ about a complaint she is making about her leadership team.
“How are things going with your team?” Sophia asks.
“No different, really.” RJ said. “I have a long list of complaints about my team, but I try not to talk about them all the time.”
Sophia continued, “RJ, a complaint can be good sometimes because it points out what you don’t want. You can learn, however, to see a complaint as a door that leads you toward what you do want. That is a useful way to understand your complaints. Unless of course, you get stuck in complaining and never stop to ask what you really want. I often say that behind every complaint lies a commitment.”
RJ looked puzzled. “Could you say that last thing again, a little slower this time?”
“Do you mean the point that behind every complaint there’s a commitment? That may seem like an odd statement, but if you think about it, we don’t complain about things we don’t care about, do we? So, rather than feel victimized by and powerless to change what you don’t want—your complaint—the secret is to examine your complaint and get really curious about it, to discover the commitment behind it.
“But if you go on automatic pilot and continue to complain, if you resist getting curious about what’s behind your complaint, you can get stuck and become a Victim to your own complaining.”
“That’s exactly how I feel,” RJ said. “Since you asked me about what bothers me, I have noticed all week that a lot of stuff bothers me, and I complain a lot. At least I think about the complaints I have, even though I may not say them out loud.”
In the story Sophia went on to coach RJ about her commitments as a leader and what she really cares about. That approach helps RJ to get curious about her complaint and, rather than feel like a Victim to her complaining, reflect upon what she cares about.
The next time you hear yourself complaining, ask yourself: “What do I care about that has got me complaining in the first place?”
This powerful question will help you flip your focus from what you don’t like or don’t want to what matters to you. It will help you interrupt your old patterns that may have you trapped in an unconscious mode of complaining.
Creating the life you want requires commitment and responsibility. Noticing your complaints, and then inquiring with curiosity about what you are committed to, can be a path toward what you most care about in your life. This is the powerful and all-important shift from Victim to Creator!