Are you purposefully problem-solving?

Life is HARD! It includes many problems to solve, especially when you’re living it fully and deeply and not skating around the rim, floating along on a cloud of privilege, denial or delusion (which many people are).

Everyone who is aware of the natural ups and downs of life needs a good healthy vent now and then. It’s a strategy mental health professionals advocate we all strive to practice to purposefully problem-solve daily frustrations in our lives.

Venting allows us to express the natural ebb and flow of human emotions which indicate an appropriate level of awareness and ability to deal with reality. If you aren’t riding the rocky waves of feeling, you probably aren’t really dealing with reality at all! Even Buddhist masters feel a wide range of feelings, they just have great tools to manage the highs and lows. I’ve been practicing for 20 years and only finally feel like I know what I’m doing most of the time.

So it’s ok to feel lots of feelings, I just gave you permission. But how we deal with those feelings determines how we feel on a day-to-day basis and how we impact the lives of other people.

Because there’s venting and then there’s flat-out complaining. And behavior change experts (like me) will tell you (and myself) that complaining is just disempowerment, plain and simple. Complaining rarely if ever helps us feel better whereas processing helps us purposefully problem-solve which helps us feel more confident and happy!

So how do you know when you’re venting to purposefully process or problem-solve and when you’re complaining in circles?

I’m happy to share my personal experience and perspective on this, because it’s way more relatable and fun since I’m a real person. People who meet me and know I’m a coach often get a little disillusioned by their own projections of what they think a coach is or should be. When they meet me and realize I have struggles and challenges and fears and limitations, and even (GASP!) complain from time to time, they sometimes think I can’t really help them or other people. Even though I’ve helped thousands of people in the ten years I’ve been a coach and for years before I ever became certified.

But the truth is, I’m just a normal human being who happens to know a lot about behavior change and healthy habits, but it certainly doesn’t mean I’m perfect. I don’t need to be perfect to help people. I just need to know tools and encourage and support others in their process. The best way I do that is to walk my own path, make mistakes, learn from them and keep going. And share what I learn!

So here’s how I have learned to know when I am complaining and not doing healthy processing or venting.

Both feel and sound similar. Both include insights about interactions with other people. Both include sharing painful feelings or frustrations about circumstances or realizations. Both (maybe) include some snarky comments.

But complaining sounds more like, “I can’t believe this happened to me. It’s so unfair. Poor me. This is just my situation and there’s nothing I can do.”

Complaining is merely recounting the details of what happened, over and over, without any desire to transform the situation.

Processing or healthy venting for problem-solving sounds more like, “wow! That was really frustrating or disappointing. I really didn’t listen to my gut and probably should have. I didn’t realize this earlier but can see clearly now. It sure doesn’t feel good, but I learned a good lesson from it.”


“I clearly expressed what I wanted and needed but we weren’t on the same page. I tried several times to make it work and finally gave up. I feel sad and disappointed but can see why it happened like that.”


“I keep expecting someone to be different or have a different reaction. I’m really setting myself up to be disappointed over and over. I should probably change my approach.”

Get it? It really involves some important self-awareness and self-reflection to make it purposeful problem-solving and not ranting and complaining about how much people suck.

Complaining usually focuses on the behavior or actions of other people. It indicates where we had unrealistic expectations or projections and failed to express them clearly. Complaining lacks any statement of personal responsibility or attitude that contributed or led to the frustration.

Processing to purposefully problem-solve includes, first and foremost, what we expected or how we could have contributed to something that didn’t work out or was unsatisfying.

It’s important to remember that it’s ok to be annoyed or sad or frustrated, especially when we have worked hard to express ourselves and it falls on deaf ears. Or when people seem unwilling or unable to change to make working or living together feel easier and more fun.

So why bother focusing on healthy venting when we could just complain our guts out?

Well, I remember things really changed for me in my life when I stopped complaining because it just got exhausting. I felt like a broken record and I started hearing how I sounded to other people and started to cringe.

When I started learning new ways to express myself and think about my own behavior, I started processing more and trying to trouble-shoot solutions to change myself or a situation. It doesn’t mean that people HEARD it as processing. In fact, when I talk I often think many people think I’m complaining, because that’s what they’re used to hearing from other people in their lives. It’s hard to know the difference until you really think about it. But when you listen well, you can spot it!

I engage in healthy venting and processing because my life isn’t easy. No one has it easy, really, but some certainly have it easier than others. The more challenges I’ve taken on and chosen, the harder my life becomes. But it’s up to me to speak to how those challenges feel and how to solve them, which includes healthy processing of what feels painful, frustrating or hard. Merely complaining about something doesn’t change it, in fact it only makes what felt hard feel more horrible because it doesn’t transform or go anywhere.

Take politics. We see lots of people complaining about a person, or people, but not really processing how they keep expecting someone to change (who shows no sign of changing anytime soon). See how complaining just goes in circles whereas processing, which would include changing one’s personal perspective, actually trouble-shoots the same problem? Even if the situation doesn’t change, YOUR FEELINGS about it do change!

Or think about your own life and a problematic situation. Why are you complaining about it? What’s the story you keep telling yourself or another person over and over? Can you see where you could transform it by adding in details about your own part of what happened?

Sit on this. Think about it. Consider what you’re doing each day and if it qualifies as processing or complaining. And if I can help you sort through this or shift it, let me know.

Reconsider Your Complaint

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If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering. -Viktor Frankl


If you don't know Viktor Frankl, consider reading his book, Man's Search for Meaning. He was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. He wrote about his experience in concentration camps and the enlightenment he reached about making meaning from all life experiences, even the most unpleasant ones.

I've been seeing a lot of complaining on facebook lately, it's nothing new really. And friends have shared their grievances about their lives with me. Times are tough, I know.

I am not suggesting that people stop feeling bummed about difficult things. I recommend reconsidering your suffering and your complaint.

Consider that your life experiences are teaching you something, and it's possible that if you complain, you won't receive the message that's meant for you. If you're focused on the experience being a cause of suffering rather than a means for growth or evolution, it will persist.

Pema Chodron says, "nothing leaves our lives until it's taught us what we need to learn." I've seen this pattern emerge over time in my own life.

When something sucked, it usually kept sucking until I changed something about myself or the situation. When I wasn't able to change something, I usually changed my attitude about it, like Maya Angelou has suggested. Once I had moved on, I was able to see what life was trying to teach me, what the Universe was trying to give me or save me from and who I was now as a result.

This all may sound incredibly lofty and verbose. Let me give you a practical example.

I began my career as a teacher at the age of 21. I taught 5th and 8th grade for several years and loved it. I was really good with kids from a young age, so hanging out with teens was easy and fulfilling for me. During that time, I fell in love for the first time--and it was with a young woman. I myself identified as female at the time, or at least presented myself to the world that way, and so our relationship was rather taboo for where we lived in the year 2000. I never told my students. I never told my colleagues. Here's why:

One day, the vice principal walked into the room where my team of teachers sat for lunch and she announced that she thought several of the kids were "swishy". I had no idea what she meant. I sat, PB&J poised by my mouth, listening as she and the two older male teachers ran through our class roster and listed each kid they thought demonstrated homosexual tendencies. Being "swishy" meant gay, apparently.

Within a year, three months shy of being awarded tenure, I quit teaching at the age of 24. I left the career I had worked toward so diligently, because I was terrified I wouldn't be able to be my true self.

Taking that leap prepared me to take bigger ones throughout the next 10 years. It was the first of many times I realized that I couldn't thrive by hiding or acting my way through life.

For a while though, I complained about it. I kept telling the story that I "had to quit" because it wasn't safe. I told this story about a few other jobs I held, jobs where my skills, habits and patterns didn't match the environment or mission of the group at that time. I complained until I could see the bigger picture. I complained until I started to make meaning from the experience.

Years later, I am developing a thriving business as an independent coach and consultant and use each and every skill I learned to master as an educator. I draw on principles of leadership and classroom management and group facilitation. I factor in Gardner's theory of different learning styles and make my presentations dynamic, interactive and most of all, fun. I tell my groups, "hey, I taught 8th grade. If my kids had fun, I'll make sure you will, too."

If I hadn't chosen to make meaning from that experience, and instead spent the rest of my life complaining that I had to quit teaching due to discrimination, I would not be able to thrive like I am today. I would not be able to share my skills with groups, helping them learn and laugh and love their lives and their jobs more as a result. I would have left my talent sitting in a heap, stifled and stopped by the small minds of a handful of people. I know more than a handful of people don't approve of me or the way I live my life, but compared to the many who do, it feels like a handful I can handle.

I see people complaining about a lot of things that feel new, unsafe, uncomfortable or unfair.

They complain about traffic, the weather, being a parent, not being a parent, having coffee, not having coffee, losing love, broken phones, losing jobs or not getting their way about something.

Again, I'm not judging the complaints or the complainers. I complain, I just don't share my complaints on facebook, social media or these blog posts. I do that because I don't find anything inspiring about complaining, and I don't think my followers would, either.

I prefer to share whatever I come up with as a solution to the complaint I had. When I've worked through the problem, when I've made meaning from the experience, I share what I will use or do as a result.

Next time you find yourself struggling with something, feeling at a loss or overwhelmed or generally stuck in the muck in some way, reconsider your complaint and try to make meaning from the experience, instead. Reach out to friends or family to gain some perspective if that helps. Get out your feelings, vent the frustration you feel--it is a crucial part of the process of getting from point A to point B.

And share THAT, because we all need help and inspiration, more than anything else.


photo courtesy of Umberto Salvagnin on flikr