A Good Home, Telling the truth

Creative Complaining


Amazing how people can lie, when asked a simple question: “How are you feeling today?”

“Great!” they reply, when what they really mean is: “Horrible! Really horrible!”

Why do they lie?

“No-one wants to listen to a complainer,” says a woman I met in my pain management program at the hospital. “After a while, people don’t want to be around you.”

“Everybody’s already got their own troubles,” says a woman who’s living with cancer.

“What’s the point?” asks a man who recently lost his job. “Even if they listen, they feel helpless.”

And finally, from an elderly woman: “I just don’t want my children to worry.”

They had given up on telling the truth. Even people who find dishonesty repugnant, would sooner lie than admit the sad truth about how they’re feeling on a given day.


In my group at the rehabilitation hospital, most people I asked admitted they’d sooner grin and bear it than fess up to their loved ones.

It wasn’t always this way. Some had started out telling the truth. But at a certain point, they’d stopped. They noticed that the eyes of their listener glazed over the moment they started to truthfully express how they were feeling. Some were raised to not share unhappy personal news.

One day, after listening to person after person in my group say much the same thing, I finally stood up and made an offer:

“If you ever get to the point where you absolutely need to complain about how you’re feeling, but are afraid to, please call me! I ask only two things:  

  • First, be honest – no worrying that I’ll be bored or think less of you.
  • And second: if you can, complain creatively.”

That second point was meant to make the group members smile. They did.

But what I’d said, and their reaction to it, got me thinking:

What if we could complain more effectively?

What if we could learn to tell our truth in a way that would make others want to listen, and even perhaps, to help?


For years I have struggled with chronic pain and disability, the result of a motor vehicle accident. The problem with chronic conditions is that they don’t go away. After a while, even I get bored of having to tell the truth about my struggles.

When someone calls and asks me: “How are you feeling today?” I can say “Awful.” And stop. Or I could add:  “I’ve had no sleep in five nights. I can hardly stand up straight. Everything hurts.”

But if I do that, my caller, even if it’s a loved one, will sympathize wholeheartedly, but have no idea what to say next. 

So, after that day at the rehabilitation hospital, I decided to develop some new ways of complaining. I call it “creative complaining”:

  1. My complaint comes with a bonus for my caller. “Well, it’s a tough day. But the birds are singing and the sun is shining and I’m very grateful for both.” This way, I get to complain, but my caller gets to visualize a happy image and hear my gratitude.
  2. I find an interesting metaphor to describe how I’m feeling. “Today, the pain is like an electric current going from my back straight down to my foot. I’m gonna start plugging the appliances into my back any moment now and reduce my electricity bills!”
  3. I aim for laughs. “The pain’s so bad, I’ve taken to speaking about it only in four-letter words. And I know how tender your ears are, so I’m going to spare you that blue streak today. OK?”
  4. I turn the question back to the other person and receive their answer first. “It’s so nice of you to ask. And you know, I was just thinking: You always ask how I’m feeling. But how are you doing? I’d love to know.”


So what’s been the result of my experiment?

Well, to paraphrase the words of an old song, the results of this invention are very strange to tell:

  1. When I express gratitude, it uplifts my caller and myself. And when I express my complaint, it’s both made and received more freely. It also gives my caller an option: to either respond to my gratitude or explore my complaint, or both.
  2. When I challenge myself to find an interesting metaphor to describe my pain or my feelings, I force myself to be imaginative, which can distract me from the pain. And my little bit of creativity may also provide an interesting insight to my caller.
  3. When I make a joke, it always seems to surprise people, who in turn surprise themselves by laughing along with me. Sometimes humour expresses a truth more sharply than a plain statement of the facts. And it provides a bridge between the other person and myself.
  4. And finally, when I express interest in my caller, it makes the conversation less one-sided. Less a discussion about my struggles, and more of the give-and-take that makes up a genuine conversation. At the end of it, I may even be able to help the other person – by offering a bit of advice or by simply listening.  

I got some takers from among my rehab group members. Those who called ended up laughing with me. That was a bonus!

147 thoughts on “Creative Complaining”

  1. Thanks for the creative suggestions, Cynthia. Life has moments of great glee but we all struggle, don’t we? Listening with no judgment – we all need somebody’s ears at times. Thank you for a great post!

    1. So well said, Diane. Everybody is dealing with something, and the challenge — and blessing – is finding ways to overcome, and perhaps find great glee, as you say.

  2. You are an amazing woman, Cynthia.
    Your attitude and your willingness to share your thoughts are such an inspiration to me. And your timing is impeccable.
    Listening to someone complain gives us an opportunity to practice compassion. I love that!
    Thank you for everything you give so freely.

    1. Karen, my dear: Thank you.
      The truth is that I’m a recovering coward, but being able to think compassionately of others is an instrument of grace. For me, writing also has been a life-saver and an instrument of grace.

    1. well, with a blog moniker like yours, I’m sure you do. Thank you, my blogger friend and keep up the good work. Speaking of which … okay, I’ve nagged you enough already.

  3. Yes, as Victo Dolore wrote, you are an amazing woman! Creative complaining – love it! And in the end you are willing to give. As I get older I know that no one wants to listen to aches and pains all of the time. Cheers to a great post!

      1. Actually, you seem to have your life and challenge in perspective and are a good model for me. I hope to thrive despite my challenges too. And my challenges are mostly of my own making due to choices and attitude. Thanks for your support too. hugs and blessings…

  4. You are truly amazing. This is the best post I’ve ever seen on the realities of dealing with a chronic condition. “Today, the pain is like an electric current going from my back straight down to my foot. I’m gonna start plugging the appliances into my back any moment now and reduce my electricity bills!” LOL…I had to write that down. Never heard of creative complaining but love the idea and hope it catches on. 🙂

  5. I always find it odd that people ask how you are but don’t want to listen to the answer. I found this a thoughtful post as I don’t like saying I’m feeling yuk today. Who really wants to hear a catalogue of woes? Guess I stick with 1 and 4 usually. Easy options!

  6. This is a profound post. I recently answered the question by saying I was annoyed. The person knew what had been happening to me, yet said I should say something nice, not how I was feeling. And it has taken me a lifetime not to answer with a bland ‘I’m fine’

  7. Well thought out advice Cynthia, that we would all do well to listen to. You made me think of my Dad too, who has cancer, I know he is not always telling the truth about how he feels and always puts us first with his responses. Take care.

    1. Your dad is brave. My friend at church and I came up with an answer to give people who ask casually, “How are you?”. We say “Oh, the same. Thank you for asking.” it’s true – nothing has changed. It’s the same horrible old pain.
      It may be tougher to answer one’s children though. We parents tend to want to spare our children.

      1. I had such a miserable childhood that I was lightening my days with laughs as much as I possibly could. It doesn’t mean I always succeed! If someone asks me in a certain way that means they’re prepared to listen, they get the full caboodle without laughs. 🙂

      2. I hear you. My poor sisters often get the full caboodle too. But I try to leave them with one uplifting thought – some days I can barely manage that one. Thank God for them.

  8. My academic field is rhetorical theory and criticism–basically the way humans use language in strategic ways to influence interactions with others. Your responses are highly strategic, in the most positive sense of the word!

    1. So maybe there is something of the old strategist left in me! Thank you, Kerry.
      Note to my other blogger friends: If you haven’t visited Kerry’s blog, please do. It’s very interesting.

  9. Cynthia, I admire your pro active strategies! Might I ask, have you ever tried “self – energy healing”? I believe that you would be the kind of person that could be quite successful at it. You can learn pretty much for free online. All you need is BELIEF! I know from experience.
    More explanation: https://youtu.be/ks0g2TydJms

  10. Guilty as charged, Cynthia! How many time have I done that! 😦
    It’s only this year that I started doing post that included health problems for both Pat and myself. It feels good to be honest about things, though. 🙂

    1. I thought your health posts were honest and interesting. We shouldn’t hide our health problems, says the woman who plastered posts of fracture blisters and post-op ankle scars all over the place 😀

      1. Thank you. And here’s the thing: your posts about your injured ankle and being laid up at home for all those months, are very memorable to me, and helped me to get a stronger sense of you as a human being. I’m glad you told us about that time in your life.

      2. Thanks for that Cynthia. Truth was, it had a big impact on us, not as bad as your accident, but as you know, losing mobility is a nightmare. And still being doddery years later ain’t too good. I actually thought the ankle posts would get little attention, but I was wrong. I also thought they seemed self-centred, but, what is a blog if not an expression of ourselves? And, it seemed almost silly not to write about it. Plus, having worked in the UK NHS for ten years, I was interested to look at it objectively from the patient perspective. I’d rather it not have happened, but hey ho.

      3. Well said. Funny how sometimes we worry about seeming self-centred. You’re right about the purpose of blogs. Virtually all the ones I really like do exactly that, in some way or another.

      4. True… is new waters for me. I have separated Love, Life, Tears… from my other two blogs completely now though by using separate email log ins and gravatars. I like to keep personal stuff separate from books, reviews and music. Idk… I find it easier that way. 😀

    2. I’m glad you are, Kev. Your blogger friends care about you, and you are so kind to other bloggers. so when you write about such things, it gives us a sense of what you are going through. Even if it’s only a prayer or sending good vibes, it matters to all of us, I think.

      1. Aw… thanks, Cynthia… That’s very encouraging. I think it’s helped Pat to deal with things too… I always share comments people make on our blog. 🙂

  11. Reblogged this on S.K. Nicholls and commented:
    Do you suffer from a chronic condition and feel like you’re constantly complaining but your listeners are at a loss with how to respond. Cynthia Reyes offers some tips she’s learned from her experiences.

  12. An excellent post with great recommendations. I love the creative complaining! It offers an alternative to the old “Don’t complain unless you can also present a solution along with it.”

  13. I’ve never given it much thought about getting bored or tired of someone complaining. I think because of the gift I have shared from my father, 90% of all my conversations are from friends in need of some advice, struggling, or hurting so I’ve become accustomed to hearing them out with a tender ear so to speak. I love the tips you have shared and will share them when appropriate!! Your strength and insight amaze me!

    1. Tina, your generous spirit comes through in your blog. Thanks for being a blogger friend to me and others. What a gift you are, listening to us complainers!!

  14. Sometimes I truly believe laughter is the best medicine. Creative complaining is a great concept. I sat with a friend dying of cancer , a properly raised southern girl, not complaining about what I knew must be excruciating and doing her best to hide the pain. After a while of not talking about it, we ended up giggling a lot about college days and I think it helped both of us.

    1. Excellent. Giggling was likely the best thing you could have done together at such a time.I’m so glad you had that time, but sad that you lost your friend, Amy.

    1. Ah, Clare. I think we help inspire each other in our blogging community. some days I can barely crawl out of bed, or get angry with my limitations, and then I’ll find myself taking a journey with you or one of the other bloggers whose posts I cherish.

  15. Sound advice, Cynthia. Better than going into denial. How are we to know the truth when faced with similar problems. You bring empathy with your suggestions for creative complaining.

    1. Brenda, Thank you for that thought-provoking statement. You made me think: I wonder if many bloggers are introverts who say on their blogs the things they wish they could say in person?
      In my own life, I know I have written a lot more in recent years, when I simply couldn’t line up the thoughts and speak them clearly. The nice thing about writing is that you can take forever to think through what you want to say! (smile)

      I love your poems, Brenda, particularly the current one. Brava!

  16. Number four is the best, Cynthia!
    How are you doing today? What about your electricity bill? 😉
    I hope you have a great weekend in spite of everything!

  17. Dear Cynthia, what a wonderful idea to give “creative complaining” a try and to suggest it to others. I love it because it still invites intimacy with friends without burdening them if they’re already feeling overwhelmed with life stuff. Thoughtful. You’re thoughtful. And funny. 🙂 I knew this was going to be good read—as always.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

  18. Absolutely love, love, love this post! Yes for creative complaining! I do the same (sort of) thing with the people in my life that I interact with the most. People DO get tired of hearing how bad you feel, but if you can express that you feel badly (so you can be validated, in a sense) and at the same time bring a bit of humor or gratefulness to the conversation, it works out for both parties. I love the bit about plugging your back in and maybe saving on utilities…I laughed out loud! 🙂

  19. I do like the idea of creative complaining. I like to practice creative listening too – a mix of humor, practicality and recognition of what someone else is dealing with. And thank you for the images, which you managed to make both graphic and funny!

  20. Great piece Cynthia!
    Very creative ways of dealing with this!
    I long ago realized that most people just ask out of habit but don’t really care.
    So my favorite reply is a line I adopted from the old movie, Scarface: “Every day above ground is a good day”
    Hope yours is a great one! All we can do is take it one day at a time.

  21. Loved this post and I love that you can have a sense of humor with your friends about your pain. I don’t think I could be that clever so I’d probably go with version number one.

  22. Cynthia, this is so true, and by the number of responses, you can see how well you’ve written to something that affects us all. Sometimes when people ask me how I am and I’ve had a particularly rough time of it, I ask, with a smile, “Do you really want to know? It’s OK if you don’t.” The other person usually thinks about it a moment or two and says `Sure’, but if they hesitate too long, I say, “I’m just fine then!” And they crack up and we move on. There really is plenty of room for creativity in complaining! Tx for the post.

    1. I like that tactic, Jeanne. I’ve used the first part of it, but now I see that the second allows the asker a gracious way out. And truth is, sometimes that’s a relief for the asked.

  23. This sounds stupendously effective, both for you and the enquirer. I shall try and bear it in mind, looking if possible from both sides. I often have a double take, when asked this simple question. I am mostly a very lucky, healthy person, but I have trouble telling fibs, so if I am asked the question on a bad day, I struggle to say ‘fine’, and end up changing the subject… I’d be happier with a little less rain… or similar. Now I will think, what would Cynthia say.

  24. What a great slant on it. I think my preferred method is the first because the little things that make me smile also help me deal with the big black things that try to make me cry.

  25. Oh, Cynthia, what a lovely, lovely post! I am simply beyond words. You so eloquently expressed my own personal feelings and desires in it, and I just have to share it. Thank you! Thank you so much! 🙂 ❤

  26. Oh how I needed to read this. I tell myself daily, “I won’t complain today.” Then before I’m even out of bed or have made it to the bathroom and back, I’m moaning or griping about something. My husband is just the opposite. He keeps all his pains to himself. He got it from his dad who also “suffered in silence. I don’t know what I’d do without him as a sounding board. Him and my mother who also cares enough to indulge me by listening or asking in sincerity how I am. I’ll try to add a little excitement to my whining starting now and see how it feels. I’m known for sarcasm and southern idioms so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. Think I’ll but a bright hair twisty on my wrist as a reminder. Thanks for the inspiration.

  27. You have a funny way of expressing pain!
    As for the complaining, people get tired of listening to complaints all the time, because most of the things people complain about can easily be changed if they change a simple habit about themselves. Instead, people spend that energy in complaining. After a point, it gets tiring.
    I think that’s why people get tired of hearing all these things, because they know that nothing will change even after a chat. So, what’s the point? and they leave it.

  28. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    Creative Complaining…I like this idea very much because it allows us to be honest and simultaneously to respect our listener’s threshold to listening to the same sad story over and over again…thanks for sharing, Cynthia Reyes and Chris Graham!

  29. Wise words! It’s true though that most people (me included) would feign everything is ok rather than rant and complain, because it’s tiring to complain plus people get put off with too much complains. This is a good way to handle it! Glad to stumble upon your post. 🙂

  30. Great post. I cope with my own chronic conditions relatively well, given all (most days anyway lol), and I’m told I’m pretty great at helping others cope with theirs. Part of what helps me is to “offload” the petty annoyances in my Monday-Grumpy-Monday posts, so I release that bandwidth to handle the frustrations of my own many challenges in a more positive manner.

    But I’ve always been in a quandary over how to handle the questions, whether from relative strangers and new friends, or from close friends who have known me for many years and have seen little of the “improvement” they’d secretly hoped for.

    Do I say “fine” anyway? Will they expect more of me than I can deliver, since I’m truly not “fine” as I utter that word. Do I trot out the acting skills from my first most beloved career? I can almost always pull off an excellent “fine” performance and I certainly don’t want to be a chronic wet blanket!

    Since my challenges are cognitive (including a bodacious sleep timing disorder, the implication of which very few can EVER understand), how do I get out in front of the unasked questions I see in their eyes or hear in their voices: “So if you’re fine, how come, then, you can’t do, haven’t done, won’t do, insist on doing . . .” when almost 600 lengthy posts detailing the brain-based reasons behind and various challenges of Executive Functioning Disorders haven’t answered them?

    The invisible disabilities are the most difficult for others to believe and understand – especially when they are chronic. Your advice sounds like the next new thing I’m going to tweak and try. THANKS!

    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    1. I hear you, especially about invisible disabilities. As you know, the car accident left me with a head injury and PTSD, which together led to a big Depression. But talking about them made me upset, so I was caught in a vice grip. Couldn’t explain, wouldn’t explain. As for the physical stuff: my friend M. came up with something that I sometimes borrow. When someone asks how she’s feeling, she simply says “Oh, the same.” She does it in a tone that’s partly resigned and partly matter-of-fact. It says she is neither better nor worse than the last time they asked.

      1. Unless I can honestly respond positively, I have taken to saying, “Hangin’ In” or “Better now that you called.” I follow up with ‘Sup with YOU? (or something similar), in my best cheery curious voice. Most people usually answer my question, then I can handle it like an interview or a call with a client – keeping the focus on THEM.

        I have one friend who always turns it back around on me (No, really, how ARE you?) – and I’m never sure how much to disclose if it’s a “not fine” day – something like, “Oh you know me, always something; tell me something wonderful about YOUR life – that always makes me feel great.” Sometimes it actually works. lol

        I do have one angel on earth I can call for prayers and the abridged version – but I try not to reach out to her too often. I know she’ll call if she senses that I’m isolating to spare everyone else – and I know that when she does she’s open to hearing the overview, if not the details.

        My only friend to whom I can tell the unvarnished truth is one who really GETS it. He is dealing with MS, diabetes, neuropathy and an inoperable brain tumor, so we release the pressure in each others cookers whenever things get rough. We have stayed in touch through ups and downs for over 30 years now – tho’ not consistently – and both of us seem to know what to say to the other that’s supportive and not positivity pablum.

        Paradoxically, our calls are surprisingly upbeat once one or the other of us has a chance to dump and be heard. Funny how that works, huh?

        Onward and upward!

      2. I hear you. Glad you have such a friend. So good to have that understanding, isn’t it? And a friend who can pray with you — another great gift. So good to hear from you, M.

  31. For years my osteoarthritis literally crippled me. I couldn’t walk anywhere without a walker and, even then, after five minutes my back and knees would be in so much pain I had to find a place to sit. And yet people would ask, “How’re you doing?”

    The thing is, I know they don’t really want to know? The act of dishonesty begins with the question. Rather than simply saying, “Hello,” we’re accustomed to adding “How are you doing today” simply because we’ve been conditioned into believing it’s custom and courtesy. Even I do it.

    However, I recognize that a social convention is in play. When I ask the question I recognize this is a social ritual and nothing more. They’re supposed to say, “Fine, thank you,” and nothing more. I am willing for them to answer me. I don’t necessarily want to know, but it’s my own gamble. I will most likely be perceived as even more rude by most people if I don’t inquire and for that, I must trade off the willingness to listen to someone who takes me at my word (although, I do know a couple of people whose well-being I am interested in hearing about).

    I think it’s fun to mess with friends who ask me that question when they’re just being polite. They know me well enough to know I’m tweaking them. But to strangers or people whom I do business with regularly, I accept the convention.

    But I could also say, “I’m glad you asked. Jesus and I had a long conversation about my well-being and he told me that broadcasting my good health and welfare is prideful. I might actually upset someone whose life is not going well and then think, ‘If he’s okay, what’s wrong with me.’ So, in my efforts to be a better Christian and person, I’ll just say, ‘Fine, thanks, how are you?'” Then I’ll wait for them to tell me, face open and making it clear I think they should answer.

    On the bright side, they may never ask me again. On the downside (or upside, depending on the person), they may never speak to me again.

    1. You made me smile. Such an intriguing reply, and I thank you for it. Of course, you don’t dare ask “How are you” in the Jamaican countryside, because people will tell you. Budget for half an hour…. (smile)

    1. So glad to hear that, Judy. Thanks for visiting my blog and replying. I hope you have a great day. We are enjoying a forced ‘daycation’ as the snow piles up outside, so I’ll have to pretend I’m at the beach somewhere warm….

  32. Lovely post. Gratitude plays a huge positive ingredient in dealing with setbacks/chronic pain and is underused massively- understandably it’s not the first thing we think of when facing serious challenges in life but it’s a real friend when we embrace it. Thanks for sharing this.

  33. For a person like me who experiences chronic pain, this post was very helpful! Nobody likes a chronic complainer, and they seem to be aggravated when they say, “How are you today” and you even mention it’s a bad pain day.

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