We all know (or even love dearly) someone who complains about everything. They complain about their partner, the weather, their boss, their weight, their internet speed, that the only thing on the menu at the local Indian restaurant is Indian food, or that this portobello sandwich has mushrooms on it!
This week, by request from an enterprising listener who wrote and asked how she could stop complaining so much, we’ll tackle 3 myths about complaining and 4 ways you can get a grip on your griping.
Whether you call it venting, whining, or bellyaching, let’s start out with three myths about complaining:
Complaining Myth #1: Complaining makes me feel better. There’s an idea that venting works like a steam valve—that releasing some pent-up pressure is necessary to prevent a later explosion.
But that’s not actually how it works. Venting, rather than lessening negative emotion, instead fuels it. In study after study, when people are asked to release negative emotion by punching pillows, confronting the person who made them feel bad, or even by playing tackle football, far from diffusing their anger, they instead amplify it.
Why? Part of the problem is repetition. Complaining replays the event in your mind, and thinking about events where you got hurt, humiliated, or disrespected, even in your imagination, elicits negative feelings almost as strong as if the negative event were happening in real life.
Next, the venting does nothing to solve the problem. It lays bare the emotion, but stops there. We’ll talk more about how to take the next step, but first…
Complaining Myth #2: Complaining gets me support from those I love. Have you ever put Debbie Downer at the top of your dinner-party invite list? Me neither, even if I’m sympathetic to her plight.
It’s intuitive that complaining is annoying, but exactly why complaining is so noxious is actually hard for scientists to explain. One idea is that complaining is a toxic mix of self-focus, low mood, and dissatisfaction, all of which can be contagious. Similar to how being around someone depressed can be depressing, listening to a complainer is a cognitive burden that can make us all feel like negative, dissatisfied navel-gazers.
It’s a balance. It’s important to seek support when you’re feeling low, but constant complaining can make the people on the receiving end of your complaining feel worse and tax their patience to boot.
Next, while researching this week’s episode, I came across a number of other “complaining is bad for you” internet articles, all of which warned against complaining for a very different reason. Which brings us to…
Complaining Myth #3: Complaining rewires my brain. Click around on the interweb and you’ll find claims that complaining shrinks your hippocampus or otherwise “rewires” your brain until every one of your thoughts is a negative critique.
This is not true. While it is true that extremely negative events like prolonged childhood physical or sexual abuse can have an effect on brain structures like the hippocampus, a bitch-fest about your boss at the bar with your co-workers or listening to your friends complain about their Tinder dates is not going to shrivel your brain (even if it shrivels your patience).
So even if you don’t have to worry that sending back your undercooked burger is going to shrink your brain, do the downsides of complaining mean you should suck it up, buttercup? Not necessarily. Sometimes complaining is vital. Indeed, a bunch of whiners, acting together with purpose, has been the driver of most real and lasting change in the world. Think civil rights, women’s suffrage, the list goes on. It’s complaining without action that is ineffective.
Therefore, our goal is twofold: first, complain less, for your own sake and everyone else’s. If, like our listener, we’re trying to break the habit of complaining, any in-the-moment action that directly opposes anger can help diffuse your grumblings. Like what, you ask?
Complaining Alternative #1: Try another kind of “venting,” and breathe. Your grandma’s advice about taking a deep breath and counting to ten was right on. A negative emotion like anger, annoyance, or resentment makes you feel coiled like a spring. But slow breathing is incompatible with tension, stress, and as luck would have it, mindless complaining.
Complaining Alternative #2: Try the opposite of grumbling: gratitude. Being thankful is in direct opposition to complaining.
In a study out of the University of Calgary, study participants who were asked to contemplate what they were grateful for twice a week for four weeks experienced less negative emotion than those who were asked to reflect on memorable events in their life twice a week for four weeks. Specifically, participants in the gratitude condition were asked to try “to experience and maintain the sincere heart-felt feelings of gratitude” associated with whatever they were thinking of—gratitude for a working umbrella, the kindness of a good friend, indoor plumbing, whatever.
Next, what to do when complaining is necessary?
Complaining Alternative #3: Complain for a change. As a former boss once said to me, don’t come to me with a problem, come to me with a problem and a potential solution. In other words, if you must complain, make it effective by thinking about what positive action you want as a result of the complaint.
Complain to someone who can help, not just an innocent bystander.
Complain to someone who can help, not just an innocent bystander. Rather than telling everyone in the office that your email is slow, tell the IT guy. Rather than leaving a stinging one-star Yelp review, tell the restaurant you received the wrong takeout order and give them a chance to make it right.
By identifying a goal, we can improve our situation instead of just commenting on it. Improving our situation makes us more confident in our own abilities and agency and gives us more control over our life. And that? That’s called empowerment.
Complaining Alternative #4: Express your emotions, but don’t stop there. When there’s not a willing ear to complain to, there’s always a willing page. Venting frustrations in a journal is classic advice, but it turns out there’s another step if you actually want to feel better.
A study out of the University of Iowa divided participants who were bothered by a past trauma or other stressor into three groups. One group was asked to write twice a week for a month about their deepest emotions about the stressor. Another group was asked to go further: they were told to write about their deepest emotions, but also how they were trying to understand it, make sense of it, and deal with it. A third group, the control group, was asked to keep a journal of traumatic events from the daily news and to stick to the facts as much as possible.
What happened? The group that simply vented their emotions reported significantly more physical symptoms of illness—like fevers, sore throat, coughing, or congestion—over the month of journaling than either of the other two groups. In other words, complaining about what and whom makes you sick may literally make you sick.
By contrast, the group that not only vented their emotions but also tried to give sense and meaning to their situations reported something called positive growth, which is the perceived benefits of coping with a personal challenge. In other words, they wrote about how what didn’t kill them made them stronger, whether in terms of personal strength, spiritual development, or a greater appreciation for life.
Why does going the extra mile work? It’s thought that meaning-making helps regulate negative emotion because it creates a sense of control over whatever life throws as you.
To sum up, people complain for all sorts of reasons: to get attention, to garner sympathy, even to make conversation. At it’s most dangerous, people complain to get others to do something for them—it’s a way to wield power and feel special.
But at the end of the day, complaining without action isn’t good for anyone. So complain with a purpose and make sense of what happened. Your mood—and everyone around you—will be glad you did.