We definitely have lots of things we could complain about, but should we? Complaining can be beneficial to our well-being if we complain constructively, so the answer is yes, once we integrate mindfulness into the process.
No one likes a complainer, but let’s admit it, most of us get some sort of pleasure or satisfaction out of it. I’m currently trying to schedule a whine over wine time with a good friend. One of those wines has an H in it by the way. That’s because we’re both under constant pressure and sometimes it just feels good to complain over a glass of wine together.
Complaining is a normal part of human communication. We have problems or we’re dissatisfied about something and talking it out with someone can help us feel validated, allow us to receive empathy or support and sometimes, provide us with a different perspective. Some people complain because it helps them regulate their emotions or even for the purpose of social bonding.
Complaining typically has a negative connotation and is viewed as a bad thing by most people, even though most people do it. But complaining isn’t always a negative thing per se. One definition of the word complain is to express dissatisfaction about something. We can’t possibly be satisfied with everything all of the time, so complaining would seem to be unavoidable. The secret of effective complaining though is in how you do it, how frequently you do it, what mood you’re in when you do it and who you complain to. It’s about being mindful about it.
Complaining can harm or help when it comes to our mental health. When we complain about something that we have no control over or can’t fix or improve, we tend to ruminate about it, which causes our mood to spiral and can lead to sadness or depression. This is destructive complaining and that’s not a healthy way to communicate or spend our time. Unfiltered rumination on negative experiences also doesn’t serve us well. If we keep complaining about the same situation repeatedly, we reinforce a sense of helplessness in our minds that tends to not only make us feel more miserable, but risks other people believing we’re not capable of managing situations which could negatively impact our work or relationships.
Venting is another typically negative form of complaining, that usually comes up when we’re not just dissatisfied, but downright angry about a situation. Sharing your experience with someone is not the same as venting. Venting incorporates not just information, but the strong emotions underlying the information and causes our brains to re-release the stress hormones related to whatever caused the anger. Venting, or going on one long rant, is harmful to our mental health, and typically the result of holding something in that's been eating away at us for too long which has negative implications to our physical health. I have clients who insist that venting makes them feel better, but I recommend that they only vent once if that’s the case and then move on to potential solutions.
The key to constructive complaining is to try to focus on a solution to the problem. Complaining in this manner can help us channel our needs into some sort of action and that leads to increased self-awareness and self-confidence. Studies show that constructive complaining also leads to increased happiness.
When we’re tired, unwell, grouchy or in any other negative mood, we tend to complain more. In this state, the complaining leads to increasing negative moods, resulting in a vicious cycle. Any time you’re in a negative mood, it is valuable to take a pause and see if you can identify what’s going on so that you can lift your mood before you even think about complaining.
Choosing who to complain to is also important. For instance, if you’re dissatisfied with something at work, I strongly suggest that you come up with possible solutions before you complain to the boss. Supervisors hear a lot of complaints every day, but if you present your complaint with potential solutions, they’ll be much more receptive and maybe even empathetic.
Consider that complaining to someone who is not involved in the situation or who cannot help do anything about it is actually just gossiping. That’s not only not solution-oriented but can cause more problems in relationships or in the workplace. Talk to the person that you see as either the direct source of the issue or who has the ability or authority to take action.
For personal complaints, think about your intention. Do you want to complain just to vent or whine? If the friend you’re going to complain to understands this, then go for it. That’s why I have whine over wine. I know there’s the potential to get support or advice that might help, but the expectation is that at least it’s time spent with a friend that I have several complaints in common with, so it’s also a form of social bonding. And of course, most of the conversation is not complaining. It’s also a rare occasion. If we had whine over wine on a weekly basis, that could definitely be an unhealthy habit.
The frequency of complaints matters. Be mindful of your daily communications. Are they more negative than positive on balance? Are you airing negativity and not trying to find solutions? If you notice you’re ruminating a lot about past events, this is another sign that you may be complaining too much. One of the biggest telltale signs that you might be complaining too much is if people begin to pull away or avoid you.
Complaining too much can be harmful to our state of mind. A study conducted at Clemson University found that the more pet peeves participants had about current or past relationships, the less highly they ranked themselves in areas of happiness and mindfulness. Researchers concluded that mindfulness "may be a means of attenuating one’s likelihood of expressing pet peeves when one is feeling happy. Perhaps people who are more mindful modulate the type of complaints they offer, preferring to engage in instrumental types of complaints over expressive complaints, thereby expressing complaints only when they believe they will accomplish desired outcomes.”
In relationships, it’s very important that you consider solutions before you complain. It’s vital that you speak up about something that is bothering you in your relationship, but destructive complaining is only going to harm it or spark more issues over time, so take some time to plan the conversation before speaking. As you navigate the exchange, focus on how you feel, not what the other person did, as you describe how the issue or event affected you. Also focus on feelings instead of facts, as facts tend to lead to agreement or disagreement and could cause an argument on top of whatever the original issue is.
Try not to accuse and avoid the “you made me feel” trap. No one can make us feel anything because we have a choice in how we receive and respond to information. Use “I felt” instead. Offer suggestions based on what you think could have resulted in the best outcome for both of you or how you can work together to improve the situation.
Constructive complaining can lead to constructive feedback and a positive exchange of information. This in turn increases mood and we can begin to create a positive cycle in both the conversation and our relationships with others. But it requires that we remain open to the feedback. If we’re feeling particularly raw or vulnerable, that can be challenging, but by taking a few mindful moments, we gain space between us and our reactions. We recognize what triggers us and realize that we don’t have to respond the same way each time. By recognizing our habitual negative responses as we tune in, we become familiar with how a thought makes us feel and what story it creates. Simple awareness can help us identify our thoughts and behaviors.
We can transform negative thoughts in three simple steps. The first is to recognize the thought. If the thought is some form of complaining, take a moment to recognize that the thought is forming in the brain. Next, remember that when we experience negative thoughts, our bodies react, so addressing the fight or flight response can be accomplished by relaxing the body. Focused breathing can help. Breathe in relaxation and breathe out body tension or negative thoughts. Slow and deep, with the outbreath twice as long as each inbreath. Finally, focus on a positive. What’s going well right now? Are you safe? Are you healthy? Is the sun shining? Just spend a little bit of time naming the positives in your life which will shift the hormones your brain is releasing, lifting your mood and making you feel better.
A few other easy strategies can help you reduce complaining including journaling. Effective journaling includes writing about the problem and your feelings about it, as well as potential solutions in response to the situation. Psychiatrist Stephanie O’Leary published a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that showed journaling relieved stress and improved the immune system. She stated that, "Holding in feelings has a negative impact on mental and physical health. Short bursts of complaints are preferable so stress hormones don't build. [and] if you're prone to holding things in and then having a rant, practice writing down what's bothering you at the end of the day and if you see an issue show up two days in a row, know it's time to address it directly."
Social support is also a great stress reliever and having support can help you focus on constructive complaining instead of venting or ruminating. Again, telling someone how you feel to get their thoughts or perspective is a positive form of complaining and can help you find potential solutions. Practicing gratitude is another great way to switch your focus from complaining to solutions and it’s shown to improve your mood and health.
In her one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Jane Wagner says, “I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.” Could be. But there’s some science behind the art of complaining and mindfulness is at the heart of it. Constructive complaining can improve our mental state, benefit our relationships and boost our overall level of happiness. If we do it right. Are you ready to make that shift?