I have a complaint. There’s too much complaining.
I come from a long line of complainers. My family has lived in New England since the 1600s, and we still complain about the weather. You’d figure we’d be used to it be now.
I can remember holidays with my grandmother. The adults would complain about the generosity of the gifts, “you shouldn’t have, this is too much.” My grandmother would inevitably complain about the dryness of her pie crust which we were greedily devouring.
Today, social media can be an echo chamber of complaining. Sandwiched between funny memes and adorable kitty videos, there’s the never-ending slew of political complaints. I’m as guilty as anyone there. And there’s the “vaguebooking”—where you complain, but don’t really tell people what you’re complaining about in hopes of getting them sucked in.
So what’s wrong with complaining?
It’s important to understand that there is productive complaining and counterproductive complaining.
Let’s say that you buy a new toaster, and it works poorly. You might return it to where you purchased it and complain that it burns your English muffins every single time. At this point, the store may exchange your toaster. That is productive complaining. Think of it as solution seeking. There’s nothing really wrong with that.
Pro-tip: People are still people when you are solution-seeking. Be polite and grateful for their help. They will appreciate it and want to help you. If you don’t believe me, go take a part-time job in customer service somewhere.
It’s also important to express grief and “process” feelings therapeutically.
So then there’s counterproductive complaining. This goes by many names—pissing and moaning, kvetching, being a negative Nellie, venting. You know, the opposite of spreading cheer. By some estimates, Americans complain an average of 30 times a day. People I know can hit that in 10 minutes.
When you kvetch, there are a couple of significant consequences. First, your body releases stress hormones such as cortisol. Excess cortisol is implicated in a host of physical problems like excess body fat, circulatory problems, and high blood pressure. Second, by making a habit of complaining, you are wiring your brain for negativity. You create strong neural-pathways for unhappiness. Who wants that?
Further complaining can have a severe adverse effect on personal relationships. Complaining to friends and lovers can exhaust them. It drags them down. If you are a constant complainer, you may be creating resentment in others that you’re not even aware of. People may commiserate with you, or sit politely during your complaint-storm, but you may be bringing them down – associating interacting with you with unpleasant feelings.
What’s the solution?
Motivational speaker Will Bowen has a 21-day complaint detox program. I haven’t done the program myself – but it does look interesting if a bit controlled.
Apart from a formal negativity detox, here are a few tips for going on a complaint detox:
It starts with awareness.
You can’t fix a thing if you don’t know you’re doing it. So you need to consciously pay attention to the messages you’re putting out into the world. From social media to face-to-face conversations, start to notice your complaining.
If there is a situation which is unacceptable, look for solutions or ask for help. If you must criticize, make it constructive.
Be grateful and pay attention to positives.
One of the things I do with my kids is to dish out praise when I catch them doing stuff I want to see more of. “I love how you shared with your sister.” It works wonders. Genuine gratitude has amazing psychological and physical health benefits. It wires you up for positivity and increases the things you want more of.
We, humans, tend to have a strong negative bias so it can take work to look for those things we want to be grateful for. But I promise it’s an effort that pays off – eventually becoming a habit.
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