I’ve had a couple of recent experiences that have reminded me how unproductive complaining can be and how easy it is to get caught up in the negative mindset that loves to complain.
I’m a complainer. Well, sometimes. Actually, it’s complicated.
When I think about what drives me to complain, I find that there’s usually something happening that I’m making a judgment about. Is this good or bad? For me, a trigger for my complaining is when I think things could be done better.
I’m more of a complainer about situations than I am about specific people, but you’d be fair game if I thought you’d done me wrong.
There are situations for example, where I have certain expectations. When those expectations aren’t met, complaining ensues.
The thing is, even though a specific person usually isn’t being targeted by my complaining – it’s still hurtful. Complaining spreads negativity like a thick black fog enveloping everyone around it.
But why do we complain? What purpose does it serve? I think I complain as a catharsis. It makes me feel better – for a second. Of course, to complain we need someone to complain to – otherwise, we’re just talking to ourselves. It’s that exchange with another that is the key, I think. It’s a way of saying, ‘look, I’m smarter than they are – if they’d only do it my way things would be better’. Complaining is about insecurity – and boosting one’s own ego.
The irony is that complaining does nothing – absolutely zero, to solve the situation for which we’re feeling so malevolent. In fact, it has the potential to exacerbate the problem. If we were really concerned (and less lazy), maybe we’d take the more productive steps of making a recommendation, giving some difficult feedback, working to fix the problem ourselves or just taking ownership that hey, maybe we’re part of the problem too.
Complaining is also about control or at least exercising the little control you may have in a situation. You might not be able to control how your boss tells you to spend your time, but you can control what you say about her. Complaining is like snatching that little bit of control back from the powers that be.
As it turns out, there are three types of complainers: chronic, venting and instrumental. A chronic complainer is someone who always spots the problem or sees only the negative side of things. They dwell on the downside – they are a bummer. Venters tend to express emotional dissatisfaction and are focused on themselves. They express their emotion to solicit attention and in turn, validate their negative feelings. I think I’m a venter.
Finally, there are the instrumental complainers. They have a more productive approach, focusing on finding solutions to the problems they encounter. A-ha, productive complaining! (1)
‘So what?’, you might ask. ‘What’s the problem with a little complaining, everyone does it’. Well, you’d be right – according to an article in Entrepreneur, “research shows that people complain once a minute during a typical conversation.”
Just like other bad habits though, complaining can have real impact on our well-being. Like the chronic complainers, complaining can become a reflex if we’re not careful. The more we complain, the more our brains make it a little easier to engage in the behavior in the future. Gone unchecked, we can become one of those people who are constantly complaining and no one wants to be around. This is especially dangerous in the workplace – where it’s easy to spot things to complain about and there’s no shortage of people to complain to, or with.
The risks are greater than damage to reputation though. Research has shown chronic complaining can lead to brain damage by shrinking the part of the brain that conducts problem-solving and critical thinking tasks. It also raises cortisol levels in our bodies, which can impair the immune system and make you more vulnerable to serious disease and stroke. (2)
Avoiding complaining can be tough, sometimes we just want to let our frustration out. Here are a few simple strategies to keep in mind when you get the urge to rattle off a fresh complaint:
- Notice the situations that make you want to complain – try to avoid them. If you can’t avoid them, acknowledge when you’re in the ‘danger zone’ and be mindful of your thoughts and behavior.
- Sometimes complaints flow without us ever thinking about it. Like a reflex, it’s already out by the time it’s noticed. When that happens, stop the complaint and find something positive to say about the situation. Shift away from the negativity.
- Ever notice how easy it is to jump on the complain train? When others are complaining, mirror neurons in our brain take over and we naturally want to mimic the behavior of others. Like yawning, complaining is contagious. Stay away from known complainers and remove yourself from the situation when complaining ensues.
- When you get the urge to complain, shift the negativity with some positive thinking. Gratitude works wonders in this situation. Remind yourself of the opportunities you have, the great people in your life, the wonders of modern life – whatever to jolt yourself out of the downward spiral.
Neill Beurskens is Founder of This Fearless Life and creates profound change for incredible people looking to get more out of their life and work. To explore the possibilities of a life lived fearlessly visit www.thisfearlesslifecoaching.com
- Biswas-Diener, Robert (2017). The three types of complaining. Psychology Today, online, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/significant-results/201706/the-three-types-complaining.
- Bradberry, Travis (2016). How complaining rewires your brain for negativity. Entrepreneur, online. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/281734.