Updated: Jun 20
Pop psychology tells us that complaining is a sort of catharsis—that by getting our feelings out rather than bottling them up, we’ll feel better. But it turns out this is largely a myth.
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!
There are four things you can do when you feel the need to complain. One is to allow yourself to feel gratitude. That is, when you feel like complaining, shift your attention to something that you’re grateful for. Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the right thing to do; it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%.
Research conducted at the University of California, Davis, found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood and energy and substantially less anxiety due to lower cortisol levels. Any time you experience negative or pessimistic thoughts, use this as a cue to shift gears and to think about something positive. In time, a positive attitude will become a way of life.
The second thing you can do is catch yourself and stop. Then congratulate yourself. The only thing you have complete control over is your thoughts.
The third thing you can do is to create a positive groove. Do more of what you love, more of what makes you happy, more of what brings you closer to people instead of pulling you further apart. Let go of some of those perfectionist tendencies and enjoy being with the loves of your life. The more often you allow your mind to think about and remember the good stuff, the easier that kind of positive thinking becomes. If you are going to be building bridges in your mind, at least build them to take you places you really want to go.
The fourth thing you can do is to practice conscious rewiring. When you start to complain change direction and say something hopeful, optimistic or positive instead.
When you have something that is truly worth complaining about engage in solution-oriented complaining. Think of it as complaining with a purpose. What if instead of focusing on the problem all the time, we focused on how things would be when the problem is solved and finding the solution? Unlike complaining giving constructive feedback rather than criticism offers a solution to help solve the problem.When you confront your romantic partner about overspending on the credit card, that could be complaining with a purpose. Especially if you focus on the impact of the problem, the importance of change, and cooperate to create a plan for change. One study suggests that these types of complaints make up fewer than 25 percent of all complaints.
Solution-oriented complaining should do the following:
Have a clear purpose. Before complaining, know what outcome you’re looking for. If you can’t identify a purpose, there’s a good chance you just want to complain for its own sake, and that’s the kind of complaining you should nip in the bud.
Start with something positive. It may seem counterintuitive to start a complaint with a compliment, but starting with a positive helps keep the other person from getting defensive. For example, before launching into a complaint about the dog poop not being picked up, or the shower door not being squiggled (yes, those are real complaints), you could say something like, “I love our dogs. They bring me so much joy, and most of the time you are good about picking up after them. But when you don’t we have to deal with those menacing flies so how I can support you in keeping up with our beloved dogs down side?”
Be specific. When you’re complaining it’s not a good time to dredge up every minor annoyance from the past 5 to 20 years. Just address the current situation and be as specific as possible. Instead of saying, “Argh, you NEVER squeegee the shower door.” You could say, if we don’t squeegee the shower door when the water droplets are wet, it makes it so much harder to remove the water spots. How can I help you to remember?”
End on a positive. “I love and appreciate all the ways you contribute to making our lives better and easier. Thank you.” If you end your complaint with, “Do you forget to do this just to frustrate me?” the person who’s listening has no motivation to act on your complaint. In that case, you’re just venting, accusing or complaining with no purpose other than to whine and complain. Instead, restate your purpose, as well as your hope that the desired result can be achieved, for example, “I’d like to work this out so that I am not simply exhausted and frustrated when it comes time to spend together.”
Personality expert Dawn Billings is the Executive Director of the luxury Relationship Help Resort in Arizona where she guides couple's intensives to help strengthen, heal and restore broken relationships. Dawn is also the author of the Relationship Help at Home comprehensive Online Couple's programs and creator of the Primary Colors Relationship Personality Tests and Insight Tools.