Complaining. Everyone does it. What could feel better than venting your frustration after a difficult day, or when life doesn’t go according to plan? Whether it’s the weather, an annoying boss, or the state of politics, it’s human nature to have a good old moan when there are a pair of listening ears around.
Research suggests that our tendency to complain may not be healthy. A 1996 study from Stanford University found that complaining actually reduces the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and problem solving.
I spoke to psychotherapist Mel Riley, based in the UK, about the difference between the two, and how to avoid the more harmful complaining style of communication.
Riley says, ”I think it’s okay to complain but if we get stuck there it’s not so healthy. In terms of what happens in the brain, we’ve got the brain stem—also called the survival brain—and the pre-frontal cortex which is our thinking brain. We need to be able to move easily between using our survival brain to the more thriving mode of using our pre-frontal cortex. To do this we need to be able to come back to a calm place, be able to reflect on our situation, and move back to gratitude.”
The key to get out of that trap of cycling through complaints is emotional release. Riley explains, “If you take the word ‘emotion,’ we can think of it as meaning energy in motion. Most of us need to do something with that energy, to release it, whether it’s through the verbal expression of [complaining], or physical activity like boxing or running, or creative expression such as painting. Whatever will help [us] find some healthy expressions for our emotion.’’
There will be times in life, when it’s not easy to get out of complaining mode without outside support. Riley says, “There is an attitude that we are supposed to do it all alone, stop complaining and get on with it, but if you’re so collapsed, for example or if your husband has just died, you’re not going to.’’
Our instinct to reach out to complain to others, is a good one. Asking a close friend to go out for a coffee, or a walk during times of struggle can provide the opportunity to vent and be heard. However, if the chosen listener does not have the capacity to truly hold space, then it may not provide the soothing the complainer needs, which can result in ending up in a vicious complaining cycle. Maybe the listener offers unsolicited advice or tries to get the person to ‘look on the bright side’ without fully being present to their emotional upset.
Awareness is key. Choose your listeners wisely. Bringing attention to the habit of complaining can assist with what Riley calls ‘the all-important pause.’ In the moment before complaining, consider if it’s likely that the person will be able to truly listen to your problems. Do they tend to be a good listener and are they in a good frame of mind, to be able to cope with another’s challenges? If not, it might be better to stay silent.
Another important element is bringing about change. Cyclical complaining can come from difficulties in making shifts. If you find yourself frequently complaining about the same things, a question to ask might be, what can I do to transform this situation?
Sometimes there is a tendency to complain about things that are difficult to control. Politics or the state of the planet require collective change. It can be worth asking, are there positive steps I want to make to help change the situation, or is my energy best directed elsewhere? You might have a burning ambition to get into politics or save the world. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of redirecting attention, so you don’t get bogged down with the things you can’t change. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, we need to cultivate ‘the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
Then there is the opposite, the more minor issues which can take up a lot of complaining airtime. Bad weather, late trains, s spoiled milk. Life’s everyday trials can be frustrating. When it becomes a litany of constant complaints about the ‘small things,’ it may be worth asking if there’s something bigger underneath. Riley says that ”under mad is generally sad.” Unprocessed trauma or emotional upset can lead to a tendency to see the world through grey-colored glasses. Figuring out what the real issue is can be a liberating way to get free and heal so that the world starts to look brighter.
Whatever approach taken towards complaints it’s important to remember that there’s no shame in complaining. A tendency to complain has a positive side—with awareness, it can be recognized as a call for help. What do you need to make it better? Phone a friend, shift to focusing on gratitude, or make a bigger commitment for lasting change. Complaints can be a calling to look inwards, at what is not right, and shift things. In this way we can embrace our complaining selves with kindness and also know that something better will come along.