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Is Complaining Good or Bad For You?

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. This week on the Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals why complaining only makes us feel worse and, more importantly, how the habitual complainers among us can stop the grumbling.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
March 17, 2017
Episode #146

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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! 

This week, by request from an enterprising listener who wrote and asked how she could stop complaining so much, we’ll tackle 3 myths about complaining and 4 ways you can get a grip on your griping.

Whether you call it venting, whining, or bellyaching, let’s start out with three myths about complaining:

Complaining Myth #1: Complaining makes me feel better. There’s an idea that venting works like a steam valve—that releasing some pent-up pressure is necessary to prevent a later explosion.

But that’s not actually how it works. Venting, rather than lessening negative emotion, instead fuels it. In study after study, when people are asked to release negative emotion by punching pillows, confronting the person who made them feel bad, or even by playing tackle football, far from diffusing their anger, they instead amplify it. 

Why? Part of the problem is repetition. Complaining replays the event in your mind, and thinking about events where you got hurt, humiliated, or disrespected, even in your imagination, elicits negative feelings almost as strong as if the negative event were happening in real life. 

Next, the venting does nothing to solve the problem. It lays bare the emotion, but stops there. We’ll talk more about how to take the next step, but first...

Complaining Myth #2: Complaining gets me support from those I love. Have you ever put Debbie Downer at the top of your dinner-party invite list? Me neither, even if I’m sympathetic to her plight. 

It’s intuitive that complaining is annoying, but exactly why complaining is so noxious is actually hard for scientists to explain. One idea is that complaining is a toxic mix of self-focus, low mood, and dissatisfaction, all of which can be contagious. Similar to how being around someone depressed can be depressing, listening to a complainer is a cognitive burden that can make us all feel like negative, dissatisfied navel-gazers.  

It’s a balance. It’s important to seek support when you’re feeling low, but constant complaining can make the people on the receiving end of your complaining feel worse and tax their patience to boot.

Next, while researching this week’s episode, I came across a number of other “complaining is bad for you” internet articles, all of which warned against complaining for a very different reason. Which brings us to...

Complaining Myth #3: Complaining rewires my brain. Click around on the interweb and you’ll find claims that complaining shrinks your hippocampus or otherwise “rewires” your brain until every one of your thoughts is a negative critique. 

This is not true. While it is true that extremely negative events like prolonged childhood physical or sexual abuse can have an effect on brain structures like the hippocampus, a bitch-fest about your boss at the bar with your co-workers or listening to your friends complain about their Tinder dates is not going to shrivel your brain (even if it shrivels your patience). 

So even if you don’t have to worry that sending back your undercooked burger is going to shrink your brain, do the downsides of complaining mean you should suck it up, buttercup? Not necessarily. Sometimes complaining is vital. Indeed, a bunch of whiners, acting together with purpose, has been the driver of most real and lasting change in the world. Think civil rights, women’s suffrage, the list goes on. It’s complaining without action that is ineffective.

Therefore, our goal is twofold: first, complain less, for your own sake and everyone else’s. If, like our listener, we’re trying to break the habit of complaining, any in-the-moment action that directly opposes anger can help diffuse your grumblings. Like what, you ask? 

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