To Complain, or Not to Complain?

Over the last several weeks, I’ve started to feel like I’ve been doing a lot of complaining. From moaning about a particular person’s disrespectful behavior or something I read in the news to ranting about the person who cut me off in traffic and the grocery store’s inability to keep my favorite items in stock: You name it, I’ve probably complained about it. It came to a head after I finished reading aloud to my mother a person’s letter to the editor in the paper this weekend. (Pro tip: If you lean left and live in the south, do NOT read your newspaper’s letters to the editor.) Anyway, I was exasperated by this person’s willful ignorance on an issue I feel strongly about, and for some reason felt the need to share her words aloud, perhaps so someone could commiserate with me about the disturbing views we live amongst. Needless to say, sharing it did not make me feel better, but in fact, made me feel worse. I hated that I had spent precious moments of my life despairing about the views of a person who I will likely never meet, and thus, have little to no chance of converting to my own views, aka the “right views.” 😉 Essentially, what this experience taught me is that, for me at least, complaining is not always cathartic, and may in fact only make me feel negative and helpless.

I vowed then and there to stop complaining.

And five minutes later, I complained again.

I got back on the wagon, but have repeatedly fallen off, catching myself complaining multiple times in the days since. Turns out, not complaining is HARD, y’all! It wouldn’t be so hard, except I find that people are just constantly doing inane things that merit complaint! And to be honest, sometimes it does feel good to vent about their ineptitude.

Curious about this issue, I decided to look up “effects of complaining” online. Apparently, a lot of other people have investigated this issue, as scores of sites came up with titles ranging from “How negativity and complaining literally rot your brain” and “How complaining rewires your brain for negativity” to “Complaining, for your health” and “Quit complaining – it may make you feel worse.” Many of the articles I turned up supported my own experience — that sometimes complaining feels good, and sometimes it doesn’t. The key, it seems, is in learning how to complain. Didn’t know complaining was an art form? Read on.

Essentially, without going into all the details, complaining just for complaining’s sake, without any chance of effecting any change is usually detrimental to one’s health. It prompts release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can raise blood pressure and over time set you up for problems with high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and may even make your brain more vulnerable to strokes. Like second hand smoke, even just being on the receiving end of another person’s complaints can be damaging. Aside from impacting our physical health, ineffective complaining also often leaves us feeling helpless, hopeless, and pessimistic about our situation and life in general.

On the contrary, complaining done right can be good for us. Effective complaining that actually gets results can be empowering and uplifting. Even if it doesn’t achieve results, sometimes just getting things out is helpful, as keeping things pent up inside has been linked with long-term stress and related health issues. The key, I think, is to complain mindfully. Before you open your mouth to complain, ask yourself what your goal is. Do you want to change something? If so, do something to change it! (In the Atlantic article linked to above, the researcher quoted suggests that the most effective complaining uses facts and logic, has a desired outcome in mind, and is directed at someone who has the authority to make it happen.) Do you just need to vent? If so, let it out and then move on. Or are you just wanting to whine and drone on and on about something you have no chance of affecting? In which case, perhaps it’s best to just accept that some things in life are upsetting, let it go, and move on to better things.

Which is all just to say: Good news for me. I don’t have to give up complaining after all. I just have to get better at it.







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