Why We Complain

“Would you stop complaining already?”

“Complaining never makes anything better.”

“Whine, whine, whine!”

“Nobody likes a complainer.”

We’ve heard these thumbs-down statements and perhaps have made a few of them ourselves. And yet, most of us complain. I do, and I sometimes get tired of hearing myself, or I’ll preface a whining complaint with “I know I’m complaining but, I can’t BELIEVE this. I am beside myself. Blah, blah, blah.” Truthfully, a vent like this one helps me blow off steam that a meditative, deep breathing exercise might have also accomplished. Honestly, though, I sometimes feel guilty once I’m spent. Should I? Should any of us feel guilty about complaining?

I felt a wee bit vindicated when psychologist and author Robert Biswas-Diener asked, “If complaining is so awful, why is it so prevalent?” The answer is that “complaining is simply expressing dissatisfaction.” I like that definition because it’s an observation, not a judgment. It invites us to consider complaining without any “stuff” attached to it. With this neutral mindset, we can better understand why we engage in a behavior that has such a bad rap.

Mental health folks observe that personality, age, tolerance for conflict, and “image” are all factors in determining how and how much we complain. I would add “family of origin” and even “upbringing” as influencers. Individual factors aside, you may recognize:

  • The Chronic Complainer– for her, complaining is a habit of mind and mouth. She always finds something wrong and can’t seem to notice a silver lining anywhere. For her, the glass is never more than half full, while she tends to ruminate and dwell on setbacks instead of steps forward. Her complaining habit may have re-wired her brain to the point that it is ingrained. Instead of feeling a sense of release or letting go after complaining, chronic complainers may experience higher stress and anxiety levels.
  • The Venter– she’s the one who isn’t trying to solve anything; she just wants to be heard and to have her feelings validated, as in my personal example. Once she gets that attention, she can usually let it go.
  • The Sympathy Seeker– he’s the one who wants to be heard – and often – while usually emphasizing how much worse off he is than you. It’s the “I bet you can’t top this” type of complaining that gets attention and can provoke competitive storytelling.

Remember, this isn’t about judging. It’s about understanding…and seeing ourselves.

The Upside of Complaining 

Complaining can be a good thing. If we are complaining because we’re feeling stuck, we may be able to clarify our thoughts and feelings just by verbalizing. We might feel a sense of release (it’s off my chest), validation (I’m not crazy; he gets it!), and our listener may offer a perspective that helps us see things differently or have an insight that allows us to identify a way forward.

The Downside of Complaining

Complaining can also be toxic. If we become fixated on “the problem,” we may never move toward a solution. We may find ourselves in a cycle of negativity and seek out others who are similarly stuck. The other outcome is that, besides feeling miserable ourselves, complaining may push others away, leaving us feeling lonely and isolated.

Here’s my take: there is a place in our lives for responsible, purposeful complaining, the kind that seeks light at the end of the tunnel. But complaining that reinforces the darkness and keeps us stuck does us – and those around us – no good.

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