Too much work. Not enough work. A friend getting on your nerves. A partner that’s made a mess. The coffee shop that’s run out of oat milk. Complaining: it’s something we all do at some point. From the upsetting and the anger-inducing to the frustrating and the frivolous, it’s human nature to want to vent about the things we’re struggling with. However, against a backdrop of gratitude culture (think positive! be thankful!) and amidst a global pandemic that’s put small problems into perspective, complaining about the seemingly trivial feels more bad taste than ever. Caveating the start of a sentence with: ‘I know I shouldn’t complain but…’ has become commonplace. But what if there is an upside to all this complaining? Recently, when venting to a friend over something so insignificant I can no longer recall its details, I started thinking less about the guilt of moaning and more about how much better I felt in the aftermath. After all, a problem shared is a problem halved.
The benefits of complaining
Complaining is what counselor Natalie Read calls “speaking your truth.” When we complain, we are being honest about how we feel, and acknowledging our feelings is important. The alternative, repressing feelings, is what she describes as “putting the emotion in a saucepan with a lid on.” “There is a gentle heat underneath and over time the lid can’t hold so you might have an outburst of feeling like an angry rant or tears or you might experience a more simmering effect with low mood or feelings or numbness and being on edge,” she clarifies.
Beyond feeling to enable healing, complaining about something can lead to positive change. Until we identify something as wrong, we can’t rectify it right. “If we feel angry, frustrated or upset about something, it can indicate that we feel powerless, inadequate, misunderstood, victimized or we may be responding to injustice, inequality or cruelty,” Read explains. When we acknowledge these feelings it helps us recognize the change needed and can inspire us to make positive change. “Whether it is a personal change such as setting a boundary, standing up for yourself or contributing to a change in society, complaining helps you take action,” Read adds.
In group settings — whether personal, social or work-related — complaining can help move problems forward. “When you make a complaint, this creates an opportunity to discuss the situation with other team members. By bringing the problem to the fore, and asking them to comment, you are asking for ideas and solutions,” Dr. Deborah Lee said. “Others will see the problem afresh, from a different perspective, and may be able to help you, the complainer, see things differently,” she added.
How to complain well
There are different types of complaining and both positive and negative ways to do it. “If we are expressing ourselves in a way that is not hurtful or damaging to others, then it can be a positive outlet,” Read advised. “If we are blaming others, being unkind, aggressive or hurtful then the outlet creates additional problems for either you or another,” she added.
Sometimes it can be useful to first find a way to deal with your feelings alone before complaining with others. “Find an outlet such as exercise, writing or walking. Write what you want to say in draft form so that you get out your frustration and intense energy and then communicate how you feel,” Read suggests.
Psychological therapist and systemic life coach Michael Padraig Acton, suggests a 3-step system for dealing with negative emotions.
- What are my true feelings? We really have to search for those feelings. We may think we feel upset but what we’re actually feeling is anger.
- Write down the evidence that says, ‘I’m feeling this because of this’. Really make sure the creator of your feelings is outed. So, ‘I’m feeling angry because you have closed the door on my face rather than opening it when I’m walking along. There seems to be an issue between us.’
- How do we find a resolution? The best way is to find a good, safe time to talk with someone. Tell them this is how I feel, this is why I feel it and this is what I propose we do in order to resolve this. This is a really healthy type of complaining. It’s saying this is my problem — I own it — this is why it’s happening to me, this is how you can help me.
Of course, complaining too much can become an issue. Complaining about the same thing over and over can mean it becomes unhealthy. Read notes how this pattern of complaining may actually be keeping you stuck as opposed to helping you move past and beyond a problem. “If so, it can be helpful to ask yourself what can I do differently about the situation, consider is it time to accept it and let it go?” she recommends.
Dedicating too much time to complaining can also lead you into a pessimistic mindset. “Pessimism is associated with feelings of dissatisfaction with everyday life,” Dr. Lee clarifies. Considering optimists live 15% longer than pessimists, it is worth considering how you can limit your complaining to positive and productive chunks as opposed to allowing it to filter into the everyday.