I want you to think about how you feel when you have to listen to someone else complaining.
Does it feel good?
Now I want you to think about the fact that, when you complain, you’re making other people feel just as crummy as you feel when they complain.
I also want you to think about the fact that, when you complain, you’re making yourself listen to yourself complaining.
Does that actually feel good?
Lastly, I want you to consider whether complaining is doing you any good at all.
Is it making you happier?
Is it motivating you to take positive action?
Let’s get clear on what I mean by complaining.
I’m referring to the act of talking about something that you don’t like, to people who have no power to change things for the better, when you have no intention of working to change things for the better yourself. Examples include describing how bad the traffic was or telling a friend about something annoying that happened at work. Non-constructive criticism is also complaining. Complaining is done with a tone that implies victimhood or unfairness. It implies that there’s nothing to be done and you’re upset about it.
Now let’s get clear on what is not complaining.
Sometimes you have to talk about things you don’t like just to be open and honest with people, but this isn’t necessarily complaining. It’s all about your tone. For example, I have chronic foot inflammation that sometimes requires me to apply anti-inflammatory medicine to my foot. When someone who doesn’t know about my condition sees me doing this, they typically ask what’s going on. Then, in a positive, matter-of-fact way, I explain what’s wrong with my foot. I try to make it clear from my tone of voice that I’m not upset about it, I don’t view it as unfair, and I don’t see myself as a victim. Of course, I don’t like that my foot has this issue, but there’s nothing to be gained by complaining about it. All that would do is upset the other person and, as we’ll see, bring me down as well.
It’s also sometimes necessary to talk about things that are upsetting you in order to improve your situation. When you’re hurt or sick, you have to tell your doctor about it. When you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, you have to talk with your therapist about it. When your partner or roommate is doing something you don’t like, you have to let them know. These are all examples of giving voice to the negative in order to make some sort of positive change. They are cases where, if you don’t talk about the thing that’s upsetting you, it’ll never get better. And they are cases where you’re talking to someone who can help make things better. If the intention of speaking up is to actually make progress, then it’s not complaining.
I’m also not referring to activities such as whistle-blowing, reporting crime, political protest, calling your representative, or writing letters to the editor. These are all legitimate means of speaking up about a problem that needs to be solved. Although they involve talking about something you don’t like, they are all ways of taking positive action toward real change and are therefore not complaining. It is often necessary to speak up about bad things that are happening in order to change things for the better. The tone says, “This is wrong, so let’s take action to fix it.” Again, if the intention of speaking up is to actually make progress, then it’s not complaining.
Now that we know what complaining is, we can talk about why it’s so harmful.
Why Complaining Makes Things Worse
The conventional wisdom is that complaining will make you feel better. If you “bottle up” your negative feelings instead of giving voice to them, you’ll eventually explode in a fit of rage or have some sort of mental breakdown. Not only is there no evidence of this, but there’s actual evidence that the opposite is true. Expressing anger makes you more angry.1 Complaining about something that’s upsetting you can actually make you more upset.
The most basic reason why complaining can make you more upset is that it forces you to relive an unpleasant experience. Instead of moving on and staying present, complaining drags you back to something bad that happened and forces you to mentally go through it all over again. Why would you want to do that?
A less obvious reason complaining makes you more unhappy is self-perception. Self-perception means that, whenever you do something, your brain will try to align your thoughts and feelings with that behavior. So when you complain, your brain will back up that behavior with thoughts and feelings that justify the act of complaining. You’ll think of more reasons why the thing you’re complaining about is upsetting, and you’ll feel more upset about it. Remember, if you want to master the feedback loop between your actions, thoughts, and emotions, you should choose your actions wisely.
Complaining also impacts the people around you who, in turn, impact you. Your complaining might inspire them to respond in kind with complaints of their own. Your conversation will be focused on negative things, leading to negative feelings all around. And even if they don’t hop on the complaining bandwagon, your complaining will probably make them less happy. Then, because emotions are contagious, they’ll radiate that unhappiness back to you.
Some people believe in the “law of attraction” – that whatever you think of and talk about will magically manifest itself in your life. These people would say that complaining makes things worse because you then “attract” more bad things into your life. But that’s not what’s really going on. Instead, when you complain, you’re actually practicing the skill of noticing things to complain about. This trains your brain to focus on what is bad, just as gratitude journaling trains your brain to focus on what is good. So while you might not experience any objective changes to your life, complaining can make your subjective experience of life worse.
And you might actually experience some objectively worse outcomes in your life because complaining tends to decrease the likelihood of positive action. Complaining sometimes feels like taking positive action, but it’s not. It’s a passive, reactive behavior that diminishes your power. By making you feel like a passive victim, complaining makes you less likely to take steps to improve your situation. If that situation is going to get worse without intervention, you’ll have even more to complain about in the future!
So Don’t Complain
The good news is the processes I just described also work in reverse.
If there is something you could complain about, but you choose not to, self-perception works to your advantage. Your brain sees that you didn’t complain and decides that the annoying thing that has just happened must not be all that bad. You then feel less upset about it and think about it less. You move on more quickly and let go of it more easily. As a result, you feel better.
Not complaining will also benefit the people around you, which, in turn, will benefit you. The less you complain, the less your conversation partners will complain. This means your conversations will be more positive, resulting in greater happiness for all involved.
In addition, when you reduce complaining, you naturally start to see fewer things to complain about. In their place, you’ll start to notice more things to be grateful for. In fact, the best antidote to the toxic desire to complain is to actively look for something to be grateful for. So, next time something annoying happens, look around and take stock of everything that’s going on, find something good that’s happening, and comment on that instead.
In the modern world, we take too much for granted. There’s plenty to be grateful for just waiting to be noticed and appreciated. It’s not delusional positive thinking to remind yourself that you’re actually very lucky to be alive on a less-than-perfect day, to remember how amazing it is to be driving a car when you’re stuck in traffic (as opposed to, say, walking or riding a horse), or to think about how incredible the bounty of a grocery store is when you’re waiting in a long check-out line. When a small number of things are going wrong, try to step back and consider the many things that are going right.
Furthermore, choosing not to complain will keep you out of passive-victim mode and in active-agent mode. You’ll feel less reactive and more proactive. You’ll be more likely to ask proactive questions, come up with helpful answers, and then take steps to improve your situation. As a result, you’ll find you have less and less to complain about.
Instead of Complaining, Take Action
Not complaining doesn’t mean ignoring all the things that are wrong. It doesn’t mean replacing the complaining thoughts in your head with delusional, positive thoughts. It means acknowledging the bad, recognizing what you can do about it, and then getting to work, rather than whining about whatever it is you don’t like. Complaining is too often a substitute for real action. It can feel like you’re doing something even when you’re not.
When the problem is “out there” – something wrong with the world or something “wrong” with the people in your life – the best approach is often to work on yourself by changing your own behavior or your own attitude. As Gandhi said (and did), you can be the change you want to see; you can lead by example. I don’t like that people litter on hiking trails, but instead of complaining about it, I just pick up the garbage. Of course I can’t hope to pick up all the litter on all the hiking trails in the world, and my example won’t be seen by most people, but each piece of trash I pick up makes a small, positive impact, and if just a few people follow my lead, I’ll have made an even larger difference.
How to Stop Complaining
Enter Will Bowen, a Kansas City minister and author of A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted
This book is what led me to this understanding of complaining. In it, Bowen challenges you to go for a full 21 days without complaining.2 Now, making it to 21 days isn’t all that important. What matters is the effort and the self-awareness it brings. I never made it to 21 days, but I got much better about not complaining, and I’m happier for it.
The most eye-opening part of the program is the beginning. All you need is a bracelet, like a hair-tie or one of those rubber bracelets that used to be ubiquitous before Lance Armstrong was defrocked. (Bowen offers the official bracelets and other resources here.) The program is simple: Whenever you catch yourself complaining, just move the bracelet to your other wrist.2 Odds are, you don’t think you complain all that much, but you’ll probably find yourself moving it dozens of times per day. In fitting with the stages of behavioral change, you’ll transition from being completely blind to how much you complain to being painfully aware of it.
Then you’ll begin an effortful process of resisting the urge to complain. This will be a sort of everyday mindfulness practice: You’ll need to notice your urge to complain, accept that the urge is there, and then choose not to act on it.
The more you put forth this effort, the less frequently you’ll move your bracelet. Over time, non-complaining will become almost as automatic as complaining used to be.
Finally, as you start to become more aware of your own complaining, and you start to reduce it, you’ll naturally become more aware of other people’s tendency to complain. Please remember that they’re just as unaware of what they’re doing as you used to be. Don’t judge. Don’t instruct or advise. Don’t feel obligated to respond in kind with your own complaints. And don’t complain about their complaining. Just quietly lead by example.
Did you like what you just read? Then please share this with someone who might appreciate it, like a friend, family member, or coworker.
Self-improvement can be overwhelming.