Blog Short #84: The Pros and Cons of Complaining
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Have you had the experience of needing to vent about something and being told you’re complaining too much? Or maybe you need to be more positive and stop being so pessimistic?
Complaining is a natural human activity, yet it gets a bad rap most of the time. The usual characterization is that it’s negative and harmful.
But is it? Is it only bad for you? Are there instances where it’s good?
That’s today’s question, and the answer is: It depends on how and why you’re doing it.
Let’s dive in.
Motives for Complaining
There are two motives for complaining:
- Purposeful resolution
- Defensive avoidance
Purposeful complaining is hopeful. There’s an intention to solve a problem, get a different perspective, or let something go. The overall motive is to reach a positive outcome.
Defensive complaining is chronic. It’s a means of avoidance, blame, projection, and ultimately inaction. The act of complaining itself is the motive, and the outcome is more complaining.
Keep this in mind as we go through types of complaining and their effects. Let’s start with the “pros” category.
There are two main types of complaints that fall into this category: venting and protesting.
Venting is probably the most common type of complaining, and we all do it. If done correctly, venting allows you to release and crystalize negative feelings hanging you up. There are several positive effects to this.
One, it creates mental space. As you tell someone who listens attentively and with empathy what’s bothering you, you feel your emotions begin to unwind. Some space starts to clear in your mind so you can sort things through.
You transfer your feelings in part to the listener who contains them for you, so you have some relief from feeling overwhelmed.
This gives you some time to get your thinking brain back on board.
Two, it validates your feelings. As the listener responds to what you’re saying and reflects back on your concerns, your feelings are validated.
For example, you might complain about not getting a promotion at work, and you have many reasons why you think it’s unfair. A good listener will validate your feelings, ranging from sadness and loss to anger and frustration. That doesn’t mean they need to validate your reasoning.
If the listener is astute and can hold that line, it might give you time to reassess your thoughts and conclusions.
Last, it clears the way for problem-solving. Once your feelings are heard and validated, you’re able to begin thinking more objectively about the situation.
A good outcome is that the emotions get redirected toward taking action to resolve an issue.
It might be that you think something through, get a new perspective, and decide to let it go or take specific steps to solve a problem.
Protesting is objecting to something you feel needs to be corrected or changed. You may vent while protesting, so there’s an overlap between the two, but protesting has a more explicit aim and includes a call to action.
Protesting is one of the primary ways we all have to facilitate change.
These might be small changes like reworking a policy at the office or big sweeping changes like political or social reform. Protesting includes a need to act. Venting can occur with no agenda other than to be heard, validated, and soothed.
The ultimate objective of both constructive venting and protesting is to remove an obstacle and move forward. The goal is resolution.
Now let’s move on to the “cons.”
The cons occur with chronic, defensive complaining. Here they are.
The more you complain, the more it becomes an automated habit with a life of its own. It becomes the reflexive response to most situations.
If you complain to a chronic complainer, they will quickly jump on the bandwagon and inflate your views. This can take the original complaint into another whole realm of negativity in which both complainer and listener get caught up in exaggerated venting. Anger can soar under these circumstances.
It creates a pessimistic outlook by narrowing your observations to only what’s wrong. The more you engage in it, the more your negative views are confirmed and the more hopeless you become. Everything looks bleak. Chronic complainers take great advantage of confirmation bias by seeking only information that will corroborate what they already think.
It’s bad for relationships.
When you infuse your relationships with chronic negative complaining that has an angry edge, you’re slowly dripping poison into the connection between you and the other person.
Remember how I explained that when you vent to someone, they hold your emotions for you, so you get mental space? This works well when you vent constructively. But when you complain repetitively without motivation to resolve something, it builds up toxins that erode the connection. It’s too much for the other person to digest.
Hopelessness spreads from one person to the other, and eventually, someone breaks free because it’s too overwhelming and harmful. Or, both people become beacons of negativity and pessimism and shrink their outlook and world.
It shuts down innovation.
When you feel hopeless and perpetually pessimistic, there’s no drive to do anything creative or innovative. What’s the point? Chronic complainers shut out positive input. They refuse to see things that are going well or that offer hope. Their mindset paralyzes them.
So how do I complain the right way?
Here are some quick guidelines:
1. Choose the right person to vent or complain to.
If you need to be heard and understood to work through your feelings, choose someone you trust to remain objective and who will let you talk. This person should be empathetic and have your best interest at heart, and someone who won’t jump on the bandwagon and make things worse.
2. Take notice of repetitive complaints.
If you find yourself repeating the same complaints more than a few times, it’s time to take some action to resolve the issue.
Chronic complaints are signals that you need to do something. Don’t avoid taking action. Seek solutions rather than blame. Target your complaints to people who can help provide answers.
3. Tip the positive/negative scale slightly up.
If you tend to notice what’s wrong more than what’s right, change that. Make a conscious, concerted effort to see what’s going well.
If you watch the news regularly, you know that the focus is on what’s wrong. That’s the nature of news broadcasting. To combat that, you’d have to seek out news about things going well, and in fact, there’s a lot of that news, but you have to search for it.
Do that same thing in your personal life. Keep that balance.
4. Challenge “victim consciousness.”
You may see yourself as a victim. Maybe you were victimized growing up and had reason to feel the way you do. However, as an adult, you can choose to remain a victim or not.
By identifying yourself as a victim, you feel chronically helpless and pessimistic, which you express with chronic complaining.
If you find yourself in this place, seek some therapy to help you work this through. The goal is to break free from “victim consciousness” and take charge of your life.
That’s all for today.
Have a great week!
All my best,