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Cut the Complaint Habit

Everyone complains. Whether it’s about being stuck in traffic, baking in the sun at a sporting event, or rising prices and bills piling up, we all do it. While complaining is inherently negative, it does have some value—it is a social unifier. People can, and often do, bond over shared complaints.

When the lines at the grocery store are long and slow-moving, you might complain to the person in front of you and develop a connection. That happened to me recently, and the woman and I ended up chatting so much that we found each other on Facebook while walking out of the store! This type of complaining experience is positive: We vented, connected and made a friend.

The trouble begins when complaining becomes part of your personality and starts a cycle of negativity. I have one friend who opens every conversation with a gripe. Even, “How are you?” elicits a list of complaints about everything from her kids and her husband to not having enough coupons for Bed Bath & Beyond. Being around her becomes tiring, and even she admits that so much complaining leaves her drained.

So, when is complaining helpful and when it is hurtful? To find the answer, I have created two categories: positive complaining and negative complaining.

Here are some examples of how complaining can be used in a positive way:

  • Complaining can act as an emotional release.

Complaints at the office.There are times when holding in our feelings can create stress and anxiety. If you are struggling at work with a difficult colleague or client, venting or complaining to a trusted co-worker can help you manage, and sometimes even problem-solve, the situation. If you are worn out because your kids are waking you up early or won’t get ready for school, complaining to them will probably not help the situation, but often sharing with a friend who can relate and sympathize will at least make you feel better.
  • Complaining can help you rally community, social or emotional support.

Speaking out about problems at home, at your job or, on a wider scale, at your local school or in your city can bring support from and connect you with like-minded people. You may even find that you can band together to effect change. Websites such as change.org have become large platforms for people with similar “complaints” to work together to take action and create social change.

  • Complaining can build rapport and make connections.

As I mentioned in the grocery store example above, complaining can be a way to bond with others. In my work with businesses and organizations, one technique we use often is a focus group. Employees sit in a room with me, without upper management, and are given an opportunity to vent about issues and brainstorm suggestions to improve the workplace environment. These meetings are not only effective for the company, but I have found that the employees also feel a sense of unity with one another afterward.

  • Complaining can lead to problem-solving.

When we take time to focus on what we are upset about, it inspires us to improve the situation. I often tell couples to make a list of their gripes about each other so they can begin to problem-solve in order to improve their relationship.

Here are examples of negative complaining:

  • Getting caught in the cycle of complaint.

When we complain, we often hope for two things: that someone will listen and that someone will fix the situation. When you get caught up in the cycle of complaining and miss out on the action step of actually trying to solve your problem, you may feel frustrated or even helpless. Unless you are just venting and you know it, when you launch into a litany of complaints, think to yourself, do I have a solution in mind or am I just ruminating and focusing on the negative? If there is something you are unhappy about, how might you change it?

  • Complaining so much that it impacts your mood.

Negative thoughts can cause negative feelings. If you spend too much time in a dark state of mind, constantly focusing on what is wrong in your life, it can impact your overall feelings of well-being. If you find yourself in a complaining cycle or are faced with situations that make you want to lament often, make an effort to infuse more positive thoughts into your life.

  • Complaining about issues we cannot control.

While complaining sometimes helps with problem-solving, this is not true when we have no control over the troublesome situation. This kind of complaining can put us into a loop of negativity in which we feel stuck and helpless.

I once had a client who regularly focused on the fact that she had poor vision and needed to wear glasses or contacts. She focused on it so often that she would get upset every morning when she would get ready to go out. Her husband began leaving the house before she woke up to avoid her complaining. Mornings were so bad, she confessed, that she did not want to be around herself either! If you find yourself in this type of dilemma, work on ways to accept things you cannot change and put your energy into things that you can change.

Read more by Stacy Kaiser: How to Give Advice and 10 Ways to Turn Around an Argument So Both Sides Win

Stacy Kaiser is a licensed psychotherapist, author, relationship expert and media personality. She is also the author of the best-selling book How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know and an editor at large for Live Happy. Stacy is a frequent guest on television programs such as Today and Good Morning America.

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