Is Complaining good for us?
I’ve turned into a moaner.
I know this because I saw the look which passed between my daughters when I said, ‘They’re not happy unless they’re complaining,’ to my mother, about people we both know.
I caught the kids’ eye-rolling and my regular complaints about how little I’ve slept, my aches and pains, the work that needs doing on the house, reverberated around my head. A shiver ran through me.
I don’t want to be a complainer. I want to be fun and positive and life-embracing.
I started to think about why I have the compulsion to complain, and what I can do to halt it.
First, I read an article called Complaining in Psychology Today written by Psychologist Richard B Joelson. The subtitle resonated with me: A communication made in the hope that someone will recognise our suffering.
Complaining: A communication made in the hope that someone will recognise our sufferingRichard B Joelson – Psychology Today
That’s it, I thought. That’s why I moan (although I admit, suffering would be too strong a term for my bellyaching about an unemptied dishwasher).
But communication of suffering doesn’t fully explain why some of us complain more than others. If it did, then those who suffer most would complain most. I know from the experience of living with three other people, that’s not the case. The last few months have revealed we are not a neuro-typical bunch, so I can only base my evidence on my quirky family, and two of us are whingers, and two are not.
My youngest daughter and I have sensory issues which mean that something like the nylon stitching used to sew in clothes labels can be so irritating we can’t think about anything else. When these things bother us, we tell people. Repeatedly. Breeding one of my own kind has shown me how annoying that is to listen to.
My husband and elder daughter would need to half-sever a limb for them to mention it. Unless a major artery is spurting blood, they’ll quietly suffer discomfort. It’s not that they don’t feel pain (my husband’s gallstones had him howling like a wounded moose), it’s just they don’t generally feel the need to share their experience of it.
And I think sharing is a big part of why we complain. My younger daughter and I are pack animals. We crave social interaction and connections. The other two are introverts; the kind of people who only say things they consider worth saying, rather than spilling the entire content of their heads (weirdos).
When I complain, I am looking for understanding and validation. I want attention, reassurance, and sympathy. But after a while, that’s all a bit needy and annoying, isn’t it?
My research (can I call scrolling t’internet that?) also suggested that getting something off my chest is not as cathartic as I’d presumed. Venting: which I thought was sharing emotional content, albeit dissatisfied content, makes both the complainer and the listener feel worse. Who knew? (Those of you who’ve experienced my gripes, I suppose. Soz)
There is also the risk that the patterns of negativity become habitual. The brain does like a pattern, doesn’t it? It’s easy to focus on setbacks over progress. We all know a few people who droop like a thirsty tulip whenever they are given the opportunity to talk about themselves and their life experience.
I don’t want to be a drooping tulip. I want to have a firm stem and bright, vibrant petals.
Thankfully, all is not lost for those of us who like a good grumble. As long as it leads to a discussion which attempts to understand the origins of the problem, and tries to find a solution, complaining can be a good thing.
Expressing negative feelings is normal and healthy (phew!), but only if it is remedy-focussed.
I’m getting more reflective each year and now I often find myself asking does this serve me? in response to negative thoughts and feelings. I recently wrote about my habit of judging people. I realised it didn’t serve me. I’m pleased with the way my mind is refreshing its pathways on that front.
Complaining doesn’t serve me. I’ll aim only to complain if I’m focussed on the impact of the problem and plan to make a positive change.
I’ll start now: My neck is sore because I’ve been sitting at this computer … so I’ll do a few stretches to try to make it more comfortable. And I might just do those stretches in front of the television in the room where the kids are watching a film.
And when they complain, I’ll tell them all about being more solution-focussed. That will serve them right for rolling their eyes at me in the first place.