Why Do We Love to Complain?

We all do it. Whether it’s the MTA, our significant other, or the weather, we love to complain about it. Some of us complain more than others; it almost seems as if complaining is at the center of our identity. You know who I’m talking about. That coworker, who, no matter how lush or lucrative the job, can’t stop complaining about it. Or that friend or family member for whom nothing will do… You?

Complaining is essentially a form of delusion that in the short term helps us feel good about ourselves in two ways. First, by putting down everything and almost everyone around us, we may gain a sense of superiority. And second, since we tend to believe more strongly in our fantasies than reality, when reality strikes in the form of a delayed train or an imperfect partner, we complain in an attempt to protect our fantasies (and our unwillingness to take responsibility for our choices) and feel better.

However, the negative effects of complaining far outweigh the immediate gain of an inflated sense of self. As research shows, relentless complaining wreaks havoc on our health and wellbeing by physiologically changing our brain and amping up the stress hormone, cortisol, which is related to high blood pressure and stress.

With complaining, we get the short-term reward of feeling superior to those around us, cocooned in our bubble of denial, and we get to rely on our evolutionary bias to seek out and destroy what we perceive as threat. (This can also manifest as hiding from or fearing threat.) In other words, it’s easy to complain! On the contrary, it takes effort and practice to notice and appreciate the good stuff in life, as Dr. Rick Hanson explains in his excellent read, Hardwiring Happiness and to really accept reality and take full responsibility for our lives.

If you want to upgrade your operating system and elevate yourself and those around you, give up complaining. Not only will you begin to rewire your brain to override your evolutionary negativity bias, you will feel better after you give up complaining, and so will everyone around you. There may be some feelings to experience that you don’t want to, such as grief or shame, that complaining protects us from, but learning to accept and manage those feelings is gratifying and empowering.

Now, I’ll admit, I’m ultra-sensitive to complaining because in my house it just wasn’t allowed. Did your parents ever yell or scowl at you, “quit your complaining!”? Mine did. And I find that more often than not, I hear myself repeating those words to my kids. So, I get that this is my own pet peeve. I also know that since I’ve given up complaining – or refrain as often as I remember to – life is easier, more pleasurable and more enjoyable. But don’t take my word for it, or even believe the science; the only way to find out is to try it for yourself.

To make it easy for you, I found Will Bowen’s 21-day, complaint-free challenge. In this challenge, place an elastic band around one wrist. When you catch yourself complaining, switch the band to the other wrist and start again at day 1. Do this until you can get through 21 days without a complaint.

A trick to reducing complaining within relationships that I share with my clients, is this: turn your complaints into requests. This requires a few steps.

1. Notice that you’re feeling judgmental and are about to launch a complaint.

2. Pause for a few seconds to refrain from complaining.

3. Turn the complaint into a request.

For example, “You never pick up after yourself!” becomes, “Please pick up your socks and put them in the laundry basket.” Or, “What a jerk! She didn’t even offer to give me a ride home” turns into, “Next time your sister drives to work, please let her know I’d love a ride home.”

Of course, this strategy won’t work with all those things out of your control, like the traffic jam or the slow elevator. But in these cases, a similar approach can help. By observing the offensive situation, remind yourself that your impulse to complain is likely rooted in your denial of reality. You can then tag on a solution to your problem, such as, “Traffic sucks at 8am on Tuesdays; I’m always late for work! Next week, I’ll remember to leave at 7:30 to avoid the frustration.” In this way, you remind yourself that you left late because you were immersed in your fantasy that maybe this Tuesday, things would be different. And if fact, you’re running late not because there’s traffic, but because you left the house too late, hoping and wishing that today traffic would somehow, miraculously, be light.

If the complaint comes out before you can stop it, and you remember to tag on a solution as the example above, it cancels out the complaint so you can continue with your challenge without having to return to day 1. And if you realize that the impulse to complain is actually a way to stave off taking responsibility for your own actions and predicament, you will have gained insight into your need to complain and perhaps can then let go of the need for self-delusion and denial. Once you’ve achieved that, there’s no need to complain.