Life isn’t perfect. Not even close.
There are ups and downs. And some days, things just plain suck.
Sure. There’s a “silver lining” in everything. You can “look at the bright side” and try to “see the positive.” Choose positivity and happiness they all say to you!
And then what happens? You try to only think of all the good and suppress the not-so-good. But those not-so-good thoughts and feelings are still there. You then criticize yourself, “What are you complaining about? Other people have it worse. You have nothing to complain about.”
Then you get even more angry with yourself for getting angry at the bad feelings. After all, you don’t have a right to feel any of these bad emotions. It’s an endless back-and-forth struggle that often spirals out of hand. And you aren’t left feeling any better than when you started.
Expressing negative feelings is not only normal, but can be healthy if we make space for it.
The four benefits of complaining
1. Complaining helps us to process emotions like stress and frustration.
We often try to push away any “bad feelings”. We will resist disclosing our emotions, believing that it’ll leak negativity into our lives and the lives of those we complain to. Unfortunately, this can have the opposite effect of what we’re hoping for because it stops us from naming our situation as it is. Oftentimes, what we really need is to acknowledge and validate our emotions. This does not mean to ruminate or sit in self-pity. Rather, it simply means to embrace how we feel. Just saying it out loud can be healing. It gives us an emotional release from what we’re experiencing. The result is a cathartic effect.
2. Complaining cultivates a sense of connectedness.
We’ve all felt it before. We complain to someone. They validate our emotions and share their understanding of what we’re going through. We feel better. They feel like they understand us. By allowing others to see and respond to our wholly authentic self and sharing our inner experience, we are creating deeper connections. The sense of camaraderie is further expanded when others share a similar experience.
3. Complaining can be used to improve our situation.
Complaining can and should come with feedback. Feedback from others can help us get perspective on our situation. Was a partner who didn’t take out the trash truly being selfish? Oftentimes, we are standing too close to the painting to see the full picture for what it is. Reflecting with others can facilitate a proactive analysis of our situation. We are better able to notice our thought patterns and acknowledge our behavior. This can lead to ways of making a situation or process even better.
4. Complaining sheds light on what our values are.
When we complain it is often because the situation contrasts how we believe things should be. For example, “My boss never gives the full picture” might indicate that you value trust or transparency. “I always clean the house and my partner never notices” might indicate that you value gratitude or recognition. “Things are constantly changing and I don’t like it” might indicate that you value certainty or structure. Being aware of and noticing patterns of our own complaints and others’ complaints can shed light on what each person values. This knowledge can cultivate deeper understanding and empathy with each other.
While there are many benefits to complaining, it can also be easy for complaining to quickly turn into unproductive and destructive gossip and personal attacks. The goal is to master the Art of Healthy Complaining. This will lead to more strategic and healthier outcomes both emotionally and relationally with those around you.
Mastering the Art of Healthy Complaining
1. Identify the purpose of your complaining.
Are you venting? Are you hoping to solve a problem? Understand your why for complaining.
2. Find the right people to complain to.
There are some people who will automatically move towards advice-giving while others will be your cheerleader and just listen. If your purpose is venting, who is the right person that will give you the space to vent? If you want to improve your situation, who is ideal for helping you to figure out the ideal solution? Be sure to choose the right person for the right outcome.
3. Let the person know what you need.
Communication is critical. Set expectations and let the person know what it is you need and want in the moment. If you need to vent, then honestly say, “I had a sucky day and I need to just vent. Will you just listen and give me space for it?” If you need advice, then you can say, “I am feeling frustrated. I need help reflecting to figure out how to make the situation better. Will you help me?”
4. Set a time limit for complaining.
The situation, no doubt, sucks. At the same time, it can become unhealthy and make the situation worse if you get caught in the spiral of complaining. Consider the scope of your situation. If it’s a small problem, give yourself five minutes to complain. If it’s a bigger issue then give yourself 15-20 minutes. Use a timer and be sure to stop when it goes off.
5. Ideate on how to make the situation better.
Our complaints usually stem from a situation we aren’t happy about. So even if your goal isn’t to solve a problem, there’s always room to reflect on how to make the situation better.
In healthy complaining, there is never any blaming, denial or resentment.
It’s about introducing and making space for, “This sucks and I’m unhappy with what’s going on.” Then finding a way to make things better.
This can be likened to how vaccines work. The very bacteria or virus that makes you sick is introduced into your body. Your body makes space for it by creating antibodies so that the next time you encounter the germ, it can quickly respond to it.
How might you make space for and introduce complaining into your body? How might you learn to adapt and respond quickly the next time a complaint might arise?