Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Complaining, like all thought patterns, can easily become a habit — the more you complain, the more you summon your energies to attract something to complain about. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive.
If you are unhappy about something, you have two options — you can complain about it and hope it changes, or you can make the change if it’s in your control.
Many people complain about something — an event, an experience, a person — negatively without any indication of the next steps or plans to fix the problem because most things are outside our control.
Complaining about them doesn’t change anything — the best you can do is to manage your reaction to avoid stress or burnout. People who complain trap themselves in a reality that constantly gives them more to complain about.
“As a society, we complain too much, but more importantly we don’t complain effectively,” says Guy Winch, Ph.D., and author of The Squeaky Wheel. “We’ve lost a sense of what complaining is for; instead, we use it as an exercise for venting and that has consequences.”
To some degree, most people already have neural pathways for complaining in place, so complaining a lot only reinforces those paths. To your brain, it makes a lot more sense to construct a permanent bridge for the habit.
So, your neurons grow closer together, and the connections between them become more permanent. Scientists like to describe this process as, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Your neurons learn to predict the reoccurrence of negative stimuli.
Frequent complaining (or negativity) is bad for your mood and the mood of the people around you. According to research, complainers are less satisfied during their workday and their bad moods even spill over to the next morning. Apparently, complaining is also bad for your brain and your health. Venting also floods the bloodstream with cortisol, the stress hormone.
“We tell ourselves that we need to get it off our chest, but each time we do, we get upset all over again,” he adds. “We end up 10 to 12 times more aggravated.” When your brain is firing off these synapses of anger, you’re weakening your immune system, raising your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Complaining damages other areas of your brain as well. Research from Stanford University has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus — an area of the brain that’s critical to problem-solving and intelligent thought.
Hanging out with negative people is also as bad as hanging out with your own negative thoughts. “When we see someone experiencing an emotion (be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain ‘tries out’ that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you’re observing,” explains Steven Parton, an author, and student of human nature.
Surround yourself with positive people, it will encourage you to exhibit a more positive attitude both when you are around them and when you are on your own.
How to overcome emotionally distressful situations
Complaining can be difficult to escape because it’s self-perpetuating. Your negative experiences feed your negative expectations, which then attract new negative experiences. But it’s not permanent — with time, you can rewire your brain to live healthily and meaningfully.
The first step is to recognize that you are trapped in negativity and that continuing to fight your own negativity while still identifying with it is a battle that can never be won. Complaining only makes a bad situation worse, especially if you are not complaining to the right person (who could possibly do something about your frustration).
Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher, advised focusing on what we can influence rather than worrying about what lies outside our control. “There is only one way to happiness,” he said, “and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
Our focus should be on our own behavior, not on the behavior of others. When you successfully make the distinction between what’s in your control and outside your control, you will see very quickly that it is only your own decisions, actions, words and thoughts that are worthy of your attention.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor from 161 to 180 and a Stoic philosopher speaks to this idea over and over again. “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment,” he wrote. Realize this, and you will find strength.
Learn to be grateful. As difficult as it may sound, an attitude of gratitude can significantly reduce your stress hormone. When you feel like complaining, shift your attention to something that you’re grateful for, especially if you are no position to change it. Think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love etc.”
“Any time you experience negative or pessimistic thoughts, use this as a cue to shift gears and to think about something positive. In time, a positive attitude will become a way of life,” recommends Dr. Travis Bradberry.
If you must, complain with purpose — have a specific goal in mind if your frustration can be addressed and solved. Complaining with intention helps calm emotions and also makes the other person better able to help you.
“If you are complaining to a company or a person, don’t do it until you figure out what you want,” says Guy. “If you don’t know what you want, the other person may not know how to resolve the situation either,” he adds.
Identifying a purpose also helps resolve grievances in relationships. Learning how to tell friends and family when you’re upset can improve your emotional hygiene. Instead of holding in complaints, improve your communication skills with people close to you.
According to James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas suppressing thoughts and feelings is also associated with long-term stress and associated health problems. In any stressful situation, acknowledge your feelings, and calmly talk about them with others.
Ultimately, “emotional disclosure is important,” but “the way in which you disclose” is what determines whether the interaction has a positive or negative impact, not just on the complainer but also the person who is listening, argues Dr. Margot Bastin, who studies communication between friends at the department of School Psychology and Development in Context at the Belgian university KU Leuven.
And whatever the outcome, be prepared to let it go instead of dwelling on it. A positive outcome is more up to you than you may think.
This article first appeared on Medium.