How to be a better complainer


June 22, 2015
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We all complain. It’s usually no big deal — an exasperated sigh here, a snarky quip there, a resigned grumble before bed. Our days are littered with small injustices, and sometimes we just need a moment to acknowledge them.

But sometimes our complaints pick up too much steam. We start droning on about the stuff that gets under our skin — disrespectful bosses, nagging partners, disapproving parents, delayed trains, crummy weather. We whine. We rant. Complaining becomes a constant, in our day-to-day and in how others see us.

Now we’re stuck in the vent. Grousing and getting nowhere. We’re so caught up in what’s wrong, it’s impossible to hear or accept suggestions, much less act on them.

But before we go there, it helps to know that complaining isn’t always a bad thing, according to Dr. Robin Kowalski, professor of psychology at Clemson University in South Carolina. It can actually offer health and social benefits. “It’s cathartic sometimes to complain,” she says. There’s an emotional relief that comes from letting out the grievances we’ve held inside and having them acknowledged. The release is good for us.

“But if we [complain] all the time,” warns Dr. Kowalski, “and we do it to the same person over and over again, then there’s very much diminishing returns on that.” That’s because if we’re venting all the time, we’re never holding anything back. There’s no actual sense of release. What’s more, she adds, it tends to have a domino effect: “The more you think about dissatisfaction, the more you feel dissatisfied. And the more other people feel dissatisfied.”

It’s easy to miss when our complaining crosses the line. And just as easy to miss that while our venting isn’t solving anything, it is chipping away at our relationships. The good news is, a little conscious effort can get us out of the vent. Here are a few steps to recognize and break the complaining loop.

Step 1. Know what you’re thinking
Do any of these sentiments sound familiar?
I feel like I’m worse off than other people I talk to.
Things/people often don’t meet my expectations.
I have a hard time admitting when I’m wrong.
People don’t respond to my problems in the way that I’d like.
I just wish things were different.

Thinking along these lines means we’re defaulting to dissatisfaction — fixating on how we feel about letdowns instead of working to solve them. If you related to two or more of these complaint-prone mindsets, it might be a good idea to check the frequency of your complaints.

Step 2. Tune into your frequency
How often do you think you complain? “We live in such a culture of dissatisfaction and complaining that we just habituate to it,” says Dr. Kowalski. “Awareness and mindfulness are really the key to helping change that behavior.”

Here’s how to tune into your complaining frequency:
• Before you begin, remember that complaining may cover a broader range than you think. Dr. Kowalski defines complaining as “an expression of dissatisfaction, whether we really feel dissatisfied or not.” For instance, maybe you sigh loudly and often, or you critique the food at every meal.
• Start by writing down how many complaints per day and per week you think is too many. Then jot down how often you think you complain on a daily and weekly basis. Put the numbers away for now.
• For one week, keep a running tally of your complaints on a piece of paper or in a note-taking app like Google Keep or Evernote. Be as observant and objective as you can. Make a tick mark for each complaint. Whether it’s a minor gripe or an hour-long rant, it counts. (If you want to take it further, note the details, such as the nature of the complaint, who you complained to, and why.)
• At the end of the week, compare your tally to the numbers you jotted down before the exercise. Did you underestimate your complaining? Do you still feel the same about how many is too many?

Once we have an awareness of our complaining frequency, we can make better choices about how we communicate.

Step 3. Practice complaining better
“If we’re going to be good complainers, if we’re going to be effective complainers, then we need to complain in moderation and do it strategically,” says Dr. Kowalski. To shape that strategy of mindful complaining, stick to these guidelines:

DO have a purpose.
“Instrumental complaining, or complaining that’s really intended to bring about specific change is oftentimes found to be less annoying,” says Dr. Kowalski. Complaining about a defective product to the retailer in hopes of a replacement, for instance. Having intention and seeking solutions make a complaint more credible.

DON’T give in to knee-jerk reactions.
Sometimes we complain as an instant reaction. But if you’re feeling emotional about it, your complaint is likely to come off as an exaggeration or overreaction. It’s more productive to find a calmer moment to address the issue.

DO consider the context.
Think twice about what you’re complaining about and who you’re complaining to. Is your complaint about a situation that can be changed? Is the person you’re complaining to in a position to help? Are you complaining just to get things off your chest? Are you doing it to the same people all the time? How do you think it sounds to them?

DON’T make it a monologue.
“Sometimes people are so into what they’re relating to another person that they’re oblivious to the effect that they’re having on them,” notes Dr. Kowalski. Even if you have a legitimate complaint, it can be draining for the listener. If someone is breaking eye contact and trying to change the subject, take the hint and rein it in. And make sure you’re not being a “help-rejecting complainer” who never accepts the suggestions people offer. If someone offers feedback, be appreciative of the response.

DO complain creatively.
While there’s no sense griping about things we can’t change, sometimes we really need to let off steam. Writing in a journal, keeping a blog, finding or forming a support group, and pursuing other forms of stress reduction (exercise, meditation) can help us vent that negative energy without imposing it on the unsuspecting.

DON’T forget to walk the walk.
Complaining can be an effective communication tool. It can also be a signal that we have an opportunity to make things better. Once you’ve said your piece, it’s time to do something about it.



  Dr. Robin Kowalski is a professor of psychology at Clemson University. She obtained her Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research interests focus primarily on aversive interpersonal behaviors, most notably complaining, teasing, and bullying, with a particular focus on cyber bullying. She is the author or co-author of several books including Complaining, Teasing, and Other Annoying Behaviors, Social Anxiety, Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors, Behaving Badly, The Social Psychology of Emotional and Behavioral Problems, and Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age. Her research on complaining brought her international attention, including an appearance on NBC’s “Today Show.”

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