Considering what we’ve been through this year, we have plenty to complain about: A total disruption in our way of life, a bleak economy, and deep racial injustices. All of it can contribute to a sense of feeling mournful, and not a little bit angry.
And while there’s no denying the benefits of cultivating a positive outlook, a little venting isn’t a bad thing. Blowing off steam via a few choice words may not just be a release valve for inner tension; it may just be one of the few things we can do. When someone empathizes with us, it can be validating. However, it can also be a red flag, a warning sign that we may need to proactively change something up, or do it differently.
Here are two good reasons to complain…and two pitfalls to watch out for.
When to Complain: To Relieve Discomfort
Complaining releases frustration and discomfort and allows you to recoup the energy you need to move on with your day (or night). Whether you vent out loud or to yourself, you’ll release some of that pent-up negative energy you’d otherwise be holding on to. Letting it go can lead to a better mood, not to mention more restful sleep.
When to Abstain: If you find yourself with the same complaint day after day, take a hard look at the source of your frustration. Feeling perpetually dissatisfied or uncomfortable likely means that something’s amiss, and should be a wake-up call to figure out a solution, or what to change.
Chronic complaining (rather than doing) can keep you mired in a place of resigned acceptance, or simmering anger. Instead of ruminating on negative feelings, which can lead to depression, channel your dissatisfaction into strategies to solve your problem.
It’s one thing to be irritated over small things (such as a longer line to get into the store than to get out of it), but if you blow up every time you run up against an inconvenience, consider brushing up on some stress management techniques to help you emotionally disengage from situations you can’t control.
When to Complain: To Gain a Fresh Perspective
There is an image that has a number drawn on the floor with two people standing on either side of the number. One person sees a 6, and the other sees a 9. They are both right, yet they are wrong in the eyes of the other person because of their perspective. When we view a problem from just one vantage point—our own—it can become magnified or distorted. Talking to a trusted friend may open a door to an alternative perspective, which can dissolve our anger and frustration, and open up new solutions and ways of coping.
When to Abstain: Yes, we all complain sometimes. In fact, our brain will tend to magnify the bad and minimize the good, allowing negative thoughts to take over and define a situation. But we tend to find chronic complainers a downer and a drain on our energy. Be careful that your complaints don’t become so excessive that they overwhelm your listeners and push friends and family away. In addition, focusing on the negative will keep you riled up and cloud over many of the joys of life. Instead, work to find the good. Notice when you’re focusing more on the negative than the positive, particularly at the end of the day. For each negative thing that happened, come up with one positive thing that happened to balance it out, and shift your perspective. Nothing is too small to qualify.
Complaining is catchall terms we use to describe what we do when we voice our feelings of dissatisfaction. Being cognizant about when and how we express ourselves, and for what purpose, can help us distinguish between strategic complaining and chronic whining—helping us balance our emotional health and build stronger relationships with the people around us.