When complaining turns from cathartic to cancerous
By Hannah Dove
Social Media blurb: What happens when complaining goes too far? Is it really that bad for you? And how do you become a more effective complainer? The Wake takes a look at complaint culture and how to prevent complaint vampirism.
A sour day weighs down like a heavy fog, and it’s not until you slip inside your apartment that you let loose to your roommate. You rail against the weather, your classes, the fact that the Campus Connector is never on time, or that the Carlson kids consistently seem to outdo you.
Your roommate’s eyes light up, and they chime in on this kvetching chorus, letting you know that they too loathe vague essay rubrics and needing to go to St. Paul for class. There’s a kinship being built here, a mutual feeling of “us-against-the-world.” You can trust this person to agree with you, thus you feel the need to air out your dirty laundry like you’re in a laundromat.
You aren’t wrong in feeling this; studies from the University of Oklahoma have proven that mutual negative complaining can actually strengthen connections between people. There’s a reason Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, had her famous motto “If you can’t say something nice about someone, sit right here by me” embroidered on her pillows.
But too much complaining holds some unhealthy consequences, not only in your life but in the lives of the people on the receiving end of your complaints.
When complaining becomes your only mode of communication, it inflicts a negative impact on your mental health. Consistent complaining rewires your brain to expect the worst, breaking your confidence and making your outlook on life drab and dreary. It becomes increasingly difficult to escape those bad moods that hang over you. As author and computer scientist Steven Parton quipped, “Synapses that fire together wire together,” which means if you complain often, your brain solidifies your experiences with those negative emotions, creating a cycle of always looking unfavorably whenever those memories come to mind.
Not only does constant complaining come back to bite you in the neck like a vampire, but it can drain those around you as well. Unloading your thoughts onto someone else can feel liberating, but then you pass your world onto their shoulders. This is not to say that you shouldn’t share your struggles with loved ones, but if this sharing is not mutual, it could start to feel like your friend is a therapist rather than someone with problems and grievances of their own. Isolation is never healthy for a person’s psyche either, and misery loves company more than anything. So what are you supposed to do when you feel a complaining session coming on?
For one, gratitude always fixes an attitude, and there is brain science to back this up: Gratitude is related to 23 percent lower levels of stress hormones (cortisol) in reports from UC Davis. But, baby steps first— is there a way to complain better?
According to Psychology Today, there are actually various ways to complain, and the way that you choose to complain can either help you come up with solutions or self-sabotage.
First off is the “active affective complaint:” this is a specific complaint about dissatisfaction and is often employed by those who are confident and assertive; they know what they want and they ask for it. Next up is the most well-known: “venting.” Venting could be yelling about an ex to your friends at 3 a.m. or crying over work stress, and it can be both negative and positive. It can end up in a brainstorming session if it’s directed and harnessed, but if not, it turns into a mess of emotion with no secure action in sight. Finally, there’s the worst of them all: the “ineffective complaint.” The ineffective complaint is often about an uncontrollable issue, like the weather, and by complaining about it the complainer often feels like they’ve gained some sort of control. This sense of control is false and fleeting and often drops the complainer back where they started. Instead of returning to the ineffective complaint for comfort, try active effective complaining about something specific you can change. This transforms “the weather is terrible” to “my original plans were to go outside so let’s do something else.”
An effective complaint eliminates the unhealthiness of treating friends like therapists, distinguishing the ineffective whining of complaint sessions from the meaningful connection of sharing burdens and seeking solutions.