My texts hammered: My husband asked about my day. My replies were a quick, unpleasant staccato. “Ugh, I just got home with the kids. Dirty dishes everywhere,” I rapid-fire typed. “The cat spilled his water. Have to pack lunches and start homework. Haven’t found time to work out yet. Had a cookie for dinner.”
After complaining excessively about my pressure-cooker life — executive job, two young kids, flurry of extracurricular activities, gym runs, taking care of the house — my husband said, “Stop complaining.” At my eye roll, he said, “I’m serious. Try it for a few days. Don’t vocalize every stressor. See what happens.”
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Ever the skeptic, I did try his perspective for a few days. What I discovered was my view of my life had taken on a doom-and-gloom cast. When someone asked me how I was doing, my first response was negative: “Oh, tired. I didn’t sleep much last night” or “Slammed at work. On deadline with my magazine!” That often set the tone for a very different conversation, and a person who became turned off by my negativity. My experiment turned into evaluating how I wanted to talk about my day before texting or opening my mouth.
The first day, when my husband texted, asking how things were going, I paused, then typed, “Good! The kids ate dinner and now they’re working on homework together.” The house was still messy, the kids still squabbled here and there, but when I sent that response, I felt more positive, in control and secure in the knowledge that this was normal life: Lots of other working moms were dealing with the same situation and we’d all get to bedtime just fine.
Amazingly, after cutting my petty venting sessions, problems I had perceived to be big seemed much smaller — flitted away easier and didn’t take as much of an emotional toll. Plus, I came up with a solid plan to get in shape: I purchased a meal plan from my gym, scheduled weekly sessions with a trainer, and mapped out my weekly workout schedule.
So is complaining healthy or unhealthy? It depends on the situation, experts say. For example, Robert Biswas-Diener, author of The Courage Quotient, writes about the “instrumental complaint,” when you complain with the goal of solving a problem. An example: When you complain that you’re overweight, but use that as motivation to form a plan to create healthier eating or fitness habits. Diener notes that these types of constructive complaints make up only about a quarter of all the venting we do.
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“What’s the goal of your complaining? To be heard and validated? Or is it anger-driven, to blame others?” says Allison Granite, MSW, LCSW, a therapist in private practice based in Voorhees, NJ, whose approach with patients is strength-based solutions-focused therapy and empowering women. “Complaining can be great to gain another perspective to push you toward your goal. To make it useful, let someone know what you need from someone as a listener. Just listen and validate and then it can be that’s it. It can be great when it’s solutions-focused, and moves someone and creates energy to make a change.”
So when is complaining unhealthy? “More than brief complaining, either to yourself or to others, may serve to create more distress,” says Dr. Harry Green, a clinical psychologist and director of Assurance Behavioral HealthCare, a South Jersey-based behavioral health practice. “Focusing on negative experiences or thoughts makes us feel bad. This can pull us into a cycle where the distress caused by complaining impairs our ability to act and thus ensures more distress — and then more complaining. I’m reminded of the Buddhist idea that life is suffering, or as it’s alternatively been translated, life is ‘unsatisfactoriness.’ People frequently complaining about unsatisfactory things are likely missing life’s rewards.”
Diener also says happy or more mindful people complain less and more strategically, meaning they have a specific goal in mind when they do so. What I had started to do was more mindful “complaining” — getting my venting cake and eating it, too. Here are three steps you can take.
How do I learn to stop complaining?
1. Avoid lowering your mood by complaining less frequently. “Feelings take their orders from thoughts,” Green says. “Stay mired in complaints in your thoughts and you’re likely to feel resentful and unhappy.”
2. Vent when you believe it’ll inspire actual, positive change. “For someone to change their mindset from complaining from an insurmountable problem to something that can be achieved,” Granite says. “Someone’s troubles can become a vehicle for transformation. They’re opportunities if you choose.”
3. When you want to complain, consider whether expressing gratitude will be more beneficial for you — and don’t spend as much time with other chronic complainers. “There will always be things to complain about and things for which to be grateful,” Green says. “Spending time with people who express gratitude makes it easier to grateful. The reverse is also true.”
This essay was written by Nicole Rollender, a South New Jersey-based poet, editor and writer. She’s editor-in-chief of B-to-B publication Wearables magazine, which has won more than 40 journalism awards, including several Jesse H. Neals and ASBPE’s Magazine of the Year Award. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Dr. Oz The Good Life, Woman’s Day and Cosmopolitan. She’s the author of the poetry collection Louder Than Everything You Love. Recently, she was named a Rising Star in FOLIO’s Top Women in Media awards and is a 2017 recipient of a New Jersey Council on the Arts poetry fellowship. Visit her online at nicolerollender.com or on Facebook or Twitter.