While a venting session may feel good, a regular habit of complaining may be bad for you. Plus, it’s a drag for others to have to listen to it.
"Our brain has a tendency to focus on the negative," says Emma Seppälä, PhD, author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, and science director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.
As a result, we tend to focus on what is wrong, rather than noticing all the things that are right, Seppälä observes. "In fact, research shows that three times more positive things than negative things happen to us every day, yet it takes just one upsetting email to ruin everything," she says.
She says because people in the U.S. typically avoid negative emotions, being a regular complainer could be off-putting to coworkers or others. That doesn’t mean you have to be a "grin and bear it" type, either, says "complaint expert" and trainer Will Bowen, author of A Complaint-Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted.
There are healthy ways to address issues and take action without slipping into regular bouts of negativity, Bowen says. Here is a six-step plan.
Sometimes, complaining becomes such a habit that we don’t realize we’re doing it, Bowen says. So, you’ve got to realize when you’re doing it. You might find clues in others’ reactions—listening to a complainer can be energy-draining, so they may show displeasure or annoyance on their faces, or in interactions.
Bowen has his clients use a simple rubber bracelet that they move from one wrist to the other when they catch themselves complaining. Attaching a physical action to the process helps them realize how often they’re engaging in the behavior they want to change, he says.
Once you notice when and how often you’re complaining, create some space so you can analyze the triggers and what you’re feeling, says psychologist Susan David, PhD, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life and cofounder of the Institute of Coaching, McLean/Harvard Medical School. Before you launch into a complaint, she suggests describing to yourself what you’re thinking or feeling.
As you notice what you’re feeling, hone in on the emotion so you can tell what’s really upsetting you, David says. For example, if you’re complaining about how annoying your manager is, being specific might help you realize that they are disorganized, which is having an impact on your ability to do your best work. While it’s tough to create a plan of action to deal with someone who’s "annoying," you can come up with strategies to deal with someone who’s disorganized.
Once you have identified the motivation behind your complaints, address them. Changing a complaining habit isn’t simply positive thinking or being a pushover. Says Bowen:
I find that most complainers are doormats. In other words, they get to work and they complain about their family, and then they come home from work and they complain about work to their family. They never speak to the person who can actually improve. That's what they need to do.
Determine the outcome you wish or how to improve the situation, then work with the people who can do something about it. Of course, this is not always a perfect solution, but it will usually improve the situation more than just venting or stewing about it.
Whenever you try to break a habit, it’s a good idea to create a supportive environment, Bowen says. Establishing physical spaces—"complaint-free zones"—where negativity isn’t allowed can be useful, he suggests.
Seppälä advises being mindful of how often you use the word "but" in your language, which is often a component of complaints or negative conversation. Use your language carefully to be specific about what you mean, while looking for solutions to what’s bothering you.
Photographer and model Michael Freeby actively avoids complaining. He says he goes so far as to keep two journals—one for positive experiences and thoughts, and one for negative experiences and thoughts. As he goes throughout his day, he says the journals provide a reminder about how he wants his interactions or experiences to be recorded, and tends to guide him to more positive language.
Meditation can have an impact on many areas of life, and complaining is no exception, Seppälä says. "Research suggests that continued practice of meditation can help you regulate your emotions," she says. "As a consequence, you become more aware of what you say, and how people respond."
If you’ve slipped into a habit of complaining, it may actually be a good sign, David says. It means that you still care about the situation and want to improve it. Channel those feelings to make things better instead of just ruminating about what's wrong, she says.