The Cure for Complaining

Dec 12, 2022

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We easily see the downside to things. We bond over shared misery. We even might try to get perspective or solutions by pointing out all the negatives in a situation. Complaining. That verbal form of negativity which, unfortunately, our brains are wired for.

Since we’re naturally wired this way, we may think, ‘I’m not always upbeat, so what?’ But it affects more than you might think, and studies show it can even affect you for days. But a more positive outlook can be learned. We can rewire our brains, work on the cure for complaining, with some effort. And doing so may be more important than it appears on the surface. 

“Complaining is also a classic sign, along with blaming others and venting, of [a] victim mentality or victim mind state… Where it’s the opposite of feeling self-empowered or feeling in control… it tends to vent away that energy that we have from those negative emotions, and we don’t often take as much action.”  – Dr. Sara Dill

What You’ll Learn

  • Science of complaining
  • Reasons we complain
  • Cementing negativity
  • 5 reasons complaining is a problem
  • 3 ways to stop complaining
  • 2 techniques for replacing negativity

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I'm Dr. Sarah Dill, and this is the Stressless Physician Podcast, episode number 44.

Welcome to the Stressless Physician Podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Sarah Dill, MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work, and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feel good to you, you are in the right place.

Hey everyone, welcome back to the podcast. Feels like I have been gone for a while. I actually recorded several episodes before Thanksgiving since I was doing some traveling, and so this is my first podcast episode that I am recording in December. So it is a beautiful sunny Monday. We've had a weekend full of rain, which if you are from California, you know, we love to talk about and we love to celebrate rain which is so funny.

Which I guess sort of ties into my topic today, which is complaining. And so it's so interesting because I have spent many years in New England. I've also lived some other places, Portland, Oregon. I spent a year in Brazil. Lots of places where rain is a lot more common and folks tend to complain about rain. And so again, it's interesting just to notice what one group of people, Californians in a long drought, say and think about rain, weather versus others. So nothing right or wrong there. Just interesting to notice that our experience of the world is really shaped by how we think of it, rather than just the events or the experiences we have, like rain.

So today I wanted to talk about complaining and how to stop complaining and why we should. So just to start off with, I think this is something that most of us generally don't like complaining or complainers, right? People who complain a lot are generally, that's generally not considered a very positive trait. It's not always fun to be around people who complain a lot. It sort of feels negative. It can be somewhat repetitive and general.

I think we don't like to be around complainers, and yet most of us are complainers, I think, at least in our own head. Even when we're complaining about someone else being a complainer, that's us complaining. I started off too by thinking about like whether there was really a difference or what that difference would be between complaining and having a lot of negative thoughts or negative opinions about things. Is there a difference? What do you think? Between complaining and negative thoughts or negative opinions? I finally decided that I think they're pretty much the same thing.

And then of course I went to Google and I looked up some definitions of complaining. I was trying to think about how I exactly, I would define a complaint. And one definition I really liked from the Cambridge dictionary says that complaining is the act of saying that something is wrong or not satisfactory. And I would actually say it could also be a thought. Sometimes we just complain in our head. So it's basically the idea, the thought, whether we say it or not, that something is wrong or not satisfactory.

Another definition, very similar, from Oxford languages is that complaining is the expression of dissatisfaction or annoyance about something. So I think we all would agree this is our experience of complaints and complaining. So in the end, I guess, I think that negative thinking, negative opinions, and complaining are pretty much the same thing. Saying or believing that something is wrong or not satisfactory, feeling dissatisfied or annoyed about something, right when we don't like something, but it's a pretty ubiquitous experience.

I think this is something that every single person does, and in fact, there are studies that show that on average, one study that I saw quoted often that on average we complain out loud to other people between 15 and 30 times a day. I actually think we probably think complaints in our head even more frequently. I saw a study that was arguing that we complain at least to ourselves, up to one time a minute, right? That's a lot of complaining.

So why do we do it? What are some of the reasons that complaining is such a normal part of the human experience? Well, the first and the biggest one, which I've talked about a lot on this podcast, is of course, that our brains are wired for negativity. Our primitive brain especially, is always focused on what's wrong, what we don't like, what's a problem, what's a potential threat. It's always scanning for problems, threats, danger, all of it. It's our default. This is normal. There's nothing wrong with you, but it doesn't create happy, satisfied lives.

We don't just naturally look around us, or I guess some people maybe do a little bit more, but we often don't just look around us and notice all the things that are great, right? We're looking for the threat. It has a evolutionary benefit to us in terms of survival, and again, our brain hasn't really caught up with the fact that most of us aren't in physical danger. All the time. So that's probably the main reason why complaining is so universal and so frequent.

Complaining is often a way we connect or feel connected with other people or groups of people. You can think about this in the workplace if we're complaining about entitled patients or perhaps about the difficulty in finding staff or whatever it is. The other person agrees with us. We feel connected. We get validation possibly, and you can notice that complaining might often feel good initially, but then we sort of tend to feel worse. It sort of feels ickier later, right? Like overeating a really rich dessert. The first bite might taste amazing, but the more you eat it, the less good it tastes and the less good you feel.

And there's also this idea, a lot of us think, and if you look in the literature, people write about complaining possibly being helpful or good in that it might be helpful to vent, to release some inner tension or frustration or anger, some sort of complaining or negative emotion rather than explode or react unwisely. It can be a quick way to decrease some internal stress, so possibly complaining or venting could be helpful that way in the short term.

And I do think that sometimes complaining can be helpful. Maybe not as helpful as just asking, but complaining can be a strategy to get another person's perspective, get some outside feedback, or as a way to start to focus on solutions for problems that you're encountering.

I did, however, find some interesting research that suggests that possibly complaining doesn't actually make us feel better even in the short term. So there was some research published in 2015 in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology that found that complaining actually makes you feel worse for days. In fact, they found that discussing events immediately, during or after they occur, forces the brain to relive or to rehearse the negative emotional response. And this creates a stronger association in your memory and exaggerates the influence of the emotional episode.

So in other words, complaining or rehashing a negative event actually cements the event, the incident in your mind. And in fact, these researchers found that people who complained were in a worse mood, felt less satisfaction and pride in the work they were doing, and were significantly more likely to feel less happy and experience poorer self-esteem the next day as well. I thought that was very interesting.

This leads me into talking about why complaining is a problem. And this is totally up to you. If you are someone who tends to be sort of a pessimist or tends to be very realistic, sometimes and you don't see it as a problem, totally your choice, of course.

I just wanted to share though that the reason I think complaining is a problem and the reason I am working on doing it less is that I think it's not very fun or pleasant to be around someone who complains a lot and it doesn't feel good inside to me when I'm complaining. Check in. How does it feel when you're complaining? It sometimes will give you this energy. It feels very energetic to me, but it's sort of a negative energy. It feels sort of gross a little bit.

So I think most of us would agree that it isn't pleasant to be around someone who complains a lot, and yet most of us complain all the time. Even if only unconsciously or quietly in our head. That's what the unmanaged mind does. It focuses on the negative, it ignores the positive. And then we're stuck listening to our own negative brain and engaging in this negative thought spiral. It feels sort of like whining. It can be annoying and frustrating and just perpetuates itself.

That's the other reason complaining is a problem, is that you just keep reinforcing, looking for everything that you don't like and get into more and more negative thought spins. So even if you're complaining about something that's true, is it helpful? Is it useful? Those are the questions you can ask yourself.

Complaining is also a classic sign along with blaming others and venting of being in what I would call sort of a victim mentality or a victim mind state, where it's the opposite of feeling self-empowered or feeling in control. And often complaining can go along with feelings of self-pity or powerlessness, and I think it just reinforces that it's that same sort of negative spiral downwards.

We don't often complain about things that are easy for us to fix or to change, like being thirsty. I'm not complaining about being thirsty right now because I'm sitting next to my kitchen and I have an abundance of beverages available to me. I'm drinking a Topo Chico, which I love right now. So you can notice what you complain about. Often we complain about things where we don't feel like we have that much power, or things do feel out of our control, and sometimes it can just be a habit.

There are studies that show again that we complain up to 30 times a day ,that was out loud complaining. And then that other study I mentioned, which was claiming up to one complaint per minute, which, if I check in with myself some days that seems a little bit more correct. And it just generates more negative emotion, and more negative thinking.

And there's some suggestion that when we complain or when we listen to complaining, it's creating some negative thoughts, some negative emotions. Our brain releases some cortisol. Cortisol then sensitizes the amygdala, our early warning system, our alarm bell, even more sensitive and louder. And cortisol tends to undermine another part of the brain, the hippocampus. And the hippocampus is not only important in forming memories, but it also tends to act as negative feedback to the amygdala. It puts the breaks on the amygdala.

And so I don't know that this has been definitively studied. There's some suggestion, but it's possible that complaining can increase cortisol, which we know is not good for our body to be in sort of a chronic stress response. It tends to make us even more alert, more fine-tuned to danger and negativity and stress, and it tends to weaken the breaks on those systems. It can weaken the hippocampus. So those are the reasons why I think it's important to consider stopping complaining.

I like the idea that whatever you look for, you can find, I've talked about this before. If you go out into your life, you review your life or you just go out into your life day by day and look for the good, you will find the good. This is true in people. This is true in jobs. This is true in your life. You can also look at your entire life and look for the negative. This is our default. We don't have to try to do this, right? This is what happens naturally.

So I want you to notice, I like to think about this as the movie in your mind, or if you were a director of a movie, can you prove to me how awful your life is? Yes. You could focus on all of those things. You could highlight all of those things. That's sort of what complaining is.

And yet, on the other hand, can you film a movie of your life, and prove to me how amazing it is, how wonderful it is? There's so many wonderful things in the world that we can be looking for and finding and thinking about, but we have to be deliberate. We have to tell our brain to look for those things. This isn't just pretending like everything's great. I don't believe in that kind of positive thinking where you just paste it on. This is genuinely looking for positive things in the world that are true for you, and finding them and noticing them. So the cure for complaining is pretty simple.

It's to stop complaining. It's to stop engaging with and reinforcing complaints. Of course, when I tell you to just stop complaining, that is way easier said than done because we're so habituated to it and we're practiced at it, and I don't believe we can just stop our thoughts or delete our thoughts. We don't have to push away our thoughts. We don't have to suppress them. It's the same thing with emotions. We aren't stopping them or deleting them, or suppressing them or pushing them away. We can't control the thoughts that arise in our mind and the emotional response that we have, but we can choose whether we engage with those thoughts or not.

So we can choose whether we engage with our complaints, whether we start to have a conversation about it, whether we start spiraling through it and finding more evidence for why our boss is a jerk or out of touch, or whatever. And we can choose thoughts that we wanna practice thinking and reflecting on more often.

So the cure for complaining, is to stop complaining both out loud and in your head. No justifying your complaints. No snuggling with them or fondling them, holding them close, protecting them, justifying them.

I often try out this rule that I have for myself where I can state a problem, trying to be very factual. I can state a problem once and then I need to focus on the solutions. Noticing that if I just keep complaining about it, I tend not to take action. That's the other problem with venting or complaining, is that it tends to vent away that energy that we have from those negative emotions, and we don't often take as much action.

So you may want me to give you a little more guidance on how to just stop complaining. The first step, right, of how to do it is always gonna be awareness of observing it. You have to pay attention to yourself to notice what you're thinking. Notice what you're saying. Catch yourself complaining or maybe go back and review what are some things I complained about yesterday? What are some things I complained about this morning? Can you build that muscle up? Awareness and observation without judgment.

The second step is to dismiss the complaint. No engaging with the complaining, with the negative thinking. Disengage as fast as possible as soon as you notice. I want you to try to let it go like a hot potato. Have you held a hot potato or tried to hold the hot potato? It's impossible, right? That's why we have the phrase, dropped it like a hot potato. We can't control what thoughts arise, but we can certainly pay attention to them or let them go. We can hang on to them and have a conversation or we can let them go.

So again, the goal here isn't to suppress it or make yourself wrong for it. I just like to be like, "Oops, complaining, disengage, let it go." Don't throw any fuel on the fire. Just moving on, decreasing the amplitude, re-energizing it, and then replace the negative thought. Replace the complaint that you're gonna release or disengage with. That you're gonna drop with some positive alternative to it that's legitimate and authentic and true for you.

And that's also the difference between just pasting on a positive thought. So find something that you genuinely feel good about. So that's how you stop complaining. You build your awareness and observation skills, you catch yourself, and then you dismiss it. You don't engage with it. You drop it, you let it go, and then you replace that complaint with a positive alternative to it that's true, and legitimate, and authentic.

Some other things you can try rather than complaining I mentioned before, is to be solution focused. I usually do this after when I'm trying to get out of the habit of complaining. Work on that first. See how long you can go. Can you go 24 hours without complaining? Can you go five minutes without complaining? Can you go one minute without complaining? Can you make it a game? I find making it a game or a friendly competition with myself, things like that.

Keeping it lighthearted can be good, but I also like to be solution focused. So you can notice, what is something I complain about? How can I solve for it? What are my options here? What can I change? How can I change it? And this is important. If you can't solve a problem, let it go. That means it's not your problem to worry about. If there's genuinely nothing you can do, you've talked to other people, maybe you've gotten some outside feedback, you've done your best to solve for it, let it go. It's not yours to worry about.

And then the other thing you can do, and this is true, often clients will be like, well, my work colleague is a complainer, or my daughter complains a lot, or my partner or spouse or boyfriend complains a lot. My mom complains a lot. My sister complains a lot. Someone has to be the one to change the pattern, to interrupt the complaining pattern. Why don't you decide to be the one to lead the change?

So if others are complaining around you, the first option you is, you can just listen and you don't have to contribute. You can do what I call listening to learn rather than to agree. You can listen to hear what's important to them, where they feel like they don't have power to change things, maybe what their values are. You don't have to say anything. You could also engage and redirect the conversation a little bit, especially if it's gone on. You can agree, "Yes. That sounds frustrating. I'd be frustrated too," and redirect to a different conversation or point out some positives. You can change the subject. You can focus on solutions, right?

I would do this, asking permission first, but you can connect that way with other people. You can direct a solutions-focused conversation rather than a complaining-focused conversation and sometimes you can just honestly tell the person that you don't wanna hear the same complaints all the time. That's totally fine too. Or you don't have to, you just don't necessarily have to engage with that person as much.

So where are you complaining about this person and how can you take ownership? How can you solve for that? How can you focus on all the things you like about this person or other things and moving forward,? Maybe you wanna change some of your interactions, that's totally fine too. Not complaining doesn't mean you suddenly don't affect change in your life. It's just noticing what the storyline is in your head and dropping the complaining.

So I would invite you to join me in really working on stopping complaining, practicing that muscle of attention, observation, disengaging with the routine complaining mind or narrative. And intentionally replacing the negative with some legitimate and true positive alternatives. And just notice how you feel. Notice the ripple effect in your life.

I'd love to hear about it. So I'm gonna be doing this. I'm re-upping my no complaining game, and I'd love to hear how it works for you. Thanks for listening, and I will talk to you next week. Bye.

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