Did you know, on average, we complain at least 15–30 times a day? And not just out loud either, but also inside our heads.
I often find myself complaining when I keep experiencing the same thing without learning from it. It’s been said that a true disciple doesn’t fall in the same ditch thrice, as we often learn things the hard way.
While complaining feels convenient in the moment, it often takes more work than simply doing something about it. We think we are getting things “off our chest” by talking about them with others, but we are only increasing our misery. Where is the wisdom in talking about our misfortunes? On the contrary, talking about them only makes things worse.
It’s easy to go on a downward complaint spiral, usually triggered by something you’re frustrated with in life. All of that daily gratitude you’ve been practicing suddenly goes out the window and the negative emotions engulf you. You begin noticing only what’s not working, and that’s not a great place to be in. You focus on others’ mistakes and what they’ve done wrong. You resort to finger-pointing, thinking it absolves you of responsibility from your own actions.
Those who are reactive are more prone to complaining. It’s as though they’ve given up on their lives in some way, preferring instead to talk badly about others and focus purely on the problem itself rather than doing something about it. They would rather be a victim than take ownership of the challenge, because then they don’t have to do anything about it.
Here’s what happens to our brain when we keep complaining. Writer Karen Trefzger writes:
When we complain, our brains release the stress hormone cortisol. Extra cortisol impairs our immune systems, making us more susceptible to illnesses, even heart disease, and stroke. Some studies suggest that the constant stress of complaining is linked to shrinkage in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that’s involved in emotional control, memory storage and recall, and learning. So complaining damages our brains and makes us sick.
Here are some reasons why/when we complain.
We complain about things that are beyond our control, which is rather ironic. Why would we complain about things we can do nothing about? And if we could do something about it, then we would have done it already. Regardless of whether or not we can do something about it, complaining doesn’t help our cause.
Less obviously, we find ourselves complaining about things when we’re tired and/or hungry. We may not realize this until after the fact.
We complain when we haven’t fully embraced the reality of our situation. Case in point: the ongoing pandemic. As I wrote earlier, many of us have still not come to terms with the everyday reality of our situation. So, we resort to complaining. We talk to our friends about it. We complain out of frustration, as if talking about it will make it go away. It only ends up zapping our energy in the process. (This isn’t to say we shouldn’t talk about our current reality, but we can engage in a useful discussion by staying objective without complaining.)
We complain about things when we want others to do things differently. Sometimes, I will go on a rant with a friend about how things ought to be in my gated community, but no amount of complaining (especially to those who have no control over the issue) will change things. Why am I wasting my precious energy doing that?
We complain when our expectations from others remain unmet. For instance, I remember visiting my parents during this pandemic and complaining to my mother about her not spending an hour with me every day. This just goes to show how staying with your loved ones doesn’t necessarily equate to spending time with them. You still need to carve out time to connect, but I digress.
When things are going our way, everything is great and everyone feels happy. It’s when things don’t go as planned that we find ways to complain about it, which makes sense in its own way. Why would we complain about things when they are going well?! No one calls customer service to let them know their products are great; we only call when something isn’t working.
The challenge lies in dealing with things when they aren’t going as expected.
Here are some ideas we can use to stop complaining in our daily lives:
Before we are about to complain (in our head), we have maybe five seconds to change the way we think about that thing—to disallow any negative emotions from getting the better of us. If we can get a handle on our emotions in that short timeframe, the negativity is stopped in its tracks. If not, it can lead to frustration and even anger, as it often does.
When we complain to others—particularly those outside our social circle—we are giving our power away. It’s of little value to respond to those who doubt and complain. Its best to limit our response to a witty remark without engaging further. If and when we find ourselves in situations where complaining won’t accomplish anything, then it’s best to be silent.
We need to stop holding onto things from the past in our minds. We often complain to others about things from the past because we have allowed these grudges to build up internally, which is totally unhealthy. There is no point in dwelling on the past; otherwise, we only remain a prisoner in our own minds. It’s only when we accept things that we can transcend them. We need to let bygones be bygones. We need to practice the art of dying every day.
We can clarify expectations with others—within our inner circle this time—to prevent ourselves from complaining. For the most part, I believe, relationships cannot exist without some expectations. So, it’s best to clarify them every now and then to ensure things are going well.
When we find ourselves complaining about something over and over, we need to either do something about it or let it go. We need to learn to accept things or change them. There is no third option. We can either focus on the problem or the solution.
The worst thing is to complain about things without doing anything about them. That doesn’t help anyone. The sooner we internalize this, the better.
Equally as bad is being somewhere between the two extremes, where you’re neither fully accepting things the way they are, nor changing them for the better. It’s a most unhealthy stance to be in, and it cripples our thinking and our actions. It’s not unlike getting stuck in the past and future at the same time. We can either do something about things or stop complaining.
As Maya Angelou said:
What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.
Practicing daily gratitude can serve as the best antidote. Rather than complaining about what we don’t have, we feel grateful for what we do. This has been a game changer for me in my everyday attitude. It’s hard to complain when you’re grateful for who and what you have in life. You stop taking things for granted. Besides, you realize that things could be much worse, and you’re grateful they aren’t.
We need to accept others for who they are rather than think or complain about who they are not.
Be wary of who you spend time with. Complaining can be contagious, so we must avoid reactive people like the plague. It’s in the nature of these people to absolve themselves of any responsibility. They talk about others negatively because deep down they have given up on themselves, and so they make it a habit of putting others down.
There is nothing wrong with someone complaining occasionally, in which case we can empathize with them by trying to listen and understand their perspective without feeling the need to agree or disagree with them, and without giving any unsolicited advice. But to hear them complain repeatedly should be viewed as a red flag, and we should question if we want to stay in touch with them to keep our sanity.
Try the 21-day no complaint experiment. Find and put an elastic band on one of your wrists. When you find yourself complaining, switch wrists. You do this until you can wear the band on one wrist for at least 21 days. You switch wrists not only when you say something negative—whether it’s by way of criticizing, complaining, or being cynical—but also when you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts about others.
Those who try this exercise take an average of four months to complete. That just goes to show how much we are prone to complaining all day, every day, without even thinking about it (maybe because it’s become second nature to many of us).
Let’s be solution-oriented, not problem-focused. I remember many times I have emailed customer support frustrated about trying to get some issue resolved. The language I used many of those times was one of complaint. Rather than saying what I needed help with, I would write what’s wrong with their product/service. Of course, doing so helps no one. It only prolongs our suffering in the process. In this situation, it would be best to wait till our negative emotions go away, and then we can seek help without complaining.
There are times when complaining is warranted. When organizations don’t do the thing they promised, we need to stand up for what we believe rather than let those things go by the wayside just because we find it inconvenient to deal with. It’s not about our likes, dislikes, or preferences, but about doing the right thing.
For instance, if you believe you don’t owe money to an airline and are seeking refund for your flight ticket, then you need to stay your ground without relenting. Sure, it’s easier to simply pay off the credit card (with the peace of mind that your credit remains unaffected) rather than dealing with it head-on, but what precedent are we setting for others? We are implicitly teaching others through our actions that it’s okay for us to be pushed into a corner until we give up and succumb. That’s the last thing we want.
As Maya Angelou reminds us, if one percent of us stopped complaining, we would stop blaming others for our mistakes. We would all be kinder, happier selves. Proaction and common courtesy would be more prevalent. Having respect for others’ views would be common. We would take ourselves less seriously. We would be more open to changing our mind. We would rejoice that we have far more in common than we do differences. We would work with nature, not against it.
Imagine it: Who would we be if one percent of the world was complaint-free?
Life is full of setbacks. Things will rarely go as planned. It behooves us to remain untethered to any dependencies outside of our control.
Let’s stop complaining about things, mostly because we end up using our energy and we end up getting nowhere. It would serve us better to focus on things we can do something about.
When we stop complaining about things, we see the world differently. We stop judging others and instead accept them for who they are, rather than who they are not.