photo by: Andre Hunter
by Andrea M. Darcy
Complaining about something you’ve been holding onto for ages with a good friend leaves you feeling better. But when a colleague and you complain with each other about your boss yet again, you feel drained. What does it all mean? In the end, is moaning good or bad for you?
It does NOT damage your brain
Been told to stop complaining as you are ‘shrinking your brain’? According to a ‘Stanford study’?
It’s a misreported piece of information that hit the internet like wildfire. The research it was all based on only showed that stress, not complaining, affects the brain. And as other studies discussed below show, complaining, if done right, can have a positive affect.
Is it really just complaining?
Complaining is expressing dissatisfaction. We don’t like the way something is going. We might complain about things like the shower being too cold, or our partner always being late for dinner.
And complaining can be important. If we never say anything, nothing gets changed. The plumber doesn’t get called, or our partner doesn’t make changes to his schedule.
Of course complaining can also be simply a segue-way to other things, complaining’s ‘siblings’, so to speak.
Complaining’s messy siblings
We might actually be venting, talking about things we’ve been keeping bottled up inside for far too long. We mean to make one complaint and suddenly it’s a stream of nitpicking.
If we are constantly complaining about someone instead of something, we can be criticising. For example, if that very partner was late because their new job had different hours and it was beyond their control, ‘complaining’ would be a way to criticise them for taking that job in the first place.
Or it can be gossip. We complain about the same colleague again and again, always when they aren’t present. We aren’t aiming to find a productive answer, we are just judging someone.
Why do these differences matter? They relate to whether your complaining is a positive or negative when it comes to your mental health because they change your intent.
What is your intent for your moaning?
A research study on happiness found that if we do things with mindful intention, knowing the result we want from the action, we are more likely to feel good after.
Researchers then applied these results to complaining, in a study called, “Pet Peeves and Happiness: How Do Happy People Complain?”. The findings did indeed support the idea that if we complain because we want a certain result, we are happier than if we just complain for the sake of it.
What is it we deep down are looking for with our complaining? And is it an effective way to get what you want?
Back to complaining that a partner gets home late because of their new job. We might be looking for discussion, understanding, and compromise. We want them to know we don’t like that they took the job. In this situation, it would be better to have an honest conversation.
Why AREN’T you listing your complaints?
It’s worth also looking at your intent for not complaining. If, for example, a friend stood you up with no excuse several times, and you say nothing because you don’t want to ‘upset anyone’? Then you are people pleasing, and it’s a codependent friendship, at the possible cost of taking care of your own needs and even maintaining your own identity.
The art of complaining – what, how, and who
Along with having an intent, we also need to consider who we are complaining to.
If we are complaining to a clerk at a shop, because we know we were overcharged, and we get our money back, it’s certainly effective.
If we are venting with a friend or therapist, this might leave us feeling heard and released. In the wrong environment, such as with our boss, we might face dire consequences, such as losing our job.
Complaining with colleagues about work can help us feel bonded.
A study on griping in team meetings found it helped employees feel a sense of identity and form a connection with others.
If we are complaining about a colleague behind their back, aka gossiping, we might bond but at the price of feeling guilty after. And if we complain to the wrong person, who lets the subject of gossip know, we can even face conflict.
The perfect place to let it rip?
photo by The Creative Exchange
It might just be a blank page. Journalling with intent means we don’t upset others, can be honest and vent freely, and can feel much better after.
A set of studies asked undergraduates to do just three 20-minute sessions of writing over two weeks, where they wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings.
It then asked participants how frequently unwanted memories intruded into their thoughts, and how often they avoided thinking about the experiences.
The participants who wrote about negative events not only had an improvement in their memories compared to those who wrote about positive events or just daily events, they also had fewer intrusive thoughts. The suggestion is that venting and complaining on paper ‘purges’ your negative thoughts, giving you more headspace and thus a better memory.
The best person to moan with?
It might arguably be a talk therapist. A counsellor, psychotherapist or counselling psychologist never takes your complaints personally. They are trained to listen very deeply and see past your complaints to the real issue at hand, then help you address that issue until there is no longer something to complain about.
Time to stop complaining and start moving forward in life? We connect you with highly rated talk therapists in Central London. Or use our booking platform to find UK-wide therapists and Online therapists you can talk to from any country.
Still have a question about complaining? Post below.
Andrea M. Darcy is the lead writer and commissioning editor of this site, and has long held the belief that a good rant in the right company is good for mental health. Find her complaining on Twitter.