Simply put, complaining means voicing your opinion about something you feel isn’t right or satisfactory. There can be varying degrees—whining, nagging, lamenting, remonstrating, objecting, or criticizing. All these words convey an underlying tone of negativity. At the outset, however, we should draw a line between complaining for a valid reason and complaining out of habit. The former is about raising a principled objection to any wrongdoing. For instance, if you have been unfairly charged with a traffic violation, you have every right to complain. The latter involves constantly ranting about how life has dealt you an unfair deal, or how every person around you is out to take undue advantage of you and looking for someone or something to blame for your situation.
Experts say that if complaining becomes your second nature, you can suffer in more ways than one. “Complaining seems like an almost natural reaction to those things that are not going as per our expectations or desires. If it is transient, it may not be too harmful; it may even release bottled-up feelings,” says Dr. Sanjay Garg, consultant, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Hospital, Kolkata. “But, when complaining becomes too frequent or prolonged, it can start having toxic effects on our overall well-being.”
Why do we complain?
Generally speaking, complaining can be regarded as a default coping mechanism; one starts complaining when things tend to be beyond his or her control. “Since most of us have grown up in an environment where resentment and complaining is quite the order of the day, we take it as a natural way to live life,” says Vaibhav Datar, Mumbai-based mid-life coach, and author of Simplify Your Life.
Apart from that, there’s an associated sense of victimhood, says Datar. “There’s a ‘victim’ position, in coaching parlance, wherein you talk about how good you are and how bad others are to you,” he says. Consequently, one tries to gain sympathy by complaining. From another angle, complaining can be viewed as a form of self-defence—a weak one though. “Most of us find it difficult to admit that something was our fault; complaining just provides us with the perfect excuse to explain why it wasn’t,” states Dr. Garg.
How does complaining affect us?
The consequences are manifold. It affects our mental health as well as our physical well-being. There can be other collateral damage too. Ways in which relentless complaining can wreck our happiness include:
It ruins our relationships: This is not limited to romantic relationships. Our day-to-day interactions with people around us can also be affected. Bengaluru-based IT consultant, Riya Saran*, underwent a series of stressful changes during a period where she found herself complaining too much. She says, “I suffered alienation, lost my job, went through severe depression, and during this dark period, found myself finding faults with and blaming everyone for all my troubles. The first casualty was my relationship with my partner. I complained about him, accusing him of not giving me enough attention. In reality, he was there for me and was also trying to help me. I just couldn’t see it then.”
It causes an insane amount of stress: Experts say that it’s a vicious cycle— stress can lead to complaining, and vice-versa. “Complaining causes distress levels and negative emotions to rise, which has a detrimental effect on our daily activities,” says Dr. Garg. “Every complaint can be a reminder of every undesirable situation we’ve ever experienced. Needless to say, if we are bogged down by such pessimism, our work and life are bound to suffer.”
It deteriorates physical health: Complaining can affect our physical well-being as well, and research shows it can affect the brain. A 2016 study by Stanford University, shows that complaining, among other things, can affect the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory and learning. “Our mind and body are closely related. Our body is able to absorb stress until a certain level. Beyond that limit, we actually start feeling physical pain,” says Datar. “We also suffer from fatigue and lose interest in the simple joys of life.”
How to stop complaining?
This is the tricky part since there are really no quick-fix solutions. Experts say that the following can help:
Be grateful: Gratitude is considered to be a great healer. A study by the University of California, Davis, shows that people who are able to cultivate an attitude of gratitude are likely to undergo less anxiety, due to reduced levels of the stress hormone—cortisol. So, start feeling appreciative towards and thankful for everything you have.
Focus on the solution: When complaining, you are fixated on the problem, forgetting that you need a solution. Try and stop ruminating on the problem, and start thinking about how you can wriggle out of a tight corner, or what your next step should be.
Don’t accept defeat: “The moment we start complaining, we are adopting a self-defeating attitude by indirectly telling ourselves that we cannot do anything about the situation,” says Dr. Garg. Stop accepting defeat easily.
Enough is enough: Datar suggests saying this to yourself aloud again and again, “I have suffered enough. I decide to change now.” It’s a kind of positive affirmation that will inspire you to make an effective change. All in all, stop complaining and make your own silver linings playbook.