In some ways, this is a healthy and normal part of life. Voicing concerns, identifying pervasive stressors, and figuring out how to surmount the many minor frustrations our days bring us are all part of being a healthy, functioning human.
And if you’ve ever bonded with someone over a shared dislike (like the latest movie everyone’s raving about that you hated), you know firsthand that group-level griping can be a quick route to feeling closer with others.
The problem: Too much time spent focusing on the negative—and drawing everyone’s awareness to what’s wrong in your life—can lead to some seriously un-fun consequences. From pushing away friends (or making them equally miserable) to wrecking our own health or quality of life, complaining can go wrong in so many ways.
There is no scientific evidence that venting helps us calm down.
If you think blowing off steam helps you feel better, think again. “There is no scientific evidence that venting helps us calm down,” says Brad Bushman, Ph.D., professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. In fact, his research shows that ruminating over remarks that angered you (or in his particular study, working out aggression by walloping a punching bag) only makes people angrier and more aggressive.
It’s one thing to share with a close friend or S.O. something that’s troubling you—even if all you’re looking for is a little sympathy. It’s another, says chair of psychology at University of Wisconsin-Bay, Ryan Martin, Ph.D., to elicit the same degree of angst, anxiety, or moral outrage that you feel in other people. (Guess which one is the healthier option.)
Storming into a colleague’s office, getting into altercations with strangers (road rage, anyone?), nagging, and whining are all ineffective ways to express our emotions, Martin says. (See also: rudeness, passive-aggression, swearing, hitting, or any other physical expression of frustration.)
This isn’t to say we should shut down or try to deny our emotions. As Bushman notes, suppressing our feelings can also lead to heart issues—as well as negative effects on our emotional well-being. A much safer bet—for our own sake as well as others'—is to learn how to know when your griping is making things worse.
How to Spot Ineffective Complaining
1. Notice when you’re not doing yourself any favors.
If you’re itemizing your woes to a person who can’t do anything to help, you’re not interested in seeking a solution, or you’re totally avoiding any and all attempts to process how you’re feeling, you’re likely not complaining effectively, Martin explains.
2. Check in with yourself at the bodily level.
Does your heart rate or blood pressure remain cranked up well after you’ve aired your presumed grievances? Are your face, shoulders and jaw feeling tense, or has your breathing grown shallower? All of these are signs you’re increasing your own misery rather than truly alleviating it.
3. Take note of others' reactions.
Do people draw away from you, cower, or react angrily in response to your griping? “If others become defensive around you, this may be a sign you’re coming on too strong,” Bushman says.
4. Pay attention to long-term outcomes.
Have you been ruminating over the same problem(s) for weeks or months with no solution in store, or are unable to make any headway in solving those issues? If so, you may need to get clearer on what, exactly, you need to feel better—and how you’re going about getting it, says San Bolkan, Ph.D., professor of communication studies at California State University, Long Beach.
The Better Way to Complain
1. Figure out what you actually want.
Bolkan’s research on consumer complaints shows that many people skip the crucial step of stating how they’d like to see a recent wrong redressed. Do yourself a favor and clarify what you see as the issue and what you envision the best solution might be. (Writing these basic facts down and consulting with a trusted friend can help aid this process.)
2. Talk to the right person.
Once you’ve figured out what’s upsetting you and what you’d like to change, you’ll have a better idea of who can actually help make things right, Bolkan says. Approach them with your grievance rather than offloading your unhappiness onto people who can’t resolve your problem, and you’re much more likely to get your needs met.
3. Don’t be hostile.
No matter how rightfully P.O.’d you are, being a jerk is not only unnecessary, it can make people far less willing to assist you and more likely to keep their distance. “When people are hostile, they can trigger defensive reactions as opposed to reactions that might better facilitate the resolution of a problem,” Bolkan says.
Be mindful of the tone of your voice, your body language, and your inclination to blame a particular person (i.e., not yourself).
Remember: The less overwhelmed others feel by our emotions, the more willing they are to listen. So be mindful of the tone of your voice, your body language, and your inclination to blame a particular person (i.e., not yourself).
Most importantly, remember to thank whoever offers you any assistance. Not only will this reinforce their willingness to help you out in the future, but being grateful also helps free you from ruminating and, as a result, helps make your problem-solving more effective.
Negativity can spread faster between people than the most viral video of hamsters eating tiny burritos. Save yourself (and your loved ones) from further misery by working on self-regulation and seeking clearer solutions to resolve whatever it is you see wrong. Not only will this benefit all your relationships, but the better you become at avoiding rumination, anxiety, and rage, the healthier you’ll be in the long haul.