Why complaining can be a good and healthy habit

Complaining. Everyone does it sometimes. Studies have shown that keeping emotions bottled up can be detrimental to health, causing low mood, depleted energy and digestive problems, among other ailments. Wolverhampton-based psychotherapist and counsellor Mel Riley thinks that venting can work, as long as it stays constructive.

Illustration: Yeyei Gómez
Words: Kate Orson

How to change a negative situation

It might be worth considering whether change – rather than continual complaining – could be part of the solution. If you find yourself frequently sounding off about the same things, it might be time to explore whether there’s anything you can do to transform the situation.

The answer might not be straightforward. ‘Change is uncomfortable,’ says Mel, ‘and it’s messy.’ To get over this, remember that many small steps can lead to a big shift, so it’s useful to acknowledge them and put the focus on the effort, rather than the achievement. ‘What we tend to do, for example, if we want to run 10k, is to discount every smaller run. We’re wired for short-term gain, so if we celebrate and give ourselves a dopamine reward for every little run, we’re able to keep going and get to that longer-term goal.’

Sometimes, there’s a tendency to complain about things that are difficult to control, such as politics or climate change. In these situations, try exploring if there are positive steps you can make to have an impact on the situation. You might, for example, choose to enter local politics or join an environmental action group. Or it could be best to focus your attention on only one thing, so that you don’t become overwhelmed by too many intractable problems – to cultivate, as American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it: ‘… the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference’.

A three-step guide to constructive complaining

  1. Keep a complaining diary for a week. Notice and write down the things that bother you, as well as those subjects, people, places or events that you complain about to others. Who are you addressing them to? Explore their response. Is it soothing or helpful, or do you still feel stuck in a cycle?
  2. Now choose a complaint that you’d like to focus on and ask yourself: ‘How might I solve this situation?’ ‘What would be the perfect outcome?’ Dream big, even if it seems impossible at the moment. Now consider if this perfect outcome can be broken down into smaller steps and think about what they might be. Explore how to start taking these steps, no matter how tiny they seem.
  3. If some of your complaining is repetitive or you find that you’re not comforted by the idea of a solution, consider whether there might there be an underlying concern that needs attention. If there’s a deeper source of discontent, journaling or talking to a professional can be a way to work through it. Addressing the bigger picture in this way allows you to take smaller irritations in your stride.

Complaining can be empowering

Finally, there’s no shame in complaining. The important thing is not to do it as a default, to be aware of what the problems are, if they’re always the same and whether there’s anything you can do to change the situation.

In some ways, the things that bother you most provide an opportunity to identify what you really want and, if it’s different from what you have or where you are now, to work towards a shift in that direction. In this way, it’s possible to view occasional grumbles with kindness while also using them to move towards a more fulfilling life and a more accepting state of mind.