I talked with Christopher Struble MD, chief psychiatrist and president of Renew TeleHealth, for some insights about why we complain so readily, and how to stop it—or at least make it more productive. Check out the six steps below that will help you vastly improve the way you complain, and ultimately, do it less.
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Realize how often you're complaining
A complaint is basically just focusing your time and energy on something negative. This negative focus isn’t good for you and can cause stress, anxiety, and anger, among other less than desirable feelings. You also don’t want to be known as that person who complains all the time and thus, brings bad vibes. Start trying to recognize how often you are complaining. Take some time to think about how you feel after a complaint, and how it affects your mood.
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Understand that griping about issues usually doesn't help your relationship
It's extremely common that we use griping to "shape" people into what we want of them, explains Christopher Struble. For example, if your significant other is interested in a niche hobby that just doesn’t interest you, you may participate in the activity but do so with a frown on your face and an all-around unhappy attitude. You may not be complaining, per say, but your body language and attitude is. This is bad for the relationship because your partner may stop inviting you to do the activity or even stop doing it themselves. Instead of complaining, try communicating and compromising with one another.
Strubles reminds us that relationships are give and take. He says, "people tend not to change markedly in their interests and part of loving someone is doing our best to have a good time when it's 'their turn' to choose what the two of you are doing.” However, you don’t want to always be stuck doing something you’re simply not interested in. Struble suggests finding a balance, saying, “We need to assert ourselves when it's important and do our own thing sometimes, but we have to be gracious in choosing the way we communicate that we don't like doing certain things and can't abide doing them anymore.”
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Allow yourself specific time to vent
A complaint may be based on a serious or uncontrollable issue; perhaps a family matter or a problem at work. You may genuinely feel upset or angry about something that is bothering you and you can’t control. this type of complaining and feeling upset is different than complaints about small things. Realize that what you are feeling is valid and should be felt and dealt with to the best of our abilities. Allow yourself time to vent and understand your emotions. After this period, make a conscious decision to move forward as best as possible, and stop solely complaining about this topic, realizing that typically, complaining won’t help with acceptance or finding solutions, and is energy wasted.
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Practice not complaining for one full day
A Buddhist practice is to not say anything positive or negative for 24 hours. Just simply observe what is around you, take note of it and let it pass, move on to the next thing. Taking a page out of Buddhist practice, actively try not complaining for 24 hours. If you feel a complaint or negative thought arise, simply notice it, think about it for a moment, then let it go.
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Do something about your complaint
A lot of my small complaints start with ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I’m tired’; instead of just wallowing in your sorrow, turn those complaints into action. If you’re hungry, go make a healthy snack. If you’re tired, make a cup of a tea (or even better, take a nap, if your situation allows). Struble says “If we notice that deep down we're complaining about things that truly are not that big of a deal in hindsight, this may reflect that we need to make some difficult changes in the path of our lives.”
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Turn your complaint into gratitude
At the same time, we may gripe because by doing so we're being reinforced in getting what we want (like not doing a boring activity with your spouse). Struble gives the example of the kid at a grocery store who wants a candy bar. He complains and he complains some more until the parent finally gives in and gives him the bar, just to stop the complaining. The kid is ultimately getting an award for their complaining and this makes them more likely to do it in the future. This situation arises in adults too, it's just less obvious. If this is occurring either within yourself or someone else, it’s important to recognize the behavior and stop it as soon as possible.
Gratitude is the most necessary quality to focus on while trying to complain less. If you stop to make a list of the things you're grateful for, then it's harder for you to end up in a downward spiral of damaging thoughts. Keep in mind, though, that this is a difficult task. Some days will be great, others you might be complaining about every last thing. Give yourself time to adjust to a new mindset of not complaining about the little things. Focus on the goal of being more gracious and more positive, and suddenly, you'll realize you're complaining less and less.