How’s it going out there, my non-complainers? I know we’re only three days into Complaint Free April, but I hope it hasn’t been too hard. I promised y’all I’d write some posts during the month along the theme of non-complaining, so here’s what I’ve got first for you.
Complaining as bonding. Everyone does it: We talk about the shitty weather with our neighbors, exchange annoyed glances with fellow shoppers at the grocery store. Siblings bitch about their parents. Coworkers whisper about their boss. Friends get drunk while venting about their respective significant others or families. This is nothing new. In fact, it’s totally normal. But does that mean it’s ok?
Barbara Neitlich, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, says:
We often complain to one another because it feels good to feel as if we are understood and to feel that someone else can experience something similar to what we are experiencing. No one ever wants to feel alone with their problems or feelings. Complaining is a way of bonding with someone and developing a type of intimacy within the relationship.
So people are bonding and developing intimacy. What’s the problem? Well, just that complaining probably really isn’t the best way to do that. Dr. Judi Cinéas, a licensed clinical social worker in Florida, told me:
Complaining is a drainer of positive energy that infuses negative energy. When relationships are based on negatives, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, for there to be any forward progress. Tension is also always lingering, either because of the situations that are occurring, or because the parties don’t know how else to relate to each other.
Dr. Nancy Irwin, a pyschologist, told me more about how just speaking aloud our complaints can affect our lives:
We get whatever we focus on, and whatever we focus on expands. That can be empowering or disempowering. Language drives behavior because every word projects a visual image in the mind’s eye. It is as if a movie clip is running with every thought or statement.
The piece of advice she had that really resonated with me was this:
Choose the movies you run through your mind very carefully, because this all occurs unconsciously in anano-second. The trick is to be conscious of your thought process and retrain that unconscious mind to follow your directions.
For me, training myself to be cognizant of the unconscious movies that “run through” my mind is what doing this complaint-free challenge is all about, you know? However harmless it may seem to voice negative thoughts with other people, it’s not really contributing to anything positive in my life or theirs. Even though the good feelings of being heard, recognized and understood often promote closeness between people, it’s still not a healthy practice. Complaining as bonding can also reinforce feelings of powerlessness and victimization. Often we are victims of crappy situations or people, but seeing them as opportunities to problem-solve can go a long way to make us feel better about both ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in.
This isn’t all to say don’t commiserate with someone by complaining ever again. There’s a time and a place for everything, you know? And if your boss or the weather or the service at the store is really that bad, then hell yeah, bring it on. But I also think it’s important to try to find common ground with people in a way that isn’t negative. What did your coworkers do over the weekend? What did your friend think of last night’s Mad Men? Where did your sister get her hair cut?
Another way to lessen complaining as bonding is to just listen. If someone in your life needs to vent, let them vent. Say “I hear you,” rather than “Me, too!” Say “I understand.” Say “I’m sorry you’re feeling that way” or “I’m sorry that happened.” You can easily be a supportive presence and bond with someone without having to join in the pity (or pile on) party yourself.
What’s your experience with complaining as bonding? Do you do it often? I definitely do, but hopefully I’ll be able to stop doing it as often throughout the month of April. Oh and ps, April is also The Body Positive month here on Blisstree, so we’re going to be flooding your internets with positivity all around.