This past weekend, my husband and I were discussing how ubiquitous complaining has become. I suddenly realized how often I complain to my journal. Frequently unconsciously. My husband whipped out one of his gems. “The quality of the language we use dictates the quality of the communication we have with ourselves and others.” I vowed to improve communication by trying to stop — or reduce — my complaining. Easier said than done.

Whether we are giving directions to a lovely international waterfall, persuading someone to do something for us, or complaining, "The quality of the language we use dictates the quality of the communication." We can always improve communication.
Whether we are giving directions to a lovely hidden waterfall, persuading someone to do something for us, or complaining, “The quality of the language we use dictates the quality of the communication.” We can always work to improve communication.

What Is Complaining?

In simplest terms, complaining is a way to express pain, dissatisfaction, or resentment. Sometimes I complain in my journal to process something that is not going well. That way nobody ever has to hear it. According to Dr. Travis Bradberry, complaining — in any form — is awful for our health. He says that the more we complain, the more negative we become.

Complaining can result from a comparison (oops!). I often hear people say they don’t have enough (time, money, fame, beauty, etc.) or too much (weight, work, pain, stress, people relying on them, etc.) If you’ve been following my blog over the past month, you may recall what Dan Sullivan says about comparison (in The Gap and The Gain). It’s a sure way to get stuck in the GAP.

The main -- and only -- steep "highway" to the east coast of Madagascar out of the capital city Antananarivo. If a truck stalls or has a flat (a common occurrence on this road) traffic backs up for kilometers as it turns into a one-lane road. Still think you have it hard?
The main — and only — steep “highway” to the east coast of Madagascar out of the capital city Antananarivo. If a truck stalls or has a flat (a common occurrence on this road) traffic backs up for kilometers as it turns into a one-lane road. Still think you have it hard?

“Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely,” Bradberry points out. “Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.”

Once we start a complaining habit, it becomes harder to change. I’ve taken it on as my next challenge. (As if I don’t have enough to work on already. Oops, see that? Another complaint. Dagnabbit!)

Stop Complaining to Improve Communication

Now that we know how awful complaining is for our health and relationships, how can we become more positive? Below are some suggestions. The original list comes from psychologists Scott Bea and Susan Albers at Health Essentials.

Typical work conditions in Madagascar. These gentlemen were working with molten liquid without protective footwear, eyewear, or even mitts. I will never again complain about work conditions in the US.
Typical work conditions in a metal factory in Madagascar. These gentlemen were pouring molten ore without protective footwear, eyewear, or hand coverings. I will never again complain about work conditions in the US.

Six Strategies to Reduce Complaining

  • Choose the right audience — Most of the world couldn’t care less. (Or worse, they may get so annoyed that they start avoiding you). Look for one appropriate person — a close friend or colleague, clergy or social worker — to help you brainstorm options for change
  • Clarify intent — Ask yourself if this issue really matters that much to you. If so, write about it in private with the goal of finding a solution
  • Complaint sandwich — Just like we use in my writing groups when delivering critiques, say something positive, voice your critique/complaint, and end with another positive.
How to Improve Communication: Reduce Complaining
Barefoot youngsters in Antanarivo, Madagascar, collecting bricks to bring home. We learned that, by comparison, we have very little right to complain — about anything.
  • Gamify — Increase your awareness of when you’re complaining by remaining playful. Try saying aloud, “Oops, there I go again, better change my strategy.” Keep it lighthearted rather than self-critical or judgmental.
  • Gratitude — Whenever you become aware of your need to complain, stop. Think about what’s good about the current situation. This will allow you to return to the GAIN rather than the GAP.
  • Time limit — ANY complaining causes “neurons that fire together, wire together,” suggests Bradberry. If you can CATCH yourself, limit your complaining time to, under a minute. Then switch to a more productive problem-solving mode.
Approaching a busy city. Main roads in Madagascar are few and heavily used by all - zebu cattle, bikes, pedestrians, and what few transport vehicles there are, heavily laden with passengers and possessions.
Approaching a busy city. Main roads in Madagascar are few and heavily used by all – zebu cattle, bikes, pedestrians, and what few transport vehicles there are, heavily laden with passengers and possessions.

Benefits of Kicking the Habit

The faster you jump out of the complaining habit, the better. Like any habit, it can be changed. It is a skill you can develop. Like any skill, it requires a beginner’s mindset, awareness, and practice.

Think of people you spend most of your time with. Do any of them complain all the time? Can you limit how much time you spend with them? Try surrounding yourself with positive people. Observe what they do. The more you can train your brain to focus on the positives, rather than the negatives, the more joy you will find.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Do you have any aha moments around complaining? Have you tried any useful strategies to increase your awareness? Share them in the comments section.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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  1. Another post that lands a little too close to home, or at least a former home. I was born in circles where complaining was as easy and instinctive as breathing. It only took me a bit shy of 60 years to realize how much complaining had NOT helped (to say the least). “Complaining becomes your default behavior“ – how true that is! I also feel that complaining, by and large, is one of the most ineffective ways to deal with whatever I am complaining about (it is of course the proper reaction in limited/specific cases). I came to see it as a very “lousy substitute for ACTION”… or a way to fool myself into thinking that it is not incumbent upon me to find what I should DO and summon the courage to do it. Even if it took me almost a lifetime, I have made progress managing my addiction to complaining. A few “revelations” helped with my recovery. First, and very much in line with your blog post, I finally understood how complaining “is awful for our health”. Complaining compounded my stress… and stress is not known to improve our well-being (mental and physical). I carried this “stormy aura of unhappiness” with me… and complaining did not make me someone others wanted to know more about… quite the opposite; “choosing the right audience” made me more careful about “carpet bombing” my friends with complaints.. Then I also became painfully aware that a lot of situations that caused me to “vent” were either totally out of my control or could be solved/mitigated if I, instead, spent my energy finding what I could do (ACTION) about them; your “Clarify Intent” really resonated in that regard! The breakthrough came when I realized how automated my complaining had become (“default behavior” indeed) and I decided to turn the “Repeated complaining rewires your brain” on its head; can repeated “complaining suppression/pausing” have the same result? It appears it does! In a nutshell, as soon as I notice myself revving up to complain, I call a “time out”; I stop, take the ubiquitous deep breath, and ask myself: is this the best way to react to the situation, is it worth it? Most of the time it truly is not and, after having practiced this “pause and assess move”, I find that the frequency of my complaining has plummeted. I also notice that (1) people find me more interesting to talk to, (2) my level of stress is substantially reduced, and (3) I am “solving more problems” than I previously did. Thank you for another powerful reminder about what we may not too consciously do to ourselves, and how to choose better habits.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Gerard. You write, “complaining did not make me someone others wanted to know more about.” Isn’t it interesting how we can intuitively know that WE don’t really want to spend time in the company of people who complain constantly, only to find that … we do it too. That is enough to cause a paradigm shift for sure! You identify a key point: “can repeated “complaining suppression/pausing” have the same result?” The statement “wire together, fire together” helps us understand that HABIT is doing MORE OF — so whatever we WANT to become a habit, we need to do more of. In the case of “suppression” if we can identify habits we want to stop, actively replace them with habits we WANT, repeatedly, then YES, I do believe these magnificent gray masses we call “brains” can change. It’s what’s referred to as “Neuroplasticity,” thank goodness. May we all use “time outs” as effectively as they’re used with (most) kids as a way to catch our breath, reflect on what is about to happen, and change our course toward what we want instead. Keep posting and keep reflecting!

  2. Yes, words are powerful.

    Learning how to think is a great skill to have. You can either be optimistic or pessimistic. This is a choice you make and like any other choices, you need to practice it. Complaining is not good as it won’t solve the problem or the no problem you’re complaining about.
    Sometimes it is necessary to get away from the people who are complaining all the times.
    I am an optimistic. A choice I made a long time ago during my teenage years. I see the world through pink lenses. I may complain sometimes but it doesn’t last and it short. Complaining about situation you can’t change is the worst.

    Also, adopting a beginner’s mindset also helps.

    Thanks Courtenay. Great article. Sorry for the rambling. 😳

    1. Thanks for the comment, Silvie Marie! You point out that you can be optimistic or pessimistic. I like to think we all have shades of both in varying degrees, depending on circumstances and situations. But we both agree that “sometimes it is necessary to get away from the people who are constantly complaining.” If it helps, bring awareness to each individual you interact with and see if you feel generally BETTER around them or WORSE. If worse, is it because they complain, or something else? Perhaps it’s because you’re comparing. Anyway, now I am starting to ramble. Rambling can be good, sometimes we stumble upon a new thought but I’ll stop there. Always appreciate your thoughts.