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How complaining rewires your brain for negativity

It’s no secret that life can be hard and downright depressing.

From disappointments in relationships to losing loved ones, work stress and financial and health problems there is plenty that can leave us awake at night and worried as hell.

For years my reaction to hard times was to vent.

Let me rephrase:

I would complain;

Also known as bitching;

Also known as driving friends away and making my life even worse than it already was.

As the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle writes in his book the Power of Now, complaining is the ultimate form of self-sabotage:

“See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.”

And yet so many of us – myself included – still complain, or at least find ourselves falling back into complaining even when we think we’ve moved on.

What’s the deal?

Why complain?

The truth is that complaining is surprisingly common. For many of us it’s embedded in our “social DNA” so-to-speak. In fact, recent research indicates that the average person complains once per minute during a typical conversation.

Bestselling author Will Bowen, who wrote A Complaint-Free World, calculated that the average person complains 15 to 30 times per day.

Either way:

That’s a lot of complaining!

According to Three Simple Steps: a Guide to Success in Business and Life author Trevor Blake, complaining can also be a way to form quick social bonds. We find common ground with others by pointing out what’s wrong. As Blake writes:

“Nothing unites people more strongly than a common dislike. The easiest way to build friendship and communicate is through something negative.”

Complaining is a way we can agree on some things that “suck” and feel like we’re letting out stress. After all what could be an older tradition than letting off steam?

Well, there’s the occasional offhand negative comment and then there’s a pattern of complaining. It turns out that complaining actually harms your brain.

MIT Professor Randy Pausch was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2006. But he became famous for encouraging everyone to not be a victim. One of the biggest reasons is that it simply doesn’t work. As Pausch put it in 2007 in his famous Last Lecture:

“Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.”

How complaining rewires your brain for negativity

At the time I was a complainer I had no idea about the extensive research that shows how complaining rewires your brain for negativity.

I just wanted to let out the negative emotions and have some sort of solution or improvement.

What happened was the opposite. Every time.

Now I understand why.

Canadian neurologist Donald Hebb is famous for the phrase he came up within the late 1940s: “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Research since that time has proven Hebb was 100% correct and in even more ways than he realized.

It turns out that complaining rewires your brain for negativity on a neurological level. It becomes so serious that negative thinking and speech becomes physically and habitually imprinted into your brain.

You start to seek out and reinforce negativity because it’s what you’re used to.

And each time you damage your brain and psychological state even more.

What I’m saying is:

Complaining hurts your brain – literally

complaining is bad for you

As I said, Hebb has been proven right and then some.

The most cutting-edge research out of places like Stanford University shows that complaining opens the floodgates for stress hormones that bathe your neurons in bad chemicals.

You start to find it harder to make decisions, solve problems, and understand situations realistically because everything becomes “amped up” by stressful, anxiety-producing feelings.

In fact, Stanford research shows that complaining also causes our hippocampus to become smaller. Our hippocampus helps us resolve difficult situations and be smart people.

Those who get Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions have a ruined hippocampus, so seeing the link between complaining and reduced hippocampus size should make it clear to everyone that the damage from complaining to your brain is no joke.

As Dr. Guy Winch explains, complaining can even become a problem in simple situations like when you are unhappy about something you’ve bought.

Many of us will vent to those around us or to store employees who aren’t in charge, which is completely counterproductive and basks our brain in stress hormones, reinforcing negative neural pathways.

As Winch says:

“Research has found that 95% of consumers who have a problem with a product don’t complain to the company, but they will tell their tale to eight to 16 people. It’s unproductive because we’re not complaining to the people who can resolve our issue.”

It’s not only that complaining reinforces negative neural pathways and makes you more likely to see problems instead of solutions.

It also makes you dumber overall. Really.

The kicker is that listening to a lot of complaining from someone else – even if you’re not agreeing or encouraging it – eventually does similar damage to your brain as well.

At this point, I’m starting to think complaining is just not a very nice thing.

But hold on, not so fast.

Complaining isn’t all bad, but it needs to be done right

The thing is that when you repress negative emotions or deny them you take years off your life and increase your chance of psychological problems and physical disease.

So clearly “grin and bear it” is not a real solution either.

The truth is that sometimes complaining can be legitimate and healthy if it’s done right.

As Micaela Higgs notes for the New York Times, there is a “just right” amount and type of complaining that is the sweet spot you should be aiming for.

None of us wants to find out the hard way how complaining rewires our brain for negativity, but none of us likes to keep it all inside, either.

There is a right and wrong way to complain: essentially to stop taking things so personally and start noticing our own power and potential instead of the external things keeping us down.

With that in mind let’s take a look at 8 ways how complaining rewires your brain for negativity and then look at 5 effective ways to solve it.

1) You reinforce a victim mentality

Complaining just to “let it out” hurts you and does nothing to help your situation.

With no solution, you will actually create and reinforce the feeling of powerlessness.

As motivational speaker Ashley Elizabeth says:

“People who have a victim mentality believe that life happens to them rather than for them. As a result, they are quick to feel victimized when something doesn’t go as planned…If you feel like the world is constantly trying to hurt you or make you miserable, you know that you have spiraled into victimhood.”

You will remind yourself and seek confirmation from others that you are a victim. This will strengthen negativity and the feeling that you are trapped and your life is horrible.

Even if your life really is horrible and you’re trapped, complaining about it to get sympathy or vent will not help.

The truth is that when you complain you often end up laser-focusing on the downsides of a situation so much that you miss many other great things that are going on.

And you may also miss the solutions to the problem that are staring you in the face and waiting for you to stop being such a downer in order to notice.

2) You get stuck in a SPLOOP

If you find yourself feeling a strange sense of deja-vu when it comes to complaining you could notice that you are in a self-fulfilling prophecy loop (let’s call it a SPLOOP).

As author and psychology researcher Courtney Ackerman explains:

“When our beliefs and expectations influence our behavior at the subconscious level, we are enacting what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy…

When we believe something about ourselves, we are more likely to act in ways that correspond to our beliefs, thus reinforcing our beliefs and encouraging the same behavior.

Similarly, when we believe something about others, we may act in ways that encourage them to confirm our assumptions, thus reinforcing our beliefs about them.

We don’t think much about these cycles when the outcomes are positive, but we have a common term for these cycles when the outcomes are negative: vicious cycles.”

These vicious cycles that Ackerman is talking about here are a bitch to get out of.

I’ve been stuck in a SPLOOP various times myself.

You start to really believe you’re a victim of bad luck and being cursed.

You tell yourself there’s absolutely nothing more and complain to your friends and family and even strangers:

“Look at my life! It’s such a fucking disaster. God, I’m a failure.”

And then, guess what? You become even more of a failure and fail to take the next opportunity that comes along because it doesn’t fit your inner reality of who you are and where your life is headed. This is the ultimate lose-lose!

It’s vital to break out of the SPLOOP cycle.

3) You convince others of your sob story

Another way to understand how complaining rewires your brain for negativity is that it creates a mirror.

You complain to your friends, family, and people you come across, and – more often than not – they will mirror that back to you.

If you vent for an hour about how shitty your job is to an old friend, then the next time you see him or her they are going to see you, and their first thought will be: oh look, it’s Eric. Poor guy has been having a helluva time at work. Hope it’s going better for him. His job must be terrible.

Congratulations: you have become “that person”:

The person defined by their marriage problems;

The person who’s addicted to drugs because of childhood trauma;

The person who can’t get over their depression that nobody understands;

The person who got cheated on by your bitch of a partner.

Don’t get me wrong: any or all of these could be true.

But by complaining to those around you, you just made sure they understand your entire script and mirrored it back to you. You just reinforced that story to your own inner self.

You just made your problems even bigger problems and insurmountable “realities.”

4) You seek out other whiners

This is a big issue about how complaining rewires your brain for negativity.

When you do it enough it becomes “normal” and you seek out more negativity from those around you.

You get addicted to the drama and feel “at home” and comfortable around a stream of negativity. So you get friends, relationships, and interactions that feed you all the negativity and judgmental toxic sludge that you can handle.

Then you get overwhelmed, complain about how awful everyone is, and…find more people who agree with you about how awful everyone is (until you realize how awful they are too).

Do you see how this cycle works?

As the University of Texas at Austin, Professor Raj Raghunathan Ph. D. explains, negative people have a number of qualities that make it difficult to be around them and feed a cycle of negativity including:

“Judgmentalism, or the tendency to impute negative motivations to others’ innocent actions; thus, guests who don’t compliment a meal are judged as “uncouth brutes who don’t deserve future invitations”and pessimism, or the tendency to believe that the future is bleak; thus, for example, negative people can more readily think of ways in which an important sales call will go badly than well.”

5) You get hooked on the online hate machine

Social media can be a great way to stay in touch with friends and family.

But it can also be a hate machine and a place of toxic attention-seeking.

One of the chief ways how complaining rewires the brain for negativity is online.

When we’re feeling low, or lonely or pissed off and go online to complain and vent and fight we reinforce the idea that provoking reactions and negative arguments is a way to get attention and “matter.”

We rewire our brains for negativity when we go online to rant and rave.

Just look at the comments board on a controversial news story the next time you’re browsing. You’ll see people arguing for days about intense subjects and often resorting to name-calling, threats, and deeply offensive personal insults.

The truth is that getting angry online might feel good while you’re doing it, but in the end, it keeps training you to seek out negativity and it can have very severe consequences, including contributing to serious problems like cyberbullying which is causing a rise in suicide among kids and preteens.

6) You see the world in black-and-white

Another result of complaining too often is that you start engaging in more and more black-and-white thinking.

This thinking then results in seeing the world through a dark pair of glasses where almost every single thing that exists is a reason to bitterly complain.

Black-and-white thinking is the habit of seeing the world and life (and yourself) in extremes. It can be positive as in thinking that someone you just met is perfect and will be your dream wife forever or that you will always get a job easily since it’s been easy so far to find one.

Overly positive thinking leads to massive disappointment when reality doesn’t meet expectations.

But when it’s negative it’s even worse. Even when things go well we reject what doesn’t fit in our pessimistic self-image.

Examples of negative black-and-white thinking include thoughts like the following:

Nothing ever goes my way even when I try my best.

I’ll never find love or get a real chance at what everyone else has.

I’m always going to be poor because of this fucking evil economic system.

Nobody understands me at all. 

As Rebecca Stanborough writes, black-and-white thinking is very harmful.

“If we approach normal conflicts with dichotomous thinking, we’ll probably draw the wrong conclusions about other people, and we’ll miss opportunities to negotiate and compromise. Worse still, black and white thinking can cause a person to make decisions without thinking about the impact of that decision on themselves and others involved.”

7) You cling to resentment and trauma

Who the hell would want to cling to resentment and trauma? Not me, you’re thinking.

And you’re right. Sort of.

It is your subconscious and your body itself that’s clinging to resentment and trauma.

You want badly to let it go, but your ego and your respiratory system and instincts themselves are clinging to that pain to try to make the world make sense.

I’m bad or the world is bad, are two simple versions of negative thinking that we subconsciously and sometimes consciously cling to in order to feel safe or as a reaction to being hurt badly in the past.

You are not “broken” or faulty for feeling pain or holding trauma.

But you are keeping yourself at a standstill by not fully dealing with it. This isn’t about denying or pushing it down, it’s about the opposite: accepting and fully working through the pain and blocks inside you.

For that, I highly recommend breathwork, which has made a huge difference for me in bridging the distance between conscious and unconscious and healing deep pain and confusion I was holding in myself that I barely even realized at how deep a level.

8) You create new – and worse – problems to complain about

One of the ultimate sick ironies of complaining is that complaining creates more things to complain about.

A simple example that comes to mind is a job I used to have that I really hated. Let’s just say it was in the educational industry, which is true.

I often vented and complained about it to friends: why do I end up in these awful, crazy jobs? I would ask.

I started bringing that anger to work and complaining to my supervisor about more and more aspects of my job. I thought she was on “my side.”

It turns out she was just trying to do her best at a stressful job too and got tired of my whining. She relayed my negativity to my boss and I got fired.

I think you can guess what I was complaining about that night at the pub to strangers. Not only were the only jobs I could get pieces of shit – I even got fired from the piece of shit job I did end up getting! What a life!

Five solutions to overcome a whining worldview

1) Complain for a reason

When you complain for a reason and with a purpose, you are in an action-oriented place.

You complain to fix and solve something, not to get pity or prove how bad your life is.

You complain because a situation or person has not met your expectations and you are ready and willing to do whatever it takes to address that.

Complaining in this way is limited, short, and non-personal. You don’t vent or get in a rage. You calmly state the ways in which a situation or person or problem is unacceptable and then your plan to fix it.

As marriage and family therapist Shadeen Francis puts it:

“Complaining for the purpose of resolving a concern or grievance is helpful for mental health, as it is a way to channel your needs into actionable outcomes. This can lead to positive experiences like self-awareness (mindfulness) and happiness.”

2) Learn to like big ‘buts’

I’m not talking here about what sexually attracts you in a partner, I’m talking about grammatical buts.

(Nerd high-five).

If and when you do complain, stick a big ol’ but in there.

Examples:

“The weather absolutely sucks today, but I’m stoked about the new show that premieres tonight after work.”

“My boss is an asshole, but I’m getting to be really good friends with my coworker.”

“Finances aren’t great right now I’ll be honest, but I have a few job possibilities coming up that could turn out really well if I’m lucky.”

In these cases, you still get your little dose of complaining, but you add in a but that gives you a window onto a brighter world. You’ll be surprised how much difference that can make.

3) Keep a gratefulness journal

I recommend keeping a gratefulness journal for yourself and only yourself.

The trend of showing off how grateful you are on Instagram and social media is odd to me. Being grateful should be between you and the creation.

Write it down on a page every day, one or two things you’re grateful for. Or even do a sketch that shows what you’re feeling thankful for.

Another great idea is to tell a person you are grateful for them directly.

This isn’t about showing “the world” how good and “spiritual” you are.

It’s about genuinely expressing thanks.

It’s a powerful thing.

4) Use social media constructively

I know this is easier said than done because social media is basically a time vacuum.

Even if you manage to dodge the drama you end up two hours deep in cat GIFs with a smile plastered to your face and a mountain of unopened e-mails.

And frankly, cat and other GIFs can be pretty amusing. So go nuts.

But at the same time, the more you use social media constructively in some way for your passions and interests the more you will be able to avoid using it to complain and seek out conflict.

Learn to see the brighter side of our Worldwide Web.

It’s not all bad out there, I promise.

5) Increase your respect for other people

Another excellent way to cut down on complaining is to increase your respect for other people.

Really think about who you’re complaining to and why. Then put yourself in their shoes.

I’ve found myself complaining to close friends who recently lost family members and people who I later found out were suffering from a serious illness.

And there I was like an asshole whining about how hard it was to find a job or how I feel depressed about modern society.

Come on, man.

Increasing your respect for other people and really trying to think about what they are going through is deeply humbling.

You will realize that many people around you are going through big struggles even if they’re not vocally complaining about them.

It’s one of the fastest ways to never want to complain again.

I’ll let you in on a secret…

The secret of life is that nobody else has a secret “edge” that you don’t have.

Other people are like you:

They’re struggling.

They’re down.

They’re confused.

They also have moments of great joy and triumph when things work out and they feel fulfilled, moments that you have also hopefully had.

But nobody has a secret sauce that is making their life perfect. Nobody is holding a hand full of aces, not even the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos.

Have you ever looked at Bezos’ Twitter? He’s following one person: his ex-wife Mackenzie. Guess who she’s following? Nobody.

Ouch.

The point is:

Yes, some people’s lives are much more difficult and full of trauma than others,

but:

None of us is getting out of here alive and we all have deep struggles.

Complaining is draining

Complaining is draining, and it doesn’t do anything. It just creates a self-fulfilling negative prophecy and makes bad things worse.

It creates a cycle of non-acceptance where we fight reality and our own selves.

My honest advice is to make your life just a little bit easier and leave complaining behind as much as possible.

Notable replies

  1. I believe there are parts of the world, under some political or religious systems, where complaining is very bad for the health of the complainer. Fortunately, other parts of the world allow the individual to be proactive in their attempts to address their problems. Sometimes a person’s problems are self-generated and they do not see that they are the cause of their problems. Perhaps that is what makes us human? I see the article is educating people on more effective complaining. I think some advice on how to recognize the source of a problem may be more rewarding. Most problems are homegrown, it is not the guy 5 cubes over that got you a poor performance review. It is not the house down the street that has let ants into your pantry. Walt Kelly said it so well:

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