You know that amazing feeling when you get a break to b*tch to your coworkers around the water cooler about that irritating thing your boss just did? What about when you call up your mom when your roommate leaves to vent about the dirty dishes she leaves in the sink? Or when you’re tired and your coffee maker isn’t working, so you text your best friend, “omg worst Monday everrrrrr?” What about the thrill of commenting something negative on an Instagram post of a celebrity you don’t like or an Instagram post that you don’t agree with? I, dear readers, have had my fair share of being seduced by the coping mechanism and daily habit that is complaining.
On bad, stressful days, it’s easy to complain about anything that inconveniences me–the traffic, the weather, a friend getting on my nerves. Whether it’s out loud to whoever is nearby or just thinking it in my head, complaining comes as naturally to many of us as breathing. I often get swept up in both of the major and minor frustrations we encounter every day, and I have a flair for drama so daily frustrations become omg, the world is out to get me! While some venting is healthy to prevent bottling up feelings and a fresh perspective can help solve a situation, too much complaining can cause chronic stress, affect our relationships, and even affect our health. So what’s a girl to do? Here is how I went on a complaint cleanse and why you should too:
Why do we complain?
According to Psychology, we complain because we find a gap between expectation and reality, but it can also be a subconscious bonding technique. Venting over shared negative experiences can build a sense of camaraderie, since you’re disliking the same thing and feeling the same emotion. Complaining is actually contagious, meaning you can start complaining more if the people you’re around are complainers, and vice versa.
But talking about that annoying person who budges you in the Trader Joe’s line or how bad your hair looks creates a feedback loop, making us experience the negative emotion over and over again. Focusing on dissatisfactions that we do not have the power to control (or try to change) can leave us feeling victimized, hopeless, and even depressed. Of course, the occasional dissatisfaction every now and then can’t have that much affect on our minds, but let’s be honest with ourselves. Think about how many things you complain about a day–the weather outside, the crowded public transportation this morning, the TV show you didn’t like, the coffee shop that got your order wrong, the meeting that ran long—and how the immediate reaction of frustration and helplessness accumulates overtime and can rewire our brains to find the negative in any situation. It’s a constant cycle; complaining actually leads to even more complaining.
If you’re unsure if you complain too much, look back through your texts, emails, and DMs to see if they have a more negative tone than positive, or if there are as many negative comments as there are positive. You can also keep a thought journal and write down every time you think a negative thought or voice a complaint. If all of your conversations and thoughts are negative 20% of the time, that’s average, but if they’re any more than that, it could be seriously affecting your mental and physical health.
Why complaining too much can be harmful
A 2016 study by Standford found that complaining actually shrinks neurons in certain areas of the brain. In other words: it decreases your brain’s ability to problem solve. Complaining also releases cortisol, the stress hormone, which raises blood pressure and affects blood sugar. Now I’ve got your attention, huh? Besides the serious physical effects, complaining also affects our relationships. Psychologically speaking, negative thoughts stand out in the brain more so than positive things (just think of how you’d likely forget a compliment but always remember an insult, or how you’d obsess over losing a $20 bill more than finding a $20 bill). This means that your negativity or negative comments are more likely to stand out in people’s minds than the positive things about you or the positive things you say. Likewise, if you’re complaining about your relationships, you are likely to start seeing more negativity in loved ones.
Now let’s switch to the flip side: gratitude, or as I call it for the purpose of this article, the opposite of complaining. Gratitude in general has an extreme amount of benefits, including improved sleep, increased energy, strengthening the immune system, greater longevity, healthier relationships, and the obvious one: making you happier.
My experience doing a complaint cleanse
I’ve always believed strongly in the power of positive thinking, but it wasn’t until a scroll through Instagram that I realized I might need more than some meditation apps to fully achieve a grateful mindset. Author Cleo Wade posted about a complaint cleanse and I was immediately inspired:
I mean, I am a millennial after all; cleanses come like second nature. I’ve tried a digital detox, a skin detox, and even a juice cleanse (don’t worry, only once when it was a thing back in 2016. EAT WHOLE FOODS, PEOPLE!). So a complaint cleanse seemed like the obvious thing to do. I’m also a big believer in the power of words (I dedicated my career to writing them), and feel that every word we say can make a difference in the world, for better or for worse. It’s why I choose not to argue with strangers on the internet, why I refuse to talk behind people’s backs, and why I wanted to write this article.
These examples may not seem like they make that much immediate difference to the world, but I’ve always had this idea of words being like pennies in a jar: every word that is positive and empathetic of other people is one penny, and every word that’s intended to be negative, judgmental, or mean is a penny taken away. Cleo Wade’s post made me realize all of my complaints—even about the weather, the movie I thought was bad, or the food that arrived cold at the restaurant—were also pennies being taken out of the jar.
At the risk of going too Mother Teresa on you, trust me when I say it feels good to complain. And this isn’t about getting rid of all negative emotions (no toxic productivity is welcomed here). Negative feelings or thoughts can help us see what to change, realize what we want out of our lives, and stay away from danger (BTW voicing opinions when you see injustice is also not a complaint, it’s a call to action). To be clear, I will always be a fan of venting to my mom and speaking out (as loudly as I can!) about issues and injustices that need to be changed. But I’ve realized the power that frivolous complaints actually have on ourselves and the people around us.
So for one whole week, I swore off all complaining. Every time I felt myself getting angry at other drivers on the road or being annoyed that my food was taking too long at a restaurant, I noticed the negative thought and then chose to let it go. I thought two positive comments for every negative one, and I wrote down three things I was grateful for every morning and every night. I made an effort to compliment my friends and family more often and tell them good things about my day or funny stories I’d heard instead of bad things that happened to me. In other words, I filled the space I had previously reserved for complaining with only positive, supportive words and thoughts.
The main thing I learned from going on a complaint cleanse was the difference between what’s worth it to voice and what wasn’t. If something can be fixed, like your spouse leaving dirty dishes in the sink, asking for a change or explaining what you don’t appreciate can actually make the situation better. But if traffic was bad that morning, there is absolutely no reason to complain about it to my coworkers. There’s nothing I can do to fix it, and it just takes up space where I could be thinking, “What a beautiful day it is outside,” or asking how their mornings were (oh yeah, other people have lives too!).
In the end, I’d much rather see and create good things, without commenting on the bad. I’d much rather be the author, not the critic. As my girl Cleo says, when we do this, we let our language be part of what makes the world better, instead of worse. Juice cleanses may not be worth it, but complaint cleanses, as I voluntarily discovered, are the kind of cleanse that you’ll want to keep going long after the week is over.