Chances are, if you live in Chicago, you’ve uttered a complaint or two about how spring is just a euphemism for “extended winter.” Then again, if you live in Phoenix, you might grumble that hearing “it’s a dry heat” gets old fast — especially when the temperature tops 100 degrees. It’s easy to complain about the weather, and other factors beyond our control. It’s also tempting to complain when things we can control don’t go our way. But is it healthy — or harmful?
Many clients begin their executive coaching and career coaching engagements with us by reciting a seemingly endless stream of complaints. From their demanding stockholders to their partner who doesn’t listen or rude driver that cut them off on their way to the office, there never seems to be a shortage of conversation around what is wrong or who is wronging them. Sometimes, complaints are targeted at themselves — their perceived shortcomings or incompetency.
The Dark Side of Complaining
For many people, complaining serves as an “easy way out” of a challenging situation. Saying “this stinks” is a lot easier — in the short term — than finding a solution. Blaming, whether yourself or others, is a first cousin of complaining. Neither is generally an effective way to change a situation.
In fact, in many ways, they make it worse. For starters, complaining increases stress and anxiety, interfering with your ability to think clearly and perform at your best. Over the long run, stress poses myriad threats to your physical and emotional well-being. Harping on the negative side of any situation makes it the focus, as we often remind our coaching clients.
Complainers tend to bring the bad news to the forefront, often erroneously upstaging its positive counterpart. (Sure, the wait for a table might be 45 minutes long, but the meal is going to be fabulous, you’re with great friends and you can afford the restaurant!) In addition, negativity can spread, from you to your family, friends and coworkers through what is known as emotional contagion. It can also create a downward spiral, creating a victim mentality that results in pessimism and, even worse, hopelessness.
Can Complaining be Helpful?
While habitual complaining can be problematic on many levels, complaining isn’t all bad — all the time. When coaching clients complain about something (or someone) in their life, it can be a positive step toward change. Having an awareness that something isn’t working or doesn’t feel right in your life opens the door to exploration. Perhaps it’s time to engage in a difficult conversation, or consider a change in your career.
In some situations — think waiting in long lines at the DMV — complaining can break the ice among strangers, forming a “we’re-in-this-together” type of bond. Since talking to strangers can boost your mood, according to research, a conversation that begins as a mutual complaining session can quickly transition onto more pleasant topics. Complaining can also spur action. If handled tactfully, complaining to the front desk clerk about the leaky faucet in your hotel room alerts them to the problem, and allows them to rectify it — whether that means sending the maintenance worker up to fix it, or moving you to another room.
To Complain—or Not?
Venting — complaining for complaining’s sake — can be cathartic, within limits. For many people, however, complaining is a patterned response. It is also a choice. As we remind our coaching clients, every situation or interaction you have throughout your day presents you with an opportunity to decide how to react. Like other habits, deciding to stop complaining requires awareness and focused discipline.
Interested in learning how to respond to any situation with a renewed sense of control? Consider our MindMastery workshop, which teaches you how to change your thoughts, moods and behaviors in order to effectively to achieve different — and consistently better — results. This workshop also includes two individual follow-up sessions with one of our trained, certified coaches.
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