The Psychology of Complaining
With complaining being viewed so negatively, why is it prevalent?
Posted April 21, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Complaining is prevalent in our culture, despite being viewed negatively.
- Complaining is a form of communication, and as such has benefits and costs.
- Complaining connects people, makes one feel better having vented, and can lead to feeling validated.
- A drawback of complaining is ego reinforcement and it may drive people apart.
For a while I have wanted to write about complaining. This has arisen out of noticing not only how much others complain, but how much I complain. In that vein, this post will explore my theory and philosophy about complaining. Though complaining is commonplace, it is generally viewed negatively. No one wants to be labeled a complainer. It is also unlikely that anyone seeks complainers as their companions. So, with such a negative view of complaining, why is it so prevalent?
Why Do We Communicate?
To address the above, the reasons people communicate need to be explored first, to see how they relate. Recently a student asked me why I want to be quieter after I had shared that goal in class. I explained that in my opinion speaking serves only a few purposes: communicating information or instruction, connecting with others, and/or reinforcing one’s ego. Communicating information is commonplace and needs little explanation. It encompasses things like, “Can you put that over there?” and “What time will you be home?” as well as formal instruction.
In previous posts, I have addressed the importance of communication in connecting (“Why Don’t I Just Shut Up?”; A Verbose Argument For Silence”; “Be With Me or Let Me Be”). In sessions and classes, I often reference an article by Emily Esfahani Smith that discusses how each communication between partners is a “bid” for connection. Words help connect one to others, and humans seek connection naturally.
Venting, a common form of complaining, may bring validation. Often when I complain about South Florida drivers, my thoughts are validated by those around me who feel similarly. Often this brings a sense of connection with another. People commiserate over the things that upset them. Complaining opens the door for this. When another recognizes your pain (expressed by complaining) and validates your experience, this feels good and momentarily connects. Carl Rogers, the humanistic theorist, believed feeling heard was extremely powerful.
I have also addressed using words to reinforce one’s ego in previous posts. Much of what we do reinforces a sense of self. This is especially evident in judging others and gossiping. People, whether consciously or not, often seek to make themselves feel better or more important by downward comparison (comparing themselves to others that are perceived to be worse off in some way). For example, when you judge the decisions of the government as ridiculous, you feel smarter (or more honest) than those creating policy. Humans judge naturally. Evolutionary theory suggests we needed to make quick decisions about whether others were with us or against us. As such, and as I’ve written before (most recently in “Disagree, But Understand Why”), people are always judging others to evaluate where these others stand relative to them.
Though everyone reinforces their ego at times and it is natural to being human, it is a negative aspect of communication, and certainly one that seems opposed to true self-actualization. Much complaining is about others, and likely falls into the category of ego reinforcement. Even given its negative motivation, it feels good and therefore perseveres.
As listed above, there are several positive outcomes to complaining. It may foster a sense of validation in the individual. Complaining, like all communication, may bring a sense of connectedness between individuals.
Additionally, venting makes one feel better. Letting out a negative experience certainly feels better than keeping it in. Often once someone vents, they feel better. Sometimes hearing oneself vent allows the speaker to hear himself, and to realize maybe the complaint isn’t that big a deal. In a way, just venting allows an external perspective, and is self-monitoring, indicating that what one is complaining about needn’t bother them so.
As discussed above, complaining may reinforce one’s ego at the expense of others. Additionally, and as opposed to connecting people, complaining may drive people apart. When someone is viewed as a chronic complainer other people may not engage. No one really wants to be around someone who complains incessantly. Generally, people want to be around balanced, moderate people. If someone is too bitter, or for that matter too happy, others tend to avoid them (or, perhaps, complain about them).
Another reason people may complain is that the brain is negative-biased. The human brain, geared for survival, focuses on negatives (as they appear more threatening to survival) than on positives (which enhance life but are less vital for survival). As the brain perceives negatives at an approximated ratio of five to one, there is simply more to complain about than there is to be grateful for. Additionally, this may lead to less general happiness.
Balancing Your Verbiage
Though I often lament that I want to stop complaining altogether, this is likely unrealistic and unhealthy. Not complaining is unlikely because it is natural for humans to focus on the negative. Stopping all complaints is unhealthy because venting allows us to release pent-up emotion, and, at times, to use that to connect to others.
The solution is to balance what one discusses and to use communication effectively. As with almost everything I suggest, this begins with mindfulness of what the goal is. Do I feel a need to be validated? To connect to others? Am I aware of the body language of those around me in response to my discussion? Do I need to vent to get feedback, to release negative emotion, or hear myself and realize it is not so bad? Are any of the needs really needs, or am I functioning from a place of unconscious conditioning? When you can balance these forces internally, you will utilize complaining effectively.
Copyright 2021 William Berry.
Smith, E; 2014; Masters of Love; The Atlantic; Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/37…