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How All Your Complaining Rewires Your Brain

Yeah, shit sucks and you can’t change it. But what you can do is channel that energy into something good

As an Irish-Italian-Midwestern person, complaining is an integral part of my culture. I complain about my overbearing family when I’m lucky they love me so much. I complain about how hard it is to write when I’m lucky to do it for a living. And I complain about being too jacked when I’m lucky to be fit at all. I’m literally complaining about how much I complain right now. 

But when people like me make a habit of complaining when they should be grateful, it’s more than just a bad look — it can become genuinely toxic for everyone around them. “If a person is complaining about their relationship, material possessions or work-related issues often, it can become a problem,” Amanda Levison, a therapist at the Neurofeedback & Counseling Center of Pennsylvania, tells me. “It can eventually become an automated thought without any awareness of what they may be saying.”

In other words, the more I ruminate about my Boomer dad, my career and my goddamn coffeemaker, the more terrible everything seems — even if life is pretty good. “This can, in turn, lead to arguments and issues with others, which can cause stress and anxiety and affect our mental and physical health,” Levison warns. 

I’d complain about how I’m only now realizing that this is a problem, but that would miss the point. It’s more helpful to think of complaining as gratitude’s evil twin. Instead of changing our brain chemistry for the better, chronic complaining creates neural pathways that reinforce negative ways of thinking: Your partner doesn’t appreciate you, your boss is out to get you and nothing ever goes your way. Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to internalize anything positive. 

Not only do these complaints essentially rewire your brain to turn you into a Karen (or Greg), but such speak-to-the-manager energy can hurt your closest friends as well. “Listening to other people complain can have a similar negative impact so a person’s complaints can also affect the people around them,” says clinical psychologist Brian Wind. This includes causing stress hormones such as cortisol to spike, which can bring about digestive problems, sleep issues, depression, high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease.

That said, complaining can serve a constructive purpose in moderation, Levison and Wind agree. Complaints are how many people vent and express emotions, as well as recognize which resentments they should surrender and which areas of their life can be improved. “Complaining as a way to vent can sometimes be a way of releasing inner tension and frustration that we feel, so that we’re ready to face the next frustration,” Wind says. In some instances, this can lead to external validation (“Yeah, your boyfriend does suck!”), and provide the necessary confidence to fix a problem. “Complaining is sometimes a way to make problems known so that everyone can find a solution together,” Wind adds. 

The toxicity begins when we complain about things we should be grateful for, not because there’s an underlying issue, but because relationships, careers and mental and physical health require a lot of work to maintain. Moreover, when complaining occurs without the option of healthy action, such negativity has significant potential to spiral out of control. Eventually, even little things like movies, food and your clothes, belongings and environment seem vaguely yet inescapably bad.

The best way to correct this is by keeping track of these thoughts by writing them down. Because again, if reframed, a complaint can become constructive and motivate action. “Catch yourself when complaining,” clinical psychologist Nancy Irwin explains, and “change your language from ‘my assistant is late everyday!’ to a request: ‘Taylor, please be punctual in the future. Thank you.’”

If there’s no constructive action to be taken, tracking complaints, along with their date, time and topic, “shows you patterns in what you complain about,” says Paul Greene, the director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For instance, I found that when I complain about how hard writing is, it’s not because I dislike my job or because I want to run away to become a yoga instructor; it’s usually just because I need more sleep. Without tracking these complaints, I could easily assume that staying up later and waking up earlier to write more was the solution to my problems, but that would only make things worse (and in the past, it very much has). In fact, by timestamping my complaints, it was clear that when I took off time to rest, I was more efficient and capable of working smarter rather than harder. 

Tracking complaints in this much detail is, frankly, a pain in the ass. “That’s part of why it helps. If you know you’ll have to make the note, you’ll be quicker to recognize the complaint before it comes out of your mouth,” Greene advises — i.e., many of us complain because it’s convenient, so the more inconvenient it becomes, the easier it is to stop doing. “Review your notes after a few days; you might be surprised how your perspective changes.”

By writing down your complaints, you can also gauge how much gratitude you need to practice in order to find a balance. There are many ways to practice gratitude — from keeping a gratitude journal to simply talking with your friends about what they’re grateful for. As I alluded to earlier, gratitude similarly builds neural pathways in the brain; these pathways, however, lead to more automatic positive thoughts. So the go-to thought becomes that life will work itself out, and the impulse to gripe becomes smaller and more manageable. “No matter what’s going on or how bad our day is, we all have something to be grateful for — two legs, vision, food,” Irwin says. “We’re all being given an opportunity to see how important our health is, as well as our job, the money we do have and our relationships.” 

That, of course, is a polite way of saying that hopefully the pandemic has given all of us a bit more perspective. Because sure, maybe there’s never been more to complain about. But there’s also never been a better time to slow down and try to stop talking shit about the things we can’t control. And for my fellow chronic complainers, rest assured, you’re not wrong for feeling bad. The good news is, it’s a result of your own thoughts, which you have the power to change — once, that is, you realize the call is coming from inside the house.