- Michael Thompson
There’s a lot to gripe about. Here’s how to complain more productively.
A while back, when in-person gatherings were still a thing, my wife and I were hanging out with a couple we hadn’t seen in a while. When we said our goodbyes, I immediately began grumbling about how much they complained about everything.
My wife just looked at me in confusion. “Are you listening to yourself?” she asked.
The average person complains between 15 to 30 times a day, according to Will Bowen, the author of The Complaint-Free World. Complaining is normal — we’re emotional creatures, and especially these days, the world seems to be giving us a lot to complain about. Some research that suggests complaining can actually be a useful tool for bonding with others and processing emotions.
Still, it’s easy to get into the habit of constantly complaining, emitting negativity, and falling into a trap of always seeing the worst. While I’ll always have gripes, I’ve learned to complain in a more productive way with these five steps.
Track your complaints for a day
Just as tracking the number of times we check our phones can jolt us into becoming more self-disciplined about mindless scrolling, we can reel in our complaining by paying attention to when we do it. Try it for a day: First, estimate how many times you think you complain. Then, starting from the moment you wake, list every complaint you utter in a small notebook. Simply being more conscious of how much you complain can help you limit the habit.
Categorize your complaints
According to psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener, the author of The Courage Quotient and Happiness, there are three types of complaints. Knowing which category yours fall into can help you to complain more mindfully and strategically.
Chronic complaints: These are persistent complaints by people who never seem to be satisfied. Chronic complainers “have a tendency to ruminate on problems and to focus on setbacks over progress,” Biswas-Diener writes. An example might be nonstop complaints about a job by someone who’s doing nothing to improve the situation.
Venting: Venting is primarily about getting something off one’s chest — and receiving validation. Like chronic complainers, venters aren’t focused on finding a solution. An example of venting might be someone calling a friend to complain about the latest annoying thing their partner has done, but having no intention of listening to advice or addressing the issue with their partner directly.
Instrumental complaints: These are complaints that have a goal of finding a solution. They state the problem as the first step in a longer process. An example might be someone who complains about the house always being messy, but then follows it up by making an action plan to keep the house in better order.
Chronic complaining only brings yourself and others down. Venting has its place — sometimes, you just need to say what’s been bubbling inside you aloud. But instrumental complaining is the most productive type of complaining. Instead of wallowing in the ills of the world, you’re doing something about them.
Follow your complaints with “and this is what I’m going to do about it”
To complain more effectively, one trick is to follow your gripe with the question: “What am I going to do about it?” In her book Girlboss, the entrepreneur and author Sophia Amoruso shared a passage that stopped me cold:
If you’re frustrated because you’re not getting what you want, stop for a second: Have you actually flat-out asked for it? If you haven’t, stop complaining. You can’t expect the world to read your mind. You have to put it out there, and sometimes putting it out there is as simple as saying, ‘Hey, can I have that?’
Asking for what you want can be scary. Start smart by building your “discomfort” muscle during your daily conversations: Kindly request that your co-worker stop talking to you on speakerphone instead of griping behind their back, or ask your boss for more time on certain projects instead of complaining to your partner that you’re overwhelmed.
You may find that people were unaware that something was bothering you and are more than willing to help you out.
Schedule a daily “complaint break”
In their book Shed 10 Years in 10 Weeks, Julian Whitaker, MD, and Carol Colman suggest taking “worry breaks.” Instead of letting your anxiety build up all day, set aside a specific time to think about what’s bothering you. You can do this with all your complaints, too. It helps you get an idea of which ones are within your control and which ones aren’t.
What also works — and can be lots of fun — is enlisting a complaining partner. Schedule a regular complaining session. It doesn’t matter if your complaints feel petty or like #firstworldproblems. This is a judgment-free zone.
Replace your complaints with good deeds
I was complaining to my dad about all the problems in my life when he stopped me and said, “Shut up and go buy that beautiful wife of yours some flowers.” For once, I did what he told me to do. Upon receiving the flowers, my wife wasn’t the only person smiling. I was, too.
If you feel the urge to complain about the weather, give your kids a hug instead. If you’re about to complain about your boss being a jerk, thank a fellow team member for their continued support. This takes some practice. But it’s worth the effort. Boosting your own mood by raising someone else’s is the ultimate life hack.