“In short: Yes, it’s good to complain, yes, it’s bad to complain, and yes, there’s a right way to do it,” Dr. Kowalski said.
The trick to doing it right starts with understanding how the word “complaining” is often misused to describe a variety of behaviors, with some being more harmful or helpful than others. Teasing apart these distinctions requires vocabulary that varies between experts, but there are roughly three categories: venting, problem solving and ruminating, otherwise known as dwelling. Knowing which behavior you’re engaging in, and with what purpose, can help you put in place habits that will not only make your complaining much more strategic, but also help improve your emotional health and build stronger relationships with the people around you.
That’s why “complaining is, ideally, totally solutions focused,” Ms. Gilbertson said. Though venting is not as focused on solving problems, “there are also really positive benefits,” Dr. Grice said, because it allows us “to get things out in the open and get our feelings heard so they don’t build up and cause stress.”
Negatively obsessing over something isn’t healthy, but Dr. Kowalski said that “expressive complaining” — blowing off steam — and “instrumental complaining” — which is done with an actionable goal — can both be beneficial. Venting can help us gain perspective and put words to our feelings, Dr. Grice said. When done effectively, it can even help you clearly realize what, specifically, about a situation is bothering you.
On top of social bonding, feedback from others can help us gain perspective — like figuring out if a boss’s comments were truly out of line — or notice patterns in the things that bother us, which might point to a larger unidentified problem.
“It’s crucial, if you’re venting, to know that you’re venting and to tell the person you’re venting,” Ms. Gilbertson said. Whether you just want to blow off steam or actually need help solving a problem, clarifying what you want from the interaction will make the receiver of your venting more comfortable, and it will better prepare them to give you the support you need.
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