January 16, 2018
“I hate myself. Every little thing. I don’t know of one thing that I don’t hate about myself. I’m ugly. I’m too big. I’m too short. I’m a loser. Everything I do is wrong. I’m not even okay at home. Nothing I do is right and will ever be right. I don’t even know how to handle it any longer. FML“– Name withheld for privacy
Quick question: After reading this short, true-life rant, how did it make you feel?
Annoyed? Frustrated? Angry? A little depressed?
If so, you just experienced the power of complaining. Because of the human capacity for empathy, you are able to share the emotional experiences of someone else. When they suffer, you suffer a little too. And boy do we like to share our collective suffering.
Bitching By The Numbers
Worldwide, people complain roughly 879 million times a year on social media – and that’s just about companies we don’t like. That figure doesn’t include any Facebook or Instagram posts about politics, religion, financial woes, health problems, marital issues or the next-door neighbor’s dog.
And even with all that online kvetching, it turns out we whine a lot more in real life. How much more? Let’s do some quick math and see.
Research suggests that during average conversations we complain roughly once a minute. Women (and men!) speak about 16,000 words every day. 16k words equals a little over two hours of conversation so if we talk for two hours every day, and we whine a normal amount, in an average year each person will complain more than 44,000 times. Multiply that by 7 billion and, well, you get the idea.
Complaining: The Good…
It’s true some experts believe there are valid reasons for complaining.
Psychologist Guy Winch, author of “The Squeaky Wheel,” thinks we need to vent our frustrations. “It’s really unhealthy to squelch complaints,” he says. “By not complaining aloud, it doesn’t mean the dissatisfaction has gone away. You’re just not voicing it.”
“It’s one way to create rapport,” adds Joanna Wolfe, a researcher at Carnegie-Mellon University. She believes complaining about shared misery can create a bond between people. “I’ve made friends that way,” she says.
Unfortunately, as enjoyable as it may be to lament our burdens, there are significant dangers of negative speech.
Complaining is Habit Forming
The more you complain, the better your brain becomes at doing it. Every time you repeat an activity, the nerves in the brain begin to create bridges to make it easier the next time. Neuroscientists describe this process as ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together.’ So if you complain often enough during difficult or uncomfortable situations that will become your brain’s default response.
Complaining Can Hardwire You For Failure
If your default mental setting is dissatisfaction, you will naturally begin to focus on the problems in your life. This can set up a habitual downward spiral that will be very hard to break. As satirist Bobby Darnell said, “Negativity is cannibalistic. The more you feed it, the bigger and stronger it grows.”
Complaining Changes the Way People See You
When you complain, especially habitually, it affects people’s perspectives of you. Sure, airing a few grievances once in a while might seem harmless or even sociable. But if you continue to gripe you will be associated with negativity and lose out on a host of benefits. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer.
…and the Ugly
Okay, you might be thinking. Maybe bitching a little isn’t a great idea but come on, it can’t be that bad, can it? Actually, it can.
Complaining Physically Damages the Body
Do you remember hearing about Cortisol? The stress hormone the body releases when we process angry, scary or depressing thoughts? Well, it turns out elevated Cortisol levels can suppress learning, memory and immune responses. That would be problem enough but it gets worse. Extra Cortisol also leads to weight gain, blood pressure problems, heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes and a host of other issues.
So when you share your misery you are literally hurting yourself. But it isn’t just you….
Even Second-Hand Complaints Can Be Dangerous
In the 1980s, researchers began using fMRI machines to monitor brainwave activity. After a few experiments they began to see a fascinating trend. Apparently when humans witness someone performing an activity, such as grasping a teacup during a teaparty, part of our brain responds as if we ourselves had picked up the cup. Scientists believe this neuronal mirroring is linked to our ability to empathize with others. What this means is that if someone nearby is upset, angry, scared or depressed, guess who else will be feeling some of those emotions? That’s right – You!
Getting Rid of Grumbling and Griping
By now it seems pretty clear that the risk/reward ratio for complaining simply doesn’t add up. But what about all the things that genuinely need fixing? Certainly there are problems that can’t be ignored in our lives. According to Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence 2.0,‘ there are four steps to effectively transform our habitual bitching into productive dialogue:
Have a clear purpose
Before you tell someone your problem, ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Are you actually trying to change something or just whining to vent your frustrations? Identify your motives.
Focus on the good
Frame your problem as a minor issue in an overall good experience. Studies have continually shown that the ratio of praise-to-criticism in both successful businesses and marriages is about 5-to-1: For every one critical statement at least five compliments are given. Keep that ratio firmly in mind with every conversation.
Don’t focus on other grievances you may have had in the past. If you require someone to fix too many simultaneous problems they may get overwhelmed, confused or distraught. More practically, they may not have the time or resources to solve all of your needs immediately. Work on solving a single problem and save additional issues for another time.
End on a positive
If you tell someone “This experience was terrible and I’m never coming back again,” you don’t give them a chance to improve or to help you. At that point you’re simply offloading your anger. In order to get better service next time, mention the problem that needs fixing and then say “Thank you, I’m really going to feel better when this is accomplished.”
As satisfying as it feels to bitch about the things that annoy us, the science simply doesn’t support it. If we want to be healthy and happy and successful it’s time to start eliminating negative speech from our lives. The guys here at Superior Men will be starting a Complaint Free challenge very soon and I invite all of you to join us. In the meantime, I encourage you to think about what you’re saying every day. It can make a huge difference.
Until next time, remember: The world needs Superior Men like you!