Complaining can be good for you: Penelope explores the upside of complaining

The national dialogue lately just feels like complaining. From emails and tax returns to earthquakes and Zika virus, the bad news is taking over my Facebook stream! I want cat videos! I want puppies! I want Bob Dylan accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature! Waah! Waah! Waah! OK. I feel better now. In this post our mascot Penelope the Pink Moose examines the ups and downs of complaining.

As an adorable pink moose, Penelope has very little complaints. But she certainly hears plenty of them. Being a sweet, cuddly mascot involves making people happy, which sometimes requires listening to them talk about the things that make them unhappy.

Complaining is part of life. And it feels good. Venting, getting it off your chest, letting off steam…these idioms exist because the activities they describe are useful to us. They can and often do have a palliative effect. When we reach a boiling point, holding things in just makes us feel bottled up; letting it out brings emotional release, even catharsis.

But by voicing negative emotions, do we simply reinforce them? If by stating something such as “this job stinks,” or “I hate it when…” do we make it so? By reiterating our negative stories, do we emphasize them and give them more depth and substance? On the other hand, does suppressing negative emotions lead to long-term stress? Yes. And yes.

Misery loves company. Science is pretty clear on that one. Studies abound on the negative effects of complaining. One scientist likens complaining to farting in an elevator. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily make you feel better and it makes others feel worse. (http://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/complaining-rewires-your-brain-for-negativity-science-says.html)

By complaining, you train your brain to look for the bad. Chances are good you’ll find it. The bible tells us that “whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” Neuroscience agrees and enlarges that notion this way: synapses that “fire together, wire together.” This is the Hebbian Theory that explains neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself. Think of it as ruts in a dirt road. Every time you drive down that road, your tires will be pulled into the same ruts. Until new ruts are created, you keep getting caught in the old ones. By complaining, you are driving your emotional tires into the same old ruts. In fact, you may be deepening and reinforcing those ruts, making them even harder to avoid n the future.

Co-rumination is the term used to describe extensively revisiting, talking about, and speculating on problems, and focusing on negative feelings with peers. There are two types of co-rumination: co-brooding and co-reflection. Co-reflection, as in “I’m not complaining, I’m just observing,” is the exception to the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” rule.

“It’s not co-ruminating as a whole that’s maladaptive…If you are focusing on the feelings of how bad you feel and the potential consequences in a passive way, then it’s very bad. But if people are more focused on trying to grasp what’s happened to gain insight then it might actually be a very good thing.” (http://qz.com/707060/if-youre-going-to-vent-about-your-problems-do-it-right/)

That is to say, kvetching with a purpose can be purposeful, even empowering. When we air our negative views in a way that exposes them to examination, we become better equipped to understand and potentially dispel their negativity. Et Voilà!

So go ahead, clear the air! Do it mindfully, with purpose and good intentions, but please don’t do it in the elevator.