What happens when you complain?

People often complain because they have the impression that this is how they will feel better; they want to free themselves of all the emotional tension they feel, they seek support in others, they seek to be approved, to be right, to be pitied, or they simply got used to react this way by living in a perpetual state of negativity.

People who are negative, bitter, who can never be pleased, those who are constantly complaining, are those people who generally spread this negativity on others. They want to attract others in their "black cloud" because they don’t want to suffer in silence, by themselves. If they don’t feel good, they don’t want people around them to feel good either. Whether they do this consciously or unconsciously, around such people you will feel more and more impoverished and burdened.

When we see someone angry, sad, or manifesting any other kind of emotion, unwillingly our brain will try to "mimic" that emotion so we can better understand the person, and will do this by activating the same synapses responsible for that emotion which we observe the other person is having. Unwillingly and perhaps without realizing, the emotions of those around us are "contagious" and negativity is "spread" much easier than positivity. Therefore, for our mental and emotional health, it’s important to surround ourselves with people with whom we can feel good, but in order for this to happen, we also have to be like the ones we want around - positive, assumed and willing to continually improve our emotional intelligence.

In addition, when you are around people who always complain, you will also have the tendency to start complaining, to think about those things that are not ok or to make negative scenarios about what might happen. As possible, if you take part in such conversations, try not to fall into this trap; try not to bring grist to their mill, instead direct the conversation to more pleasant topics. For example, a colleague can complain that he has received a new task that he doesn’t like, and you, instead of pitying him and dance to their tune about how unfair it is, listen to him, but mention them the fact that he can use this task as an opportunity to prove himself that he can, a chance to learn new things or to improve certain skills.

After all, who wants to endlessly listen how your friend, colleague, mother, father or partner complains about all sorts of things, often just for the sake of complaining? When you complain, in fact, you try to avoid taking responsibility. You don’t want or you say to yourself that you can’t do anything to solve the situations you are complaining about. You just want to draw attention this way, or you got used to play the victim, and you seek to be validated as such, you seek to be pitied or comforted.

Although you may feel good the moment you start complaining, the truth is that this habit is extremely toxic. For example, in those moments the cortisol level increases. This stress hormone activates your "fight or flight" response and in the long run can lead to health problems such as a high cholesterol, obesity, heart disease, diabetes. In addition, every time you complain about something, it's like reliving the situation again and again. You are activating the same emotions that are amplifying and amplifying as you are mentally reliving that situation. This kind of "emotional relief" is actually an emotional overload, because you don’t really release those emotions, but you simply deepen certain negative feelings.

To complain implies, from the beginning, to focus your attention and energy on something negative. When you have repeatedly negative thoughts and feelings, you basically set your brain to respond in the same way from now on, that is, in a negative way. Thoughts change the brain structure and the more you complain about something, the more you will strengthen those neural networks that make you react this way. The more you activate your neural networks, the more you will manifest the same type of behavior. This kind of behavior will become automatic and you will tend to react the same way every time. For example, even when beautiful things happen to you, you will tend to focus on the negative because it has become much easier for you to have a negative attitude than a positive one, no matter what happens around. Or you can find yourself in the situation when you go for a walk or try to relax and suddenly your mind becomes more and more overwhelmed by negative thoughts - because you are already used to frequently have such thoughts.

In addition, the brain tends to focus more on the negative than the positive because negative stimuli produce more neural activity than positive ones and are perceived even faster. This phenomenon is known as negativity bias. When we repeatedly complain, we activate the neurons that are responsible for this negativity bias. The truth is that we are the ones who create a negative reality by repeating certain thoughts and negative behaviors. They can’t influence us so bad unless they become habits. It’s up to us on what we focus our attention, what patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving we reinforce and perpetuate.

Is it possible to free ourselves from destructive thoughts and actions and change our negative habits? The answer is yes! Our brain has an important characteristic - neuroplasticity. This means that it has the ability to restructure, permanently change throughout our life. As by repeating certain thoughts we have formed some thinking patterns, some neural networks, the same way we can choose to think and behave differently, to form other neural networks.

When the neurons activate at the same time (this representing a reaction to a certain stimulus) they’ll connect together, creating a powerful connection. So, the more you repeat one thing, the connections get stronger, becoming more powerful every day. On the other hand, if we stop doing one thing or we decrease its frequency, the neural connections will weaken and it will be more and more difficult for us to do that thing.

The more we complain, the more we strengthen those negativity patterns, the less we do it, the more we will weaken those patterns.

Of course we can’t always be joyful and in an exceptional shape, nor is it realistic, but we can do some activities or do some things to fight negative thinking.

Thus, we can reframe our negative thoughts, that is to see things from a different perspective - to change what a thing means to us by changing our perspective. For example, instead of thinking that you are unhappy because you haven’t got that promotion you wished for,  you could think that you have the opportunity to improve certain skills, or that you can spend the time you should have spent it at work by dedicating it to a hobby of yours that you have forgotten.

When you complain, you are actually dissatisfied that things are in a way you don’t like. If it isn’t really up to you to change that aspect, all you can do is change your perspective. What's the point of complaining, becoming full of negativity if you can’t change things? You are in control of your thoughts and emotions, so the next time you tend to complain again, remember that you can change your point of view. Take responsibility for what you can control - for your attitude and actions.

When the situation that bothers us depends on us, the wisest thing to do is to find a solution. When we complain, we are actually focusing on what we don’t want. But how would it be instead to turn our attention to what we want and start making changes to get those things?

Another way you can fight negative thinking is by practicing gratitude. Instead of thinking about all the things you don’t like or those things you don’t have for the moment, think about all the reasons you are grateful for. The very simple fact that you can now read this article, that you feel the air coming in and out of your lungs, are reasons to be grateful. When you focus on the good things in your life, you teach your brain to function differently, to break the old destructive patterns that sink you into frustration, dissatisfaction, lack of meaning.

When you are present and aware of your sensations, feelings and thoughts, you are also very attentive to the way you react or what you are about to say. For example, before saying something or reacting automatically, think about whether what you are going to say or to do strengthens or perpetuates a negative or a positive habit. You are the one who chooses what thoughts and patterns you carry on in your life.

Of course, we can’t expect the negativity of our thoughts and lives to disappear by wonder, in fact, nor can we give up something unless we put something else in place - we can’t make our negative thoughts disappear by wonder, but we can transform them. Every day, every month, we can become more and more aware and find new, better and more evolutionary ways to relate to what is happening to us.

I invite you, even for a day, when you identify negative thoughts and feel the need to complain, to think instead how you can turn those thoughts so you can real feel a positive change in your mind and life.

I invite you, on the same day, to replace the reasons for being discontent with reasons for being grateful and to tell me how you felt at the end of the day.

Don’t forget that the power is in your hands!

Dr. Ursula Sandner






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