Complaining is an admission of defeat

Complaining is a popular pastime but, it turns out, a deadly one.

Constant complaining encourages your neurons to lay down express tracks to Bummerville, so that every time you think of work, for example, you also instantly think about the SOB who does whatever, all the time, to your intense irritation… and you’re off, roaring down the track of your favourite mental rant. Then those same neurons, which might otherwise be gainfully employed in some creative or world-saving pathway building, don’t get the opportunity because they’re devoted to their Bummerville route.

Imagine: constant complaining could actually make your brain less effective.

And because we don’t like going it alone, we infect others through the stealthy mechanism of neural mirroring, so those around us can get on the Bummerville train, too. Even without us knowing it, our brain says to their brain, hey bestie, I love you – let’s get miserable together.

You also get stressed. The rant releases the nasty hormone cortisol, which in turns makes your body vulnerable to all kinds of stuff that kills you. Which is obviously even worse than getting stupider or making our friends and loved ones miserable.

When I read all this it occurred to me, maybe I need to stop complaining. And to do that I’d have to figure out why we do it in the first place.

I realized that every time I complain, I’m telling myself (and anyone who’s been forced to listen) that I’ve ceded control over a situation. Stuck in traffic, my government being idiotic, some perceived rudeness or slight, my precious time being wasted, my precious ego being stomped on. When I complain, I effectively capitulate to the problem. It’s a passive aggressive reaction, like that’s OK, crappy situation, you can rain down on me and I’ll just sit here and rant ineffectually in response.

Not a good route to happiness!

There are, as with most things, some antidotes to feeling like you have no control, even when it’s true and you really don’t.   

The first is the old gratitude trick, which is not just a woo-woo thing but a scientific fact: active gratitude reduces stress and re-forms neural pathways into more positive routings. It can physically deconstruct the express track to Bummerville. So, when you’re seething about how your rant-subject always does ‘x’ that makes you nuts, think about how that person also does ‘y’, which is very helpful.

Come on, there must be something. You get the idea.

The second antidote is to reframe the situation to modify your initial goal. For example, the idea of being stuck in traffic every friggin’ day, it’s so much worse than it ever was before, blah, blah, blah. Yes, it is. You can’t control that, but you can control how you deal with it. If your initial goal was ‘get there in 30 minutes’, the fact that it now takes 45 is irritating because you feel it’s wasting your time. Reframing solution: accept that it now takes 45 and find a way to make that time feel more productive. Listen to a book on tape or a podcast, travel with a friend. Or just take that extra 15 minutes to let your mind wander, which is a more fruitful activity than we tend to give it credit for.

The third antidote is to actually do something about the situation. Talk to the SOB. Change what time you drive. Start a political movement. Start a social movement. Quit.

By complaining we allow ourselves to be apathetic about action. We feel as though we’re doing something by making our disgruntled voices heard. We’re not; we’re just making ourselves stupid and sick.

Ironically, before sitting down to write this today I was in mega complaint-mode because my day wasn’t going at all as planned. It felt downright karmic to open my ‘blog ideas’ file and find complaining right at the top of the list. The universe often has a wicked sense of humour.

And having written it, I feel better already…dismantling those tracks to Bummerville.

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