Why We Complain … and How to Make It More Effective

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Everyone complains. We complain about the weather … or our kids … or our mother-in-laws … just to break the ice. It’s common in the workplace too, but is it good for us? Or effective?

That depends on who you complain to and when, says Robin Kowalski, psychology professor at Clemson University. Kowalski, who has done extensive research on emotional venting, separates complaints into two categories: instrumental and expressive.

“Instrumental complaints are goal oriented, meaning that we verbalize the problem in hopes of bringing about change,” explains Hagar Scher in a WebMD article. Conversely, the goal of expressive complaints is to get something off your chest, in search of a little acknowledgement and sympathy.

Either type of complaining can be healthy if you feel better once you vent.

Imagine you’ve been working all day on a project and as you’re nearing completion, your boss stops by to let you know that the direction has changed. He’s all apologies but explains that you’ll need to scrap what you’ve done so far and start over. You mutter under your breath, chastise yourself for starting in a timely manner to begin with … and turn to a coworker to complain. You try to restart, but instead walk away to refill your coffee cup … repeat your tale of woe to the next person you see … and the person after that …. Does it make you feel better? Or does it just keep you from moving forward?

Complaining can be healing, according to Barbara Hel, PhD and professor of psychology at Bowdoin College. It is important for mental health to know how to express unhappiness and frustration. But, for some people, complaining is habit. It’s social. They’re just looking for support in a situation they’re not willing to put effort into changing. So, each time they tell the tale, they relive the aggravation. And since most of us complain to people who can’t actually help — coworkers who are powerless to effect change or a friend who doesn’t even know the players — this expressive complaining can quickly go overboard.  An extreme example would be “chronic complainers who get stuck in victim mode, irritating the people around them, “says Michael Cunningham, PdD and psychologist at the University of Louisville.

So where’s the line? Kowalski’s research found that “those who complained with the hope of achieving a certain result, tended to be happier than those who simply did so for its own sake.” Explained in an article in The Atlantic, “Kowalski speculates from findings in her pet peeves study that happier, more mindful individuals may be better at modulating their complaints, preferring to complain only when it serves a purpose. By contrast, she says, people who are less mindful may complain more often, but to lesser effect.”

It’s definitely frustrating to face the same person or situation repeatedly without complaint. But, if you’re looking for a resolution and you repeatedly complain to people who can’t help, you also will begin to feel powerless. Over time, this helplessness can affect your mood, your self-esteem, and even your general mental health, explains Guy Winch, PhD, in a Psychology Today article.

Effective complaining means going to the source — talking to the person who can change what’s happening. Effective complaining is empowering.

A large amount of complaining is just our way of connecting with other people. But, if you really want to solve a problem and feel more in control, plan your complaints and direct them to the person who can help make change happen.

For more information on dealing with complainers and other difficult people, check out this article.


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