Hate to Say It, but Complaining Only Gets You What You Want When It’s ‘Problem-Solving’

Photo: Stocksy / Diane Villadsen

I am very infamous for my champagne complaints, my prosecco problems, if you will. This makes me a very hilarious companion during Happy Hour, and then, one unhappy hour later, very annoying to everyone including myself. That's because complaining has hard limits when it comes to making someone feel better. Luckily, as one recent New York Times piece points out, there is an art to learning how to get exactly what you want by complaining in a healthy and, let's be real, effective manner.

Well, okay, "art" is maybe a stretch. Instead, it's more about the awareness of the different types of complaining. Just like it's important to know that not all gossip is bad, complaining can be a valid and useful way to communicate with others. The caveats tend to depend on who you're complaining too, and for how long.

A little confused? You don't have to be. With the help of clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, we broke down the three main types of complaining, what their mental health limitations pros and cons are, and how to check yourself before you fall down a misery well at after well. To wit, this is how to complain to get what you actually want. Radical thought!

1. Ruminating or Dwelling

This means you're repeating something over and over, you're stuck in a sort of groove. It's the Peloton of complaining, you're pedaling in circles and not going anywhere. Also, you friends low-key get over it way faster than you will.

"If you’re complaining about the same thing and nothing ever changes, you can start to feel frustrated and helpless, and feel that others don’t care," says Dr. Daramus. "A lot of the time, others can start to feel nagged and get just as frustrated with you. Rumination can contribute to things like burnout, depression and anxiety. There’s nothing healthy about that feeling of being stuck."

Self-check: You’re saying the same thing over and over, but changes aren't happening.

2. Venting

Look, if you've ever written a whole novella about your lazy intern, your intrusive mother, or your best friend's horrible fiancé, you know that venting can be therapeutic. The thing is, there are hard limits to how helpful it'll be, and you sort of need to stop yourself from venting before you're back on that stationary bike. Dr. Daramus agrees, and adds that there are also hard limits to venting if you're not getting the validation you need on the receiving end.

"Venting means expressing yourself, and the goal is to feel heard and validated, so if you vent to the right person you can feel a lot better knowing that someone cares," Dr. Daramus says. "Sometimes that’s all you need. It can hurt, though, if you try to vent and you don’t feel heard."

Self-check: You just need some empathy or validation, and you feel worse if you don’t get it.

3. Problem-solving

So, problem-solving is a healthy form of complaining if you do it right. (I know that sounds scary.) In most situations, this means complaining directly to someone or, in an office setting for example, indirectly to someone with the power to make a difference. It's way less in-the-moment fun than the other two forms of complaining because it involves confrontation, but ultimately this form is the most active way to fix whatever's bugging you. Otherwise you might just end up back-channeling and contributing to a toxic environment, especially when this occurs in a workplace. 

"It’s powerful to find that you can change a situation," says Dr. Daramus. "If you’re going to bring up a problem, people often respond better to your complaint if you offer to help with a solution. When that happens, it’s less likely to leave you feeling burned out or depressed than other types of complaining."

And hey, if the problem gets solved, that's one less complaint.

Self-check: Have you clearly defined the problem and found a way to contribute to a solution?

If you're looking to cut the chase and vent kindly, Tina Fey recommends adding this word to your vocabulary! And here's how to keep your forever-complaining friend from confusing you with their therapist.

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