By Sanah Thakur
The other day I was in my kitchen walking towards the sink, thinking about the work I had to do. There were twenty papers to grade and I just wasn’t in the mood. I started washing my hands and the thoughts were rambling on, corrupting my mind with more complaints about the marking I had to do. Until I consciously stopped myself and thought, “Wow Sanah, you complain so much! And what does that even do for the situation? It doesn’t make it go away, does it? You still have to finish those papers either way. Why don’t you stop wasting your time feeling sorry for yourself and just get on with the work?”. Now, obviously when the voice in your head starts calling you out on your behaviour, your instinctual response is to get defensive and deny the truth. For the first time however, I agreed with my brain. I mean, have we really thought about what complaining does for us?
Complaining is great. Seriously, life without complaining would be so boring. Imagine walking up to a person and saying, “How are you? What have you been up to?” and getting a response like, “Hi, I’ve been great. My life is okay, I’m happy with my job and I love everyone!”. Where are the stories, the drama, the gossip, without the complaints? When we complain, we have interesting things to talk about. Mutual complaints bring people together and most of the time, we’re given a reason to pamper our problems. I mean who doesn’t like dancing on the dance floor, splurging on expensive gifts or going on holidays when life gets frustrating? This momentarily tricks us into believing we’ve dealt with the problem, when in reality we’ve just coddled our complaints. Forget these tangible rewards, nowadays we can open social media at any time and share a meme that validates our every complaint, because guess what? You’re not the only one feeling this way! So now we’re all complaining, sharing these complaints and competing on whose complaint is more relatable. And then what?
There’s no denying how good it feels to complain, to whine, to rant. Yet, we’re ignorant of the vast biological and psychological impact complaining has on us. A thought to the brain is a chemical communication — when you have a thought, the synapses of each neuron, fire a chemical to the synapse of another neuron, creating a bridge for the electrical signal to pass, carrying the charge relevant to what you’re thinking about. Now, every time you trigger this electrical charge, the synapses grow closer to one another so there’s less energy involved in the distance to be covered. If the distance reduces (the size of the bridge reduces), the brain is more likely to use this route. And how does one strengthen a bridge? By thinking about it! So every time you complain about something, you’re creating a stronger bridge down the negativity path as compared to a bridge you could be building based on a positive perspective. Which means all the synapses connected to fear, regret, anger, sadness gets triggered compared to love, happiness, hope and gratitude.
What’s worse, it’s not just your own thoughts rewiring your brain, but even those of the people you surround yourself with. Our imagination allows us to access the past and think about the future, so we don’t have to experience everything in reality to use it as a code to navigate through society. You only need one instance of burning your hand to know never to do it in the future. It’s not just the harmful effects of fire we can imagine, but even how emotional experiences feel for others (empathy). When you see someone upset for example, you can empathise by ‘simulating’ the feeling in your brain to understand what they’re going through. The brain gets the signal and fires the same synapses, so as to replicate the emotion you’re observing. This probably also explains why we cry while watching films or even while seeing our own friends and family cry. When we surround ourselves with people who complain and add fuel to our own complaint fires, we’re firing synapses that mimic this negative attitude. And almost every situation we experience that makes us uncomfortable, is then filtered by this negative bridge.
As you can see, complaining is as pleasurable as junk food but just as bad for our system. To really adapt and change this habit, a limited complaint diet is probably the best start. Here are a few tips to help you implement this:
1- Limit your ‘complaining’ time — Notice how long you tend to dwell on an issue and make a conscious effort to complain for a smaller period of time. Ideally you could aim for 5 mins.
2- Replace the behaviour — If you usually enjoy complaining, replace it with another activity you might find pleasurable such as exercise, music or a positive conversation.
3- Do not reward your complaints — hear yourself/or your close ones out but don’t focus on pampering the complaint. Complain and then do something about it!
4- Laugh at the situation — honestly, laughing will help your biology more.
* The author can be contacted on Instagram @sincerelysanah