Are you a complainer?

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton discusses school-refusal behaviour.
Complaining can become an ingrained habit.

In last week's Southern Star, I noted that while it's only right and proper to complain when you've been wronged, complaining can also become a bad habit, negatively impacting on your mood and on the moods of others. The column is now online.


Lots of people really like to complain – about the weather, about the boss, about the politicians, about the neighbour up the road who borrowed your corkscrew and who has yet to return it. How much complaining is too much?


Now, there are many good reasons why we complain. If you’ve been treated badly, it’s perfectly legitimate to complain about it. The alternative – bottling up your frustrations and saying nothing – fosters bitterness and leaves you alone in your pain. That aside, we’re human and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you vent on occasions; getting a few things off your chest after a long day can be a form of stress relief. Many people will say complaining helps them to feel heard and to feel less alone. Other times, people complain for the craic of it. ‘Nothing has surprised me quite so much as the fact that I miss the giving out’, said Irish Times columnist Jennifer O’Connell after she left Ireland for America. Her point is echoed by comedian and Giving Out Yards author Tara Flynn. ‘Giving out is the national pastime, a way of bonding, even therapy’, she said. ‘If you’re talking raising complaint to an art form, the Irish are full-blown Michelangelos’.


Jokes aside, there are obvious downsides to complaining. Yes, it can be a form of bonding – many a relationship has been cemented by giving out about the apparent shortcomings of others – but it can be unfair, with the complainers growing closer by making unnecessarily harsh criticisms of the person being complained about (continued below...)



Secondly, complaining can become an ingrained habit. Research suggests habitual complaining can literally rewire your brain, priming you to see the negatives. Essentially, the more you have a thought, the easier it is for you to have that thought again. As a result, you can become a chronic complainer, someone who finds fault all the time, routinely focusing on the negatives and overlooking the positives.


Thirdly, while occasional venting is fine, habitual venting is not. If you routinely deal with frustrations by venting (“I need to get this out to get past it”), you lessen your ability to tolerate frustration and you alienate the people around you.


Fourthly, some people complain because they may want to see themselves as victims, as martyrs – ‘a self-defeating style that leads people to focus over and over on how unfair life is’, to quote cognitive behavioural therapist (CBT) Dr Robert Leahy. This results in a “yes, but” mentality, whereby suggestions on how to fix a problem are routinely shot down. Problem-solving is simply ‘not the purpose of the exchange’, notes psychiatrist and Games People Play author Eric Berne.


Predictably, this results in negative consequences. It’s bad for your mood; it’s bad for the moods of others, who will likely see such commentary as unduly negative; it contributes to a gloomy worldview, potentially breeding a world-weary cynicism.



Are you a complainer? If so, it’s worth asking: what do you hope to achieve from your complaining? Is it to feel understood? To connect with others? Is it working, or does it create more conflict and backbiting?


Do you bond with people by giving out about others? Are you always fair in these situations, seeking both sides of the story, or do you exaggerate things? How would you feel if you were the person being complained about?


If you have a genuine problem, do you tend to complain about it rather than trying to solve the problem? Isn’t this simply ensuring that you get nowhere? Why not reverse things, and try to become a problem-solver rather than a complainer?


‘Do you need to accept some frustration’, asks Dr Leahy, ‘rather than complain about it?’


The irony, Leahy points out, is that people who complain ‘often end up with more to complain about. Once you open the complaints files there is no end to the misery that you can experience’.


Try a different approach. As Robert Leahy puts it, ‘look in a different file’.