If you missed last week's post, you can read it here: Do You Constantly Scan Your Relationships for Emotional Threats? It's Called Hypervigilance and it's Exhausting.
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Whenever I ask people how they are, they often respond, “No complaints.” I find this hard to believe, so I have to ask them again, because having “no complaints” isn’t noble; it’s also not true. We ALL have complaints, but we’ve been raised to believe that complaining is bad. It’s not. Done right, complaining, on its face, is actually healthy. It’s wallowing that isn’t good for you. And it’s ruminating that will likely be your downfall.
On January 2, my sister Kara was crabby. So was I. On January 3, I was still crabby. So was Kara. That was when I wrote to her, asking rather matter-of-factly: “Can today be a day where we just complain to each other? Please?”
She wrote back: “Yes!!!! Bring it on!” and then she began.
It was such a relief for us both! We loved it so much that my sister proposed we choose a day every week to complain. And so #ComplaintTuesday was born.
Ever since that day, Tuesday has become our favorite day of the week—and we look forward to it, without fail.
The rules: #ComplaintTuesday is all about curation and restraint. All week long, you save up your complaints until Tuesday, the day you allow yourself to complain ALL DAY LONG, whenever you feel like it. It doesn’t have to be nonstop, but #ComplaintTuesday is NOT a day for bragging that things are going your way—this is a day to indulge and release everything that bugs. By Tuesday’s end, you go to bed, knowing that you will wake up and start storing a whole new host of complaints in a literal or metaphorical box, until it’s time to open it again.
Why do people think complaining is unhealthy? I’ll tell you why. And then, of course, I will list all my present complaints, because I am, after all, writing this on #ComplaintTuesday.
As a person with a lifelong panic and anxiety disorder, I am familiar with complaining. I know there is a productive way to complain and an unproductive way. With #ComplaintTuesday, we can explore the distinction between the two, and use complaining to help improve our mental health.
To understand and participate in #ComplaintTuesday is to understand the distinction between unproductive complaining and productive complaining. Unproductive complaining has a negative, no-end-in-sight, seeks-no-resolution quality. Anxious people often complain unproductively when they feel out of control. It’s a maladaptive way of self-soothing; a flag that falsely signals to ourselves that we are gaining control. Anxious people can also complain daily about small things, and this too can feel toxic, like they can only see the bad in everything—which, the more they scour for bad things to complain about, the more bad they will see in everything.
Complaining is an incredibly useful tool for processing stress and frustration, and believe it or not, it’s also a very effective bonding mechanism. When we overdo it though, and ONLY complain, then we’re just being annoying—who wants to be around someone who is carping and railing nonstop?
Take a day and vent. When you aren’t allowed to complain on any day except Tuesday, you learn to reflect on why you’re complaining, what is really bothering you, and whether your complaints are worth holding onto or letting go. If, say, by Tuesday, you’re still rankled or upset, let loose the complaints! But complaining for the sake of complaining doesn’t serve you well. It must be in service to finding a resolution. We must be judicious about why we’re complaining, which is why #ComplaintTuesday is so great.
You don’t need to solve your problems on #ComplaintTuesday, and you’re not expected to–you just need to air them. You can solve them on #SolutionSaturday or whatever other fake holiday exists for solving #ComplaintTuesday problems.
What do I mean by “complaining,” you might ask? Perhaps we think complaining is bad because we’re misunderstanding the definition, so let me clarify: To complain is to “express dissatisfaction or annoyance about something.” It is not to “express dissatisfaction or annoyance about something continuously, compulsively and without a clear end in sight.” Some people think they are complaining when they’re actually dwelling or wallowing, or even stickier—ruminating. This can be irksome because the person complaining isn’t allowing anyone else inside. They just want to complain without commiserating or problem solving. When we complain with, or to, others, we are actually being social and trying to bond, but when we cut off that bonding then there’s really no point in complaining around other people. We might as well just go home and complain aloud to ourselves.
Some people never complain, thinking that being positive all the time will ward off any negative feelings, but this is also a maladaptive way to try to control the uncontrollable. When we pretend we have no complaints, or claim that everything is amazing and we’re “living the dream” or “couldn’t ask for more,” we’re alienating our loved ones. Instead of going toward our friends with our vulnerabilities, we’re cutting them off at the pass by pretending we’re invulnerable. This leaves the protective person to feel isolated and the person who has been cut off feeling like something is wrong with them for not “living the dream.”
When we complain, we allow one another to express our feelings—even the negative ones. We are allowing another person to feel accepted even when life is not great. We all need to be heard, and when we hold our feelings captive, we’re simply creating an even more stressful environment for ourselves and the people around us.
Think of complaining as blowing off steam—you get whatever is bothering you out of your system. Or you complain in order to find a solution, and then it’s resolved. Sometimes we need to hear ourselves venting about our problems in order to gain perspective and see a situation more clearly. When we can put things in perspective, we’ve complained constructively. When we’ve said what we needed to say and can move on, we’ve complained constructively. It’s good for our emotional health to acknowledge our feelings—all of them. As we’ve learned, it’s emotionally unhealthy to withhold and avoid our feelings.
There is a time and a place for complaining (Kara and I call it Tuesday). To clarify:
NOT THE TIME OR PLACE …
1. When you choose an uncomfortable and itchy dress to wear, and then complain throughout your friend’s entire dinner party about how uncomfortable and itchy your dress is.
2. For months on end, your boss has been texting you throughout the weekend, and you’ve done nothing to address it, so you spend every single weekend complaining to friends about a resolvable situation that you refuse to face.
THE TIME AND PLACE
1. EVERY SINGLE TUESDAY.
2. You’ve spent half your day either on hold or waiting for the doctor to call you back about test results for a concerning issue. Once you hear back, the complaints end.
Like anything, things done ineffectively are ineffective. This includes complaining. Just as there is productive worrying and unproductive worrying, there is productive complaining and unproductive complaining.
Ineffective complaining happens when you begin to ruminate, turning over negative or bad feelings, and reinforcing them by constantly talking about the same things over again. Rumination can lead to catastrophizing, which can lead to depression.
As many of us know (and for those who don’t, this is vital information) when you do the same thing repeatedly, it deepens the path in your brain. This is why doing things that are good for you, even difficult things—like meditation, or exercise—is so important. Just like you can lay down wood to create paths from one house to another, you can lay down paths in your brain.
If you want to practice complaining in advance of #ComplaintTuesday, you have my blessing to do so in the comments.
Thank you for reading.
Until next week, I am…
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