The Right Way to Complain about Stuff

How you do it matters more than constant positivity.

Halfway through college, my friends and I got sick of listening to each other. We had a conversation about it, and came to this conclusion: You don’t always have to bitch about what’s bothering you.

Great advice. Sort of.

How do you decide when to vent, and when to shut up?

Some research has shown us that complaining offers a kind of cheap therapy. But it can also cement negative thought patterns. Your brain gets used to complaining, and soon that’s all it wants to do.

But let’s face it. None of us like a perpetually cheery person, either. We want license to bitch, at least for a few minutes. Bitching done right can put you in the mindset to create solutions.

Emphasis on “done right.”

Bitching also helps people bond. You feel closer to someone if you know you can trust them with some of your less optimistic opinions.

No matter how many ice breakers you do at work, the real bonding happens when you let your guard down. We want to share our real thoughts with friends, not just the happy ones.

Still, you can burn through relationships fast by talking about every single problem in your life. You might carry a heavier load than your friends. That doesn’t mean they need to hear about it.

Usually, there’s not much they can do.

But you can also ruin your life by keeping your strife buried. Repression makes you more fun to hang out with, but it comes at a cost.

Bitching can serve a purpose. It’s therapeutic, and helps people bond. You feel closer to someone if you know you can trust them with some of your less optimistic opinions — not just the happy fluff.

You don’t need to fake happiness just to please other people. Positive thinking doesn’t solve everything. Done wrong, it can even trick you into accepting situations that need to change.

Sometimes, people need to know you’re unhappy.

The trick is figuring out who to tell, and how.

Different types of friendships have taught me one thing. Don’t go into Happy Hour with raw emotions. Spend some time venting to yourself. Go to the gym. Play some music. Think through your situation.

Define your problem to yourself. Is it practical, or emotional? Do you need advice, or do you just feel pissed off?

Dig for the root cause. Maybe something happened at work to trigger you. Like someone messed up the communal coffee maker. But something else has been hovering in the background. Address that.

Find out what you can solve yourself. Never waste an hour complaining about something that you can handle on your own. For example, treat yourself to your own Keurig machine. Screw your coworkers.

Sure, you might mention it when someone asks, “How’s it going?”

But it’ll be just that — a minor irritation you dealt with. “Nobody cleans the coffee pot, so I got my own machine. And I love it.”

This isn’t based on a true story at all.

You don’t need to fake happiness just to please other people. Positive thinking doesn’t solve everything. Done wrong, it can even trick you into accepting situations that need to change.

Always brainstorm solutions before you unload on friends, family, and acquaintances. You might even want to make a rule for yourself. Don’t dish out your personal problems, unless you have a plan of some kind.

Not a perfect plan. Just pretend one of your friends is going to ask, “So what are you doing about it?”

What can you do about your situation?

What’s out of your control?

That way, you don’t sound like teen drama queen.

If you’re worried about complaining too much, set a timer. Give yourself five minutes to bitch. Pay attention to everyone’s body language. If people start nodding off, or tapping their feet, you’ve gone too far.

Basically, give your complaints some structure. Keep your key purpose in mind. The goal is always to relieve stress, and get yourself to a more productive place.

Complaining reaches a point of no return. We’ve all gone there. You start by venting to one person. They validate your emotions. It feels good. But that feeling fades a little. So you call another friend and seek the same validation. A cycle forms. Eventually, you become toxic.

Or you appear toxic.

Some problems have no solution. One of my friends endured an alcoholic boss for years. He made her life hell, until one day he killed himself. We spent a lot of time consoling her over drinks.

Not once did I ever feel like my friend was abusing our sympathetic ear. She reported her boss to HR frequently. Tried looking for other jobs. Did half his job for him — without extra pay. The only good days were the ones where he didn’t come in at all.

My friend never complained about that. “I prefer it when he’s too drunk or hungover to get out of bed,” she once told us. “At least we have a functional workplace, and I can undo the damage he did yesterday.”

Sometimes, you really do just need to get the day off your chest, so you can recharge for tomorrow.

If I’m totally honest, the stories were entertaining as hell. Not because I always enjoy hearing about other people’s drama. My friend got really good at crafting the narrative of her day. We felt bad for her, but we also looked forward to the next crazy story.

Give your complaints some structure. Keep your key purpose in mind. The goal is always to relieve stress, and get yourself to a more productive place.

Polish your narrative. Rehearse it in your head. Even your best friends have a breaking point. Nobody wants to sit there and listen to someone take forever to explain what’s bugging them.

Plus, you develop a sense of perspective.

The better you can explain yourself, the better your bitch session.

Try making it funny. If you can’t change your job, or move to a new house, then humor can help you process the hell.

Now I’m going to contradict what I just said. Sometimes, you can unconsciously perpetuate your own problems for the sake of a good story. I’ve caught myself doing that plenty of times.

Just make sure you’re not keeping yourself miserable so that you can supply your friends with fresh Happy Hour stories.

Solving a problem improves your life, but it also makes you boring. That’s fine. Let someone else entertain the group. Dull people tend to be happier. Less drama. Of course, complaining all the time can also turn you into a bore. If all else fails, buy a cat. They’re great listeners.