Some research shows that people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. Why the heck do we complain? The simple answer: because it feels good. 

If you’re not happy in your relationship, complaining can become a really nasty habit. Not only is complaining hurting your relationship, but it’s negatively affecting your mental and physical health. 

Complaining is like bacon, it isn’t good for you, but it’s ever-so-satisfying in the moment.

I’m going to talk about the three reasons why you’re hurting yourself if you’re complaining and then we’re going to go over the three things you can do if you’re ready to stop complaining. 

Reason #1: What Fires Together, Wires Together 

Whenever we repeat any behavior (like complaining), our neurons will reach out to each other as they try to make the information your processing flow easier. This makes it easier to repeat a specific behavior in the future. From a survival standpoint, our ancestors got better at hunting the more they did it. Hunting skills would become automatic and the brain would be more efficient and use less fuel to hunt.

As one author puts it: “Who’d want to build a temporary bridge every time you need to cross a river? It makes a lot more sense to construct a permanent bridge. So, your neurons grow closer together, and the connections between them become more permanent.”

Donald Hebb, known as the father of neuropsychology, famously said: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Complaining, like any other activity, activates the neurons in the brain and trains them to remember the pattern. So, the complainer teaches their brain to fire the same mental pattern every time they complain. These negative emotions and memories eventually trigger unhealthy emotions like depression and anxiety.

Every time you do something or have a thought repeatedly, you’re wiring your brain. You don’t have a choice about this. What you do have a choice about it what you wire it for. 

Negative habits change your brain for the worse. Positive habits change your brain for the better.

So, when you repeatedly complain about something (“She’s always nagging me,” “How can he not see how dirty the floor is?!”) it rewires your brain to make future complaining easier, so more likely. As month after month and year after year passes, you’ll find it way easier to be negative, regardless of what’s really happening in the rest of your world. 

As a result, it’ll be more difficult to create a more positive outlook, and you’ll get yourself stuck in a negative loop of emotions and attitudes about your life.  

Reason #2: You’re Damaging Your Brain and Body

Complaining is literally bad for your health. Let’s talk about mental first. 

Stanford University researchers have found that complaining shrinks the hippocampus. This is the learning part of your brain most often associated with memory and it’s critical for effective problem solving and thinking clearly.

So, if you allow yourself to continually complain, it will alter your thought processes and you’ll remember things wrong! 

In addition, you’re always battling your brain’s propensity for what’s called the negativity bias. This is your brain’s tendency to focus more on negative situations and events than positive ones. 

Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist and author of Buddha’s Brain, explains negativity bias this way: “Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intensive positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly.”

When we repeatedly focus on the negative by complaining, we’re firing the neurons responsible for this negativity bias.

Another bad thing that happens when you complain is that it causes your body to release cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Cortisol is part of the mechanism that turns on your sympathetic nervous system and shifts you into fight, flight or freeze mode. When cortisol is released your blood pressure and blood sugar increase (so you can run away faster or fight better). 

Research has shown that “All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. It even makes the brain more vulnerable to strokes.”

Reason #3: Neuronal Mirroring

The human brain unconsciously mimics the moods of the people we spend the most time with. This process is called neuronal mirroring, and it’s the reason we can feel empathy which is, of course, a good thing. However, when it comes to being around a complainer, it’s a bad thing.

The problem is that, even if you’re not complaining, but the people around you are, you can have all those same negative consequences (you can think of this as “second-hand complaining”).

In the end, it’s time to stop complaining (whether it’s about your partner or anyone else) and start changing yourself or the situation.

The Solution to Complaining

Ready to stop complaining? Here are three excellent things you can do when you feel the need to complain. 

Tip #1: Have an Attitude of Gratitude 

Simply put, when you feel like complaining, shift your attention to something that you’re grateful for. This is going to have multiple benefits (here are a few to get you inspired).

Benefit #1 Improved Health: Research at the University of California, Davis, found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood and energy and substantially less anxiety due to lower cortisol levels (practicing gratitude actually reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%). 

Benefit #2 Life is Better: Studies at Yale University have shown that practicing gratitude will result in higher alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy. 

Benefit #3 Relationships Rock: Studies as Harvard (which I hear is a good school) have shown that practicing gratitude improves health and strengthens relationships. 

One study of couples found that partners who expressed gratitude for their mate felt more positive toward their person and also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.  

Having an attitude of gratitude can be achieved as simply as, writing three things you’re grateful for every day; writing a gratitude letter to the person you’re complaining about (you don’t have to send it); or thinking of one thing you’re grateful for any time you notice yourself about to complain. 

Tip #2: Complain with a Purpose

Dr. Guy Winch, author of The Squeaky Wheel, found in his research that “Almost 95% of consumers who have a problem with a product don’t complain to the company, but they will tell their tale to eight to 16 people. It’s unproductive because we’re not complaining to the people who can resolve our issue.”

I think this is true of complainers in general. If you feel something is so big that you need to say something and complain, make sure it’s solution-oriented complaining. 

Here’s a three-step process to solution-oriented complaining to help you along: 

  1. Have a clear purpose. Identify the exact outcome you want. If you can’t identify one, then you’re just wanting to complain to complain and that’s some s#*t you need to stop right now. 
  2. Start with something positive. Starting with a positive helps keep the other person from getting defensive. 
  3. Be specific. This isn’t a time to rehash the last ten years. Talk about the current situation only (this means no “never” or “always” language) and be as specific as possible 

Tip #3: Take the Challenge

You can join more than 11 million people worldwide who have taken Will Bowen’s Complaint Free® challenge!

Will Bowen is a motivational speaker and author who’s on a mission to stop complaining. He says, “Complaining is an epidemic that is destroying our happiness, relationships, health, and success. The problem is that most people aren’t even aware when they complain. Complaining is like bad breath- – you notice it when it comes out of someone else’s mouth, but not when it comes out of your own.

You can sign up for his 21-Day Complaint Free Challenge which is a great way to make complaining something you start to notice so you can stop it, long-term.