Are you a chronic complainer? Here's how a 'complaint cleanse' can help

Some griping is healthy, but too much can cause constant stress. It can also infect those around us with our negativity. Try this technique to shift your mindset.
Illustration of woman in different situations complaining and yelling.
Alva Skog / for NBC News
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By Julie Compton

When Kaia Roman’s epigenetics business failed in 2014, she spiraled into a depression.

“What would come out of my mouth first was a complaint,” Roman told NBC News. “I wasn’t being a very positive person.”

Roman, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, says she would vent to anyone who would listen — about the traffic, the weather, or anything that inconvenienced her.

A friend recommended she give up complaining for a month, advising that it would help reframe her mind.

Roman, 43, chronicled the experience in her book “The Joy Plan: How I Took 30 Days to Stop Worrying, Quit Complaining, and Find Ridiculous Happiness.”

Now a successful author and school teacher, she says forgoing gripes changed her life in “miraculous” ways.

But she says complaining does have an important purpose — it tells us that something in our lives needs to change.

“But I think we can get stuck there by focusing on what we don’t want instead of on what we do want,” she says.

Why we complain

We complain when we feel there is a significant gap between an expectation and reality, according to Dr. Guy Winch, author of the book “The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem.”

Complaining is also a bonding mechanism, according to the New York City psychologist.

“Complaints can make us feel like we connect with someone because we have a mutual dissatisfaction about something,” he says.

But people tend to confuse complaining with venting, says Winch.

When we complain, we want to fix an injustice, he says. For example, if a mechanic overcharged you for an oil change, you’re likely to complain to bring down the price.

But when we vent, we are getting frustration out of our systems — for example, ranting to a coworker because traffic made you late.

Some griping is healthy, says Winch — but too much can fill us with constant stress hormones. It can also infect those around us with our negativity, he adds.

“We are just really stressing ourselves out and having a really negative perception of the world, and there’s a price you pay for that,” he says.

Are you griping too much?

Look at your text messages and emails to see if there is a negative theme to how you communicate, advises Winch.

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He says most people communicate with around an 80 percent positive to a 20 percent negative ratio.

“If it’s a 50/50, or you are heavily on the negative side, that’s a problem,” he says.

Try a “complaint cleanse”

This month, author and poet Cleo Wade urged her 500,000 Instagram followers to join her in a week-long “complaint cleanse.”

Complaints have “no magic,” Wade stated in an Instagram post, which received nearly 23,000 likes. She urged her followers to let go of complaints when they felt the need to voice them out loud.

Roman, who went on her complaint cleanse after her business failed, says giving up negativity for a month reformed her outlook and made her a more positive person.

During her cleanse, whenever she felt like complaining, she focused on what she was grateful for.

Gratitude activates dopamine in the brain and creates the conditions for optimism, she explains.

“When I fall asleep at night I go through the alphabet, and for every letter I think of something that I’m grateful for,” Roman says.

She says she also kept a “gratitude notebook” where she wrote down everything she was grateful for that day.

While complaint cleanses can help shift our focus, there’s a caveat, according to Winch. When we give up complaining, we aren’t necessarily giving up thinking about the things that bother us, he says, or taking action to solve them.

Learn to complain constructively

Winch says complaints do have a kind of magic when done right.

“Complaining is a way to realign expectations to improve our relationships; to get a satisfactory result to actually make some change that we want,” says Winch.

Instead of forgoing complaints entirely, Winch says we should give up complaints that are petty and unnecessary.

Ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”

“We have to really look at what matters and what doesn’t, because with things that don’t matter we need to let go, and the things that matter we have to address,” says Winch.

For example, if the traffic made you late, complaining about it is not worth your energy because there isn’t anything you can do about it.

However, if your spouse has a habit of being late, and making you late as a result, you have a right to complain.

But you need to be strategic about it, Winch explains. If you go on a rant, your spouse will likely get defensive and not change his behavior.

Put your grievance in a 'complaint sandwich' — a complaint sandwiched between two positive statements.

Winch advises putting your grievance in a “complaint sandwich” — that is, a complaint sandwiched between two positive statements.

The first slice should be a positive statement devised to prevent your spouse from getting defensive.

The complaint should be simple, Winch says. Don’t list all the times he was late in the past. Stay calm and focus only on the current situation.

The final slice should motivate your spouse to change his behavior — a positive statement that conveys a message of “If you respect what I am asking, things will be good between us,” Winch says.

“Now it’s much easier for the other person to hear something like that than a diatribe about how disrespectful their lateness is,” Winch says.

Before you complain, understand your feelings behind it

Roman says going on a complaint cleanse taught her the importance of understanding the emotions behind her dissatisfaction.

She wasn’t really angry about the traffic or the weather, she explains — she was upset because her business failed.

“I have learned that it’s more important how I’m feeling before I take action than just go into action when I’m not in the right state of mind, because it changes the outcome of whatever action I’m taking,” Roman says.

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