One of the most frequent things I hear in my office is something along the lines of ‘Well, that‘s not worth discussing because we can‘t do anything about it’. It‘s either that, or people feeling bad about themselves because ‘they‘re being big crybabies’ (that‘s an actual quote), being ‘too weak’, labeling themselves as ‘chronic complainers’. We then go into a short discussion during which I advocate for ‘complaining’, for being able to face our difficulties, for letting another person see us with all the difficulties, for allowing ourselves to accept other peoples support, and so on.
Does complaining help?
It‘s worth noting that all these people continue to come to therapy. Many of them continue reporting that they feel better after each individual session, as well as that they‘re noticing positive improvements in their lives outside of the therapy room. I‘m sure you’ve all noticed how much better you feel after spending some time talking about what‘s really bothering you, be it with a therapist, a relative, or a friend. So, how is that? Could it be that there actually are some benefits to what‘s often called ‘useless complaining’? Or, what are the benefits of plain venting?
Vent it out
Complaining or venting can also be defined as just talking about whatever‘s bothering us. This can provide us with a sense of validation for our frustrations, and it can also provide some emotional support, thus making us feel better in the very moment. It‘s important to talk about the things that are on our minds and that are bothering us, as this can lead to personal growth, self-expression, a sense of connection to ourselves and those around us, better self regulation when confronting our fears and anxieties, etc.
As Yoda famoulsy said: ‘The only way to deal with fear is to face it head on.’ And sure, Witthenstein said: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’, thus suggesting we should keep some things to ourselves, and especially ones we don‘t urselves understand. Needless to say, I strongly disagree with this, and so does Socrates when he says ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. I could go on with the quotes for a very long time, but I‘ll continue trying to base this on my knowledge and experience, and to think for myself.
Of course, saying there are some benefits to talking about stuff isn‘t to say that that alone, plus not doing anything about them is enough. In fact, this approach probably wouldn‘t be very beneficial to us in the long run. Constant and exclusive focus on the things we cannot change can lead to us feeling helpless and extremely stressed, like we actually have absolutely no control over our lives. So, yes, as positive psychology, buddhists and stoics would probably say – focus on the things you an control and regain a sense of control. Let go of the things you cannot change. However, if you‘re feeling overwhelmed or stuck, it is definitely a worthwhile effort to sit down and talk to someone about it.
Complaining for Complaining’s Sake
In fact, what’s often described as ‘complaining for complaining sake’ is the necessary first step when commencing a therapy process. There’s a substantial body of research that suggests talking about our problems can have a range of benefits for our mental health and well-being. By providing a safe and supportive space to explore our thoughts and feelings, a well-intentioned and emphatic person can help us gain insight into ourselves and our experiences, and work towards positive change. Yes, the benefits can be greater with a trained therapist or counselor, but a trusted emphatic friend can often be just as helpful. So, please do talk about it and, who knows, there might even be a way to fix things.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counselling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
Kowalski, R. M. (1996). Complaints and complaining: Functions, antecedents, and consequences. Psychological bulletin, 119(2), 179. Zech, E., & Rimé, B. (2005). Is talking about an emotional experience helpful? Effects on emotional recovery and perceived benefits. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy: An International Journal of Theory & Practice, 12(4), 270-287.