Here's What's Actually Going On When You (Or Someone In Your Life) Can't Stop Complaining

Written by Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist, psychotherapist, and board-certified life coach who has been working with couples and individuals for 35 years. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book 'Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love,' which has been translated into four languages.

Photo by Joshua Ness

Research shows that constant grumbling, bewailing, and lamenting not only torments the people around us but harms our health and adds stress to our lives. Repeatedly feeling bad, sad, or powerless creates a circuit of chemicals in our brains, making it easier for unhappy thoughts to recycle and harder for you to feel the payoff of gratitude, appreciation, and well-being.

So why do we tell the same sad story and reinforce the misery despite the costs to our personal and professional lives? There is a growing body of research trying to understand this habit. With all the negatives associated with complaining, what positive end is this behavior trying to accomplish? Well, when I work with someone who is constantly criticizing their partner, I try to help them see the underlying desire within their gripes.

"You never talk to me about your day" suggests a longing for connection. "You always have an excuse when I ask you to go to dinner with my friends" is actually a longing for shared time. Rather than whining about what someone is doing wrong, it is important to learn to phrase things positively. This is an interpersonal skill that requires time to develop, but it can improve relationships drastically. Saying, "I miss hearing what’s going on with you" would certainly have a better outcome. Similarly, telling your partner, "I want to share you with my friends from work" would greatly increase the chance of a positive response.

When the complainer is someone we deal with regularly, like a friend or co-worker, there are a few things to remember. If we look at complaining as the misfired expression of a wish, there are three sources where it can come from:

A desire for control.

This happens in a difficult situation where complaining gives the person an illusion of control, as they are at least "able to protest."

A need for validation or sympathy.

Chronic complainers usually want someone to say, "Oh, poor you," as it can feel nurturing.

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A fear of managing a problem directly.

It may be frightening to directly address a problem and request for something new to happen. This could be their way to let off steam about an ongoing issue without risking actual consequences.

If you know someone who is a complainer, here are two options you can use to make the outcome better for everyone:


Ask the person what things would look like if the situation became better for them. Encourage them to describe their ideal outcome and think of three things they could do to make that happen—if they are willing, of course. Have them create an action plan and let you know how this plan works for them.

Set boundaries, compassionately but firmly.

Tell them you want to talk to them when they are feeling unhappy, stuck, or troubled but that you don’t think having the same conversation is doing either of you a service. Be honest about the effect it is having on you; say that though you want things to change, you are starting to feel distressed, too. You might also suggest they talk to someone with the right skills to help them manage the issue more successfully.

It’s one thing to express sadness, grief, or anger about an event in your life. In fact, it is essential to our health that we recognize our feelings and pay attention to the message they give us. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel our sadness, it can get stuck in us as ongoing grief. If we don’t see our anger as a message that something needs to change, it can turn into resentment or feelings of being victimized in other situations. If we don’t use our fear to recognize present danger or if we focus on the fear from a dangerous situation in our past, it can turn into anxiety; we may imagine the worst-case scenario even if there is no reason to expect it.

Paying attention to our feelings is necessary, but complaining is not. Complaining does, however, point to a source of distress. If you suspect you are a constant complainer, look for the trouble underneath. Find the courage and support to deal directly with the issue, and focus on what needs to be different. Ask yourself what the positive intention of your complaining is, and see it as a message pointing to an action.

Want to complain less? Give this weeklong challenge a try.

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