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Negativity: Why Do People Complain and What Can We Do About It?

Updated: May 3

You know one. You may live with one. Maybe you were raised by one. Or maybe you gave birth to one. And maybe, just maybe, you are one.

A complainer. A negative Nancy. A Debbie Downer. A Droopy Dog.

We all do it. An exasperated sigh can be a complaint in disguise. A helpful suggestion could be a complaint wrapped in a pretty bow. (Hint: that gift is usually for you and not the recipient.) Sometimes a dissenting opinion is really a complaint rather than a helpful contribution.

So why do we complain?

As it turns out, complaining is a natural part of communication. It’s how we respond when something feels out of alignment. An occasional complaint is to be expected, but the act of complaining can also become excessive, or habitual if we’re not careful. Some of the reasons we complain:

Managing Emotions: For some it may be as simple as articulating the angst inside, the physical, emotional, or mental discomfort of wanting things to be different than they are. Often, talking about how a situation could be improved alleviates some of that internal pressure.

Desire for Attention: Children often act out in negative and destructive ways to get the attention of someone they love and respect. As adults we know this is not ideal behavior and it seems so obvious to us when children do it, but we’re clever, so our tactics become more complex in our delivery of negativity. This can present as passive-aggressive behavior – indirectly expressing negative feelings rather than addressing the situation directly, or making direct, and possibly incorrect, accusations.

Often we just complain so that someone with sympathize and empathize. Complaining gives us the feeling that someone cares about what we are going through.

However this bid for attention shows up, the results are rarely adequate.

Sometimes we embellish, exaggerate or over-emphasize the aspects of our lives that aren’t working to justify the attention we are seeking. The end result is that we become excessively focused on the parts of our life that aren’t working. Our body begins to respond to escalating language and sensations of overwhelm can actually magnify and multiply – even triggering feelings of anxiety. In the name of seeking care, attention and sympathy our view of life can become one-sided and anxiety-prone more quickly than we think.

Social Bonding: How many times have you found yourself in line at the grocery store and overheard “Boy, traffic is really getting bad out there,” or “Why don’t they have more check-out lanes open?” It becomes an opening to conversation and somehow seems a lot less risky than asking the stranger in line how their day is going. While complainers look for engagement, they don’t necessarily seek depth. The shared experience is enough for them.

This sort of complaining among friends, may show up as gossip, sharing the misfortunes of others to bolster our own sense of self-worth. It can also be used as a tool to gauge another person’s loyalty by campaigning against a common enemy. Shaky ground for a friendship indeed.

According to yoga, our mind is less a “thing” and more a collection of vibrational frequencies which together make up the individual consciousness we carry. The more we commiserate over the negative – even in the name of connection – the more we begin to feel a heaviness over time. Take a moment to notice the feeling in your body when you get into gossiping. In the beginning it can feel fun, secret and forbidden. But after a while instead of being a boost it can become a downer.

Expressing Stress and Anxiety: Our old friends stress and anxiety are also often wrapped in the cloak of complaint. Consider a traveler who has missed their connecting flight and the anxiety that produces. That traveler is likely going to head straight to the ticket counter to find someone to solve their problem and in so doing, they will complain. They may offer sarcastic solutions or be downright rude, but it is all coming from the stress behind the complaint.

What about chronic stress? If one stressful incident can set off a string of complaints, imagine the pressure of living under stress on a continuous basis. So often the negative people in our lives don’t recognize their own negativity or their own stress levels, it’s just how they’ve always been.

If you recognize this in yourself, consider that it will be more helpful to understand where the complaining is coming from rather than judging yourself for the behavior. The underlying cause is really a verbal attempt to offload excess accumulated stress. Once we see it for what it really is, we can take the judgement out of it and maybe even find another, more helpful way to discharge it.

Venting versus Complaining: That’s not to say that you can never vent to your friends and loved ones. After all, part of the reason that we try to offload stress through our words is because to some degree it works! Talking means we are talking to someone. According to the theory of social engagement, mammals and primates in particular have a very highly developed sense of social signaling that can actually short circuit the stress response by engaging with each other in particular ways using facial expressions, voice and more. This is a powerful tool in our toolbox, but we need to know how to use it well. The difference is expressing versus wallowing. It can be a powerful tool to ask a friend to hear you out – to let you consciously vent and be unreasonable for a moment. However after giving yourself that time, your intention is to put yourself back on track. You are letting go of what is obstructing you in order to re-direct to a solution. If you are not there yet, you can at least use conscious venting to avoid rolling around in the story, re-triggering your reaction and getting yourself upset over and over again.

How can I re-direct complaining?

There is a difference between complaining and problem solving. Problem solving is the antidote to complaining. We’ve all probably experienced a dissatisfactory meal in a restaurant. Did you complain? Did you insist on talking to the manager? Did you leave a scathing review on Yelp and vilify all involved all over social media? Or, did you take a moment to sort through what worked and what didn’t? Did you consider if your complaint would have a negative or positive impact on the kitchen, server, manager, restaurant, you?

When we feel compelled to complain, we typically need to alleviate some discomfort or connect to others in some way. Once we identify what may driving our behavior, we can choose a different path to relief or engagement.

You can simply decide not to complain. While this may seem overly simple, it is not always easy, especially if complaining has become habitual or is being used as a release valve to alleviate stress or as a way to connect with others. Instead let’s look a few other ways to mitigate complaining:

Take a deep breath. The same directive used to dismantle anger can be employed here. Take a deep breath before you complain. Better yet, take ten. Practicing deep breathing or almost any form of pranayama on a regular basis has the benefit of calming the nervous system and creating an overall environment of peace leading to a thoughtful response to nearly any situation.

Try this mini breath visualization:

Breath Visualization Script:

Allow yourself to rest in a place where you are safe, secure and comfortable. A place where nothing can touch you. Now, choose a memory that made you feel angry and upset. Replay it like a movie until it becomes very real to you...until you can feel it right now. As the feelings build, see them as the color red for anger in the body. Notice where it is and how it feels (pause). On your next exhalation, breathe the red all the way out emptying your lungs completely. As you breathe in, draw in the color blue, bringing peace and calm into the body. Exhale fully and empty the red from the body. Breathe it all out. Then inhale blue. Continue on your own. Notice how the red is not so red anymore. Watch it fading away until the only thing left is blue. Breathing in blue and breathing out blue, calm and peaceful.

Turn your complaint into a problem-solving expedition. The experience might not be going according to your expectations, but it has already happened or is happening whether you like it or not. Rather than focusing on what is wrong, re-direct your attention to what you can do about it. Focus on a helpful solution rather than one that breaks yourself or other people down. I call this skillful action.

Re-directing to the solution has a two-fold benefit. Not only are you breaking the habit of complaining, you are putting your attention and energy on something that might actually move the situation towards the direction you want. Just remember a very important line from the ancient text of yoga called the Bhagavad Gita: “You have the right to action, not the results of action.” Do what you can and then let go. At least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you have done everything you could have on behalf of the situation.

Learn about yourself.

Use the poor dining scenario as a tool to go through the whole experience to see what you expected and where those expectations failed for you. Think about the events happening around you as weather patterns that sometimes come together in just the right way to reveal dormant underground seeds of feelings, thoughts and reactions. Rather than blaming the events, look at what they are revealing about you. What feelings or thoughts inside of you were triggered as a result of the event? Use it as an opportunity to learn something about yourself and what makes you tick.

Often our present moment’s reactions are affected by our past. By reflecting on how we behave now, especially under stress, we can learn about the things that are affecting us – sometimes outside of our conscious awareness.

Situations like these can be the opportunity to see what was previously invisible to us. Once we can see it, we have the power to change it.

At the least, by the time you run down the details, the need to complain will likely have dissipated.

Balance your perspective. When in complaint mode, we tend to filter out the positive in favor of the negative. You don’t need to be so positive as to cover up or suppress the negative, but you can use it to help balance your perspective and calm the complaining mind. In the restaurant scenario, perhaps the server was great, it was the kitchen that was slow, or the food was delicious, it was simply an inattentive server. Find the one thing that worked and focus on that. A great way to language a balanced perspective is using inclusive wording that captures more of the whole picture vs. one slice of it. For example, “The server was great AND the meal was slow.” Or “The food was delicious AND the server could have done better.” Speaking in a more neutral way keeps your nervous system calm. As soon as we begin to use a negating word like, “The food was great BUT the service was terrible” or black and white languaging, like ALWAYS or NEVER our stress response kicks into overdrive.

Choose an intention to shift from negativity to neutral. This can simply be a word you repeat silently to yourself, like “peace.” Or a short sentence like, “all is well in my world,” or “this too shall pass,” used specifically for these instances as a reminder that this particular issue or situation is a moment in time.

It isn’t me, it’s you.

What if it’s not you, but someone in your life that is a chronic complainer? Now that you are acutely aware of your own complaints, the negativity of those around you will seem amplified. It may be tempting to point out how unhelpful and maybe even damaging their complaining is, afterall, you’ve done some heavy lifting on working out your own tendencies you could probably be a big help. Resist this urge. But you don’t have to stay silent or ignore your reaction completely. If you are living or working with a complainer there are a few tactics you can employ to maintain your own peace while possibly helping them recognize their own habits.

Some strategies to work with the chronically dissatisfied:

  1. Remember, you are not responsible for anyone but yourself. It may be tempting to try to make your complaining friend see the bright side of everything but that can have the negative effect of frustrating you and angering them. They are responsible for their own feelings and reactions. You are responsible for yours.

  2. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s them. No matter what your friend is complaining about, even if it is you specifically, it’s still about them, not you. Obviously if it is something you know you can fix, then own up to it, but most ultimately the dissatisfaction is theirs and no matter what you do you cannot fix it for them.

  3. Listen with time boundaries. If your friend needs to vent, let them, it can be cathartic, just give them a time limit. Let them know you care and want to hear about what is bothering them, but staying stuck in it will not make it better.

  4. Offer feedback. Allow them to verbalize their issue without interruption then simply ask, “Are you looking for a solution to this problem or do you just need to vent?” If they are solution-oriented, give them honest feedback.

Hint: Most of the time people just want to be heard. Be careful not to get into problem solving too quickly. This can make the other person feel that you are not really hearing or receiving them where they are.

  1. Listen from a detached place. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care. Simply understand that they need to unload what is inside of them. Caring doesn’t mean you have to make it yours. Just listen, let it pass by and then move on. You don’t have to fix it, or get upset on their behalf. Consciously maintain your equanimity as best as you can.

  2. Develop a personal practice. Being around a constant complainer can be an energy drain. Use self-care practices to restore your inner balance. Contemplative practices like yoga and yoga nidra will not only restore your inner balance, they will increase your immunity to negativity. Personal practice is critical. Otherwise constantly being around negativity can begin wear you down over time.

The underlying cause of everything negative is stress.

As you know by now, chronic stress has become the epidemic of the past few generations. It is so pervasive that most people can’t discern the difference between feeling “normal” and stressed. Stressed has become the new normal. But it doesn’t have to be.

Aside from feeding our dissatisfaction with life and leading to complaints, stress has many other adverse effects on the body and mind. So how do we get out of this anxiety stress loop?

Start by taking it to the body.

Stress and anxiety live and thrive through the mind’s interaction with daily events. The mind will want to solve this problem, but as Einstein is famous for saying, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This circular thinking leaves us in a maze of frustration with no way out. Moving the physical form will help dislodge some of that thinking and offer fresh perspective for problem solving.

Benefits of intentional, mindful movement on the mind:

  1. Releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones, creating a sense of clarity and ease.

  2. Reduces cortisol – the stress hormone. An early walk utilizes the stress hormone cortisol that is active first thing in the morning as it plays an integral part in waking us from sleep. If we do not move soon after waking, cortisol lingers and the negative effects can compound, and can become harmful, continuing to build day after day.

  3. Relieves tension, reducing stress. Exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function and memory. Often when we think “exercise” – especially if we’re not currently active – our mind has a tendency to travel to competing in a triathlon. Start small. The recommended amount of intentional physical activity per day is 30 minutes. Start by taking three 10-minute walks a day. Start by taking a gentle yoga class or Tai Chi. Rejoin the gym – or finally get back to the gym you’ve been supporting for years. Walk on the treadmill. Simply move. Both your mind and body will thank you.

Once you’ve reintroduced movement to your daily life, turn your awareness back to your mind. Stress-reducing activities for the mind include:

  1. Meditation. Some form of meditation always tops stress reduction lists, but don’t overthink it. Simply sitting still and observing nature is a form of meditation.

  2. Journaling. In her book, “The Artist’s Way,” Julia Cameron introduces ‘morning pages.’ The idea behind them is to write out all the negativity without editing and without self-judgment. If you can release all that is stuck in that negativity/complaint loop in the morning through writing, you do not have to carry it with you and ruminate on it throughout the day.

  3. On the flip side lives the Gratitude Journal. Perhaps do both. Use the morning hours to vent frustrations and shadow emotions and at the end of the day list all the gratitude you have experienced throughout the day.

  4. Yoga. Yoga gives us the gift of being both a physical, as well as mental practice. At its core it is a spiritual practice with movement. Using the body and mind together creates integration and a sense of mental, emotional and physical alignment that naturally reduces stress.

  5. Yoga Nidra. All roads lead to Yoga Nidra. One of the easiest and most profound practices available to absolutely everyone. Yoga Nidra grants us unique access to the mind and body through the nervous system.

Yoga Nidra has a proven track record of helping its practitioners find and maintain a sense of peace and ease in their lives. It offers the unique combination of benefits that span the physical, mental, and emotional and has been known to heal many traumas and profoundly reduce anxiety making way for joy and peace.

Benefits of Yoga Nidra:

  1. Reduces cortisol, the stress hormone mentioned above.

  2. Induces a relaxation response. So often we react to what is happening around us without realizing we have a choice. The choice is more than whether to react or not, it is how to respond. A regular practice of Yoga Nidra provides us with the tools to take the briefest moment in which to decide how we want to respond to what is happening around us, or even if we want to respond. So much of what makes up our daily lives does not require a response from us.

  3. Discharges negative emotions. Yoga Nidra puts the body and mind in the best state to notice thoughts without engaging them, giving space between the true Self and the emotions of the ego self.

Just add Intention.

To supercharge your Yoga Nidra, use an intention to interrupt and redirect the internal negative conversations stuck in a loop. Bringing that same intention into the waking state helps keep the mind focused on growth and the body in a relaxed state.

To create a powerful intention to reduce the stress that is causing mental and emotional discomfort to the point of complaint, consider what the opposite of the stress-inducing situation may feel like. Look at what the complaining does, what are the benefits, what sort of release it provides, or notice if it creates more stress. Let’s consider that we are complaining a lot because we’re under financial stress at home and deadline stress at work, add in a little relationship stress and we have the perfect complaint storm. You’d be crazy not to complain under those circumstances. Simply identifying what is creating stress in our lives may not be enough, but when we use these situations as a starting point to consider what our lives could look like and feel like in the absence of that stress we can begin to work with intention.

In other words, we don’t want to create an intention to get rid of something or to not be stressed, but rather to create a life of ease, to remain calm, to be joyful.

An intention is a short, positive statement that points you in the direction you want to go. The most impactful intentions are a north star, a guiding principle for your life and not necessarily a goal to be met, but rather a reminder of who you are at your core. This type of intention differs slightly from our situational intention we created earlier. That intention is used as a stopgap measure to shift behavior immediately. This intention is more closely aligned with purpose, which is simply to live your authentic life joyfully.

Some examples of life intentions:

I am a safe place for others.

I am here to share the light.

I relax with the flow of life.

I am at peace with myself as I am and the world as it is.

I speak in a way that adds to me and those around me.

In these examples, there is no real goal to be met but rather a snapshot of your work on this earth. Dig a little deeper. To be a safe place for others what must change? In order to share the light, what work must be done to uncover your own light? If I you are relaxing with the flow of life how do you manage all the stressful situations that arise?

This self-inquiry can lead you closer to how you wish to be in this world. Lean into the process without judging your responses or over thinking or trying to make it “right.” Rather than getting caught up in the questions, allow the movement and mindfulness and a regular practice of Yoga Nidra to lead you to your intention. For a deeper dive into creating your Intention for Life and learning about Yoga Nidra, find options for further study here.

Recognizing your behavior is the first step.

If you have found yourself in a complaint loop and you’re unsure how you got there or how to get out, don’t despair. Witnessing your own behavior opens the door to change. We all fall into bouts of negativity, and the past few years have given most of us a lot to complain about.

Start by remembering that complaining is a natural part of human communication, then take the action steps needed to reset your sunny self back on the path to peace and joy through movement, mindfulness, and yoga nidra.

For more information on Yoga Nidra, you can look for guided I AM Yoga Nidra experiences on YouTube or on a handy app including this one: I AM Yoga Nidra for Apple and Android. If you’d like to understand more about the mechanism of habits and create your own intention in Yoga Nidra, take an online course.

Kamini Desai PhD is the Author of Yoga Nidra: The Art of Transformational Sleep. Over the past 30 years, Kamini, expert and author of Yoga Nidra: the Art of Transformational Sleep has created an exciting and unique body of teachings incorporating Western psychology and Eastern philosophy. Considered a leader in the fields of Yoga Nidra, Yoga Therapy, and artful living, her practical and accessible teaching style has been welcomed worldwide. Her corporate clients have included Bahamas Princess Resorts, Kellogg’s, KEDS, Sony, KPN Telecom and Mars Confectionary, as well as the Department of Defense and the Internal Revenue Service of the Netherlands. In 2012, she was awarded the title Yogeshwari (woman of yogic mastery) for her keen ability to bring ancient illumination to the genuine challenges of the human experience. Kamini has been featured on the cover of Natural Awakenings, in Dutch Cosmopolitan, Fit and Healthy magazine, and has published numerous articles in the United States and Europe.

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