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How Complaining Rewires Your Brain And Impacts Your Relationships

Complaining feels like just something you just say, but actually affects your mind, body and overall life and relationships.

How Complaining Rewires Your Brain And Impacts Your Relationships

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I’ve been living in Vietnam for over a decade, and one of my favorite encounters here thus far happened about two years ago. It was quite a late workday, mid-week, and I ordered a Grab car to go back home from my D1 office in Ho Chi Minh City. The car was punctual and I jumped into the back seat. I said hello to the driver and confirmed my address, as I always do.

Sometimes I get very quiet drivers, who barely say anything, and sometimes I get very chatty ones that perk up when I greet them in Vietnamese. This night I got a chatty one, and instead of sifting through emails on my phone I decided to engage in the conversation. The driver was older than me by a few years, he had a big smile on his face and was very curious about the westerner in his back seat that was conversing with him in Vietnamese. He asked where I was from and we had a normal chit-chat for a few minutes about life in Vietnam and how it compares to life in Sweden. Then I asked him “how long have you been driving for Grab and why did you start?”. The driver responded that he started driving just recently, at nights after work. His wife had recently suffered a stroke and were at home, incapacitated. “We have two girls that need to be schooled and fed” he explained, “so that’s why I started driving Grab”.

As he was telling me this story his big smile, so typical of Vietnamese people, never faded from his face. He wasn’t complaining about why this travesty happened to his family, but instead was very happy that he could sign up for Grab and earn extra income to help the situation, especially as Tết was approaching and he’d be able to earn much more than normal fares.

I keep thinking about him on a regular basis and it always gives me a feeling of happiness. Happy that I met him. Happy that I chose conversation over emails. Happy that he chose to share his story with me, and that I now have him as a go-to inspiration when I feel that I start to complain too much about relatively small inconveniences in my own life.

The pandemic has not only brought great change to all of our lives, but it has likely also been the most common conversation starter over the last 18-24 months. “How are you holding up?”, “How are things where you are?” we all find ourselves saying on a daily basis, teeing ourselves up for a few minutes of open, negative rants about our personal miseries. Don’t be fooled though, this is not a phenomenon created by COVID-19. Pre-pandemic these topics were work, other people, taxes, traffic or something else everyone commonly disapproves of. It’s always there, comfortably within reach for all of us; the complaining.

Think of the last 5 conversations you had with friends, how many of them included, or even started with a complaint? Probably all of them to some extent. Most of it happens without us even knowing it, and most of us unconsciously complain about everyday things, as if it was second nature. Sometimes our complaints are outright rants and other times they are more disguised and nuanced. Why do we do it though? There are many reasons. We complain to look for empathy from our peers, to get attention, to remove responsibility from ourselves or simply to make excuses. We even complain to try to inspire others, usually referred to as a “humble brag” i.e. you complain in a way to make yourself look good.

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Complaining feels like just something you just say, but actually affects your mind, body and overall life and relationships. Really? Yes, really. Research from Stanford University has shown that complaining causes damage to the neurons in your hippocampus and actually shrinks it — an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought. Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially when you consider that it’s one of the primary areas in your brain that is affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Speaking of diseases, complaining is even referred to as a disease in Vietnamese. Ever heard of the phrase “bệnh than"? It literally translates to anthrax but is also used to describe someone who complains a lot. Breaking it down we have “bệnh”, which refers to illness, and “than” which is a word for complaining.

What also happens is that once you’ve started to complain, your brain makes it successively easier to repeat that behaviour in the future. When you do something regularly, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future. So easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it and that’s the scary part.

Unconscious complaining is hard to stop, and it is likely turning people away from you. Someone who is always complaining is not only not that fun to be around, but they spread that negativity like second-hand smoke straight to your brain. Our neurons are picking these complaints up in something called “neuronal mirroring”. Whilst we don’t completely know everything about neuronal mirroring yet, neuroscientists believe it's the basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy. It thus makes us sensitive to other peoples’ actions — including their complaining.

How have I tackled this myself? Apart from the regular thought to the smiling Grab driver I also do a regular no-complaint challenge to try to break down those neural bridges in my brain that have caused habitual complaining. The no-complaint challenge is actually the brain-child of Will Bowen, the founder of Acomplaintfreeworld.org. A few years ago Will had heard that if you introduce a new behavior for 21 consecutive days it becomes a habit, so he created the 21-day no-complaint challenge. He bought purple wrist bands and started to hand them out for people to put them on one arm to remind them not to complain. If they complained they had to switch arms and start over from zero. Last time I checked he had handed out over 11 million wristbands.

The first time I did the challenge I chose a hot-pink wristband to partly draw my own attention to the task, but also that of others. It’s quite an eye-catching color so people sometimes ask “what’s the wristband for?” and I’ll explain. This makes it public and easy for people to call me out if I complain and I’ll have to switch wrists and start over. Pro-tip: not driving in Vietnamese traffic is greatly beneficial to successfully complete the challenge. On my first day wearing a pink no-complaint wristband I lasted 30 minutes, thwarted by someone cutting me off in traffic. 

What constitutes a complaint in this challenge? You can make your own definition, but the one I use is to say something negative out loud, that has no constructive, positive impact. “I hate traffic jams” would be a complaint , but saying “this traffic is pretty bad, tomorrow I’ll try another route” is not.

This challenge is so hard, especially the first time someone takes it. Not too long ago I challenged a few colleagues to complete it. They are all young, smart and generally positive women, working with people. After just 2 weeks they had all given up, complaining that it was too hard!

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It’s important not to give up though, because what happens when we stop complaining about the traffic, covid, the weather or that colleague who’s a bit crazy? We put out that imaginary cigarette of negativity and become positive, action-oriented problem solvers that people want to be around. We become more mindful about negative events affecting us, and we create a larger buffer between us and our reaction to it.

If I think about the people in my personal circles that I admire the most, or the colleagues I’ve enjoyed working with more than others — they are all no-complaining, action-oriented, mindful and positive individuals that I love being around. Just their mere presence lifts my mood. Challenge yourself to become someone who doesn’t complain but instead inspires others, and if you decide to take the 21-day no-complaint challenge, please drop me a comment on how it went.