Welcome to “Dear Guy,” TED’s advice column from psychologist Guy Winch. Every month, he answers readers’ questions about life, love and what matters most. Please send them to email@example.com; to read his previous columns, go here.
By starting to examine my own life in the context of the thoughts that rise and fall in my mind, I’ve found complaining to be a large part of the way I relate. So I tried a little experiment of listening for complaining.
I’ve found that it can provide some relief for me to complain, and it can feel like solidarity when I commiserate with someone else’s complaining. Yet it can be very depressing later on when I realize the only memory I have about an interaction involved our mutual dissatisfaction and misery.
But if I don’t complain — for example, a female friend tells me that her marriage is making her crazy and I respond by saying, “What a shame, I can’t imagine what that must be like” — it implies that my own marriage is great, and my friend and I end up growing apart, not closer.
How can I bridge the gap by not complaining or not encouraging complaining while also not sounding as if I’m immune from dissatisfaction?
Curious about Complaining
[Editor’s note: The above letter was edited for length and clarity.]
Dear Curious about Complaining,
Your letter brings attention to a problematic side effect of complaining — and it’s one that we don’t usually pay much attention to. Having a cathartic complain-a-thon with a friend is a great way to enhance our bond, but as you recognized, it can put you in a really bad mood. These kinds of mutual complaining sessions are common among friends, which is unfortunate because they can also be quite dangerous for our emotional health.
“Dangerous?” I hear you, Curious, asking me. “Are you sure, Guy? Okay, maybe I felt a smidge depressed afterward but it was nothing a pint of rocky-road ice cream couldn’t handle.”
Here’s why complaining is dangerous: There’s a crucial difference between physical and emotional pain. Recalling physical pain does not reactivate that pain, but recalling emotional pain does. So telling a friend about the time you fell and broke your arm will not make your arm hurt, but telling them about how your husband upset you last month will make you feel upset all over again and that distress takes a while to fade.
Remember too that complaint-a-paloozas, like the one you had with your friend, usually cover a wide range of frustrations, disappointments, hurts and betrayals, all described in glorious Technicolor. The emotional pain they stir up can be substantial and it can linger, which is why you still felt depressed hours after your conversation.
Psychologists call these kinds of encounters co-ruminating, and recent studies from Amanda Rose at the University of Missouri and others have demonstrated the toll they take on our emotional health.
Since your letter did not mention the specific marital complaints that you and your friend discussed, I’m going to take the liberty of giving a hypothetical example to illustrate the impact of these co-rumination sessions.
Let’s say your friend opens with this: “Steven’s so inconsiderate that it drives me crazy. He constantly leaves his wet towels on the bathroom floor! I yell at him to hang them up, but even when he makes an effort it never lasts. A day later, back to the floor they go!”
“Towel-rack blindness,” you nod knowingly. “My husband has a malignant form of it — he drops his wet towels right under the rack! If he just reached up before letting go, it would drape in glorious perfection. It’s so infuriating. The rack’s right there. Just reach up!”
The two of you go on to share a few more rounds of partner failures before pausing. At this point, you’ve vented your frustrations, received some relief, validated each other’s emotions, and deepened the bonds of your friendship.
No real damage done yet.
It’s what happens next that’s critical.
If you and your friend then switch to a neutral or positive topic, you won’t feel depressed later on. But given the fact that you report being in a bad mood afterwards, you and your friend probably drifted into a further round of husband shortcomings. Or, maybe you went into an entirely new complaint frontier — for ex., “Oh, and my neighbor’s been practicing her saxophone til all hours of the night again. A saxophone! What is this, the 1980s?”
That’s when you entered psychologically dangerous territory.
Co-ruminating, when done frequently, does more than leave you with a bitter aftertaste. In some studies, it’s been associated with an increase of depression and anxiety symptoms because you’re not only raking up a collection of annoying and negative incidents and worries, you’re also creating the perception that your life is generally frustrating, upsetting and dissatisfying.
That’s not all. One study found that when two women co-ruminated, it increased their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This effect doesn’t just happen between friends. Getting social support from coworkers when our jobs are stressful has been shown to reduce stress and burnout, but as another study found, the benefit of social support disappeared and a person’s stress actually increased when a coworker’s discussions crossed into co-rumination territory.
Now, in today’s COVID-19 age, many of our in-person interactions have turned into Zoom calls. And although there hasn’t been any research yet about co-rumination over video, the same effects likely exist there too. All of my sessions with patients are virtual these days, and I’ve noticed that discussing frustrating or upsetting events activates the same emotional resurfacing as it did when we were meeting face-to-face.
Which brings us to your question, Curious: How do you bridge the gap between expressing solidarity and commiserating with a friend but avoid falling into the co-rumination trap?
I believe the answer is embedded in the term “co-rumination”. Ruminating is generally considered unhealthy, because it involves too much stewing and dwelling on painful ideas or problems without resolving them or changing our perspective and thus reducing the emotional distress they elicit. When two friends discuss their woes, they can supersize this effect and exacerbate their feelings of resentment, helplessness, hopelessness and despondency.
To be clear, commiserating with a friend is not problematic as long as you do it in moderation and balance out the negativity by introducing a positive perspective or by engaging in problem solving.
I can guess what you’re thinking, Curious: “Yeesh! Here’s another man focused on solutions when a woman just wants to talk about her feelings!”
That’s fair, but the two are not mutually exclusive and that is my point. By all means, talk about your mutual woes but then pivot to more positive fodder or to problem-solving. Say to your friend: “We’re two smart women, there’s got to be a way we can get through to those towel-droppers in our lives.”
And if your friend tries to pull you back into co-ruminating by saying, “I’ve tried everything. He just doesn’t care! Last weekend he completely forgot our anniversary!”, you can interrupt her and say, “You know, my husband drives me crazy sometimes, but he has his good points. For instance, he’s lovely with my parents. They irritate me to no end, but he handles them like a champ. What does Steven have in the ‘plus’ column?”
The bottom line, Curious, is that complaints have many different functions. They can lead to positive outcomes, like bonding between friends, as well as to negative ones, like co-ruminating and getting depressed. What you’ve identified so wisely in your letter is that when it comes to complaining, we need to resist getting caught up in the drama, employ some moderation and balance, and pay attention to our own emotional health.
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