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By Brianna Wiest
Complaining is the counterintuitive ticket to better mental health.
If you sit in a coffee shop for long enough, you’ll discover a standout pattern of human behavior: people love to complain. In fact, they bond by complaining. In my 4+ years of working out of them, I have watched countless sets of old friends get together just to sit down over chai lattes and let the conversation devolve into ruminating about everything that’s wrong for the next hour.
It’s interesting that this social phenomenon exists in the age of “positivity culture.” Despite our current mental health crisis, political climate and digital outrage cycle, we are saturated in articles, Pinterest quotes and status updates that encourage us to rid ourselves of toxicity and embrace a “positive” mindset. The results of doing so are self-explanatory, and obvious: focusing on the good creates more good. So what is it within us that compels us to complain? And could it be that our natural inclination to focus on what’s wrong actually serves us in some way we don’t consciously recognize?
“Constructive wallowing” is the term Tina Gilbertson uses to describe the power of accepting and releasing negative feelings. It’s not that people aren’t capable of being positive, it’s that we are so backlogged with suppressed emotions, they are flaring up to get our attention. We need to clear our consciousness before we can allow new experiences in, she explains.
What most people struggle with is not a tendency to complain – or it’s sister behaviors, ruminate and wallow. What they struggle with is an inherent need for their “bad” feelings to be seen and validated. Some typical signs of this kind of suppression are a lack of motivation in the face of desired goals, not doing what we “should” be doing, being exhausted for no reason, or most commonly: being unhappy when everything is okay.
Gilbertson argues that feelings will transform or release themselves, if we let them. “Emotions, once felt, will change themselves over time,” she argues, listing case studies wherein people who accepted their trials, defeats or crises ended up happier a year later than those trying to “remain positive” at all costs. The work, she explains, is not intellectualizing pain, but in simply accepting it.
A similar concept is often used in treating anxiety. If you’re experiencing intense feelings of pain, anxiety, dread, etc. rather than say “I do not want this feeling,” say: “I want to be anxious. I welcome this.” Interestingly, embracing the feelings makes them go away, just like how saying “I do not want this” intensifies them and makes them harder to release. What you resist, they say, persists.
But what if the objective weren’t just to rid ourselves of those “bad” feelings? After all, worrying and rumination activate the same part of the brain as creativity, the amygdala. There are some primal impulses at work here: we worry to survive. We try to predict, downboard-think and imagine the worst possible scenario, so we can prepare and then keep the species alive. Over the past few millennia, this has been pretty effective. Most of us no longer have to worry about whether or not we will be eaten by a bear, or will starve because the crops aren’t fertile in the winter months.
But we do worry about social acceptance, excelling at our jobs, finding meaningful partnerships and leaving a legacy. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we’ve surpassed basic survival and are now onto worrying about things that typically don’t have a conclusive end: if we’re worried about starving, we gather food and the problem is solved. If we’re worried about having a meaningful life, we have to decide for ourselves what the antidote would be.
When you think about worrying this way – in the sense that it sparks creativity and fuels the evolution of the human race – it’s a reminder that “negative” feelings don’t really exist in the first place. “Bad” things are only the things we do not want to happen, or at least, we think we do not want to happen. “Negative” emotions are just the ones we are resistant to feeling. Once we have accepted them, they neutralize. So were they inherently “bad” in the first place?
Alan Watts explained that the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are one in the same. That the more we want to feel better, the less we do. The more we accept not feeling well, the better we become.
So what would happen if we accepted our whole range of human emotion, and the sensation of rage or grief were as acceptable as joy or inspiration? We’d be a lot happier. Not because we magically become chipper and complacent all the time, but because we have a deep and meaningful range of feelings, none of which we drive ourselves into panic over. The sheer expanse of feeling would create profundity and beauty and complexity and intrigue: the things that are not just components of happiness, but meaning.
Perhaps we bond over negativity in coffee shops not because we are lazy and have nothing else to talk about, but because in letting someone see our true pain, we are connecting with them by letting them see our true selves. Perhaps the reason why the traits we detest most in others – criticism and negativity – irk us so much is because we recognize the desire within ourselves to release them, and therefore cannot stand to be around someone whose behavior attempts to tease our of us our repressed impulse to complain.
We probably consume content on “positivity” at rapid speeds because, like fad diets, they only work temporarily. Saturating our minds with the good does not solve the problem, because not having enough “good” isn’t the problem in the first place, it’s that we see the “bad” as something we cannot accept.
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