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Do you complain too much? (or not enough?)

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

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Hagar Scher

Why women love to vent. Plus, how to tell when your griping is healthy and when it's more likely to bring you down.

It started out innocently. I was attending brunch at a friend's house. The aroma of bacon and coffee wafted through the air; our infants napped contentedly. But before long, our chatting turned into moaning and groaning. One friend began complaining about her mother-in-law's behavior at a recent dinner. Another kvetched about his brother's out-of-control toddler. Yet another deplored her boss's ineptitude. Soon I was bad-mouthing my own mother, who had just visited. One small complaint had snowballed into an avalanche of dissatisfaction.

Open your ears and you'll find that complaining is an integral part of most people's daily exchanges. "For example, we use complaints as icebreakers," says Robin Kowalski, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Clemson University. "We start a conversation with a negative observation because we know that will get us a bigger response than saying something positive would."

That's just one of the ways in which griping comes in handy. According to Kowalski, there are two basic categories of complaints: instrumental and expressive. Instrumental complaints are goal oriented, meaning that we verbalize the problem in hopes of bringing about change. You rant to your husband about how messy the bedroom is because you're hoping he'll offer to help clean it up. You tell the hotel manager that the garbage trucks woke you up at 5:00 a.m. because you want a better room.

Expressive complaints have a different mission: to let the speaker get something off her chest. When you call a friend to wail that all three kids have strep at the same time, you're not looking for medical advice. It's acknowledgment and sympathy you're after. "Even complaining about the driver who cut you off can be healthy, provided you feel better once you get it out," says Kowalski. But here's the downside: Some people abuse expressive complaining, grumbling incessantly with no real interest in dialogue, problem solving, or human connection.


Michael Cunningham, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Louisville, observes that humans' taste for complaining probably evolved from our ancestors' way of crying out a warning when something threatened the tribe. "We mammals are a squealing species. We talk about things that bother us as a way of getting help or seeking a posse to mount a counterattack," says Cunningham. True, we no longer have to buddy up in the face of menacing saber-toothed tigers, but venting our everyday grievances to receptive listeners (a.k.a. expressive complaining) helps us feel validated and supported. Says my friend Tracy, mother of two daughters: "All the moms in our playgroup complain a lot. Venting helps us to feel less alone and less guilty about our frustrations as our kids go through the terrible twos."

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