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Health & Balance

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


"In our society, we're supposed to smile and have a nice day and pretend everything's OK even when it's not. That's unreal," says Barbara Held, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Bowdoin College. She believes that this emphasis on always seeing the bright side can encourage people to mask their unhappiness and swallow their gripes-but that can be toxic. "It's important to learn how to tell friends and family when you're upset-if you don't, you end up alone in your pain. Complaints can be healing," she says.

Held argues that constructive complaining is an essential life skill. Her guidelines: Be up-front about your need to complain (rather than try to pretend you're just having a regular conversation), limit your kvetch time, and don't act as though your gripes trump everyone else's. Above all, select an appropriate listener.

If your problem is solvable-for example, you're offended that your single friends never invite you to their girls' night out-talk to one of them directly and try to reach a happy resolution. But with expressive complaints that aren't serious and can't really be fixed-you abhor your husband's prized bobblehead collection-griping to a third party spares your marriage a lot of wear and tear. "I love my husband, but some of his habits annoy me. I know he won't change, so I complain to a friend," says Jennifer. "I feel better once I get things off my chest-and, oddly enough, I also often feel closer to my husband."

Unhealthy complainers bellyache to anyone who crosses their path and don't pick up on people's cues that they've had their fill of negativity. "Chronic complainers get stuck in victim mode, and that irritates the people around them," says Cunningham. Plus, these types love to talk but rarely listen. "They'll take hours of your time telling you their problems-then they reject your help and don't take one piece of advice you give them," says Kowalski.

Bad complainers are annoying at best, depressing at worst. They spread negativity and give griping a bad name. But if you really need to complain, go ahead. Because for most of us, behind the grousing is a basic human need: We're looking for connection.

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