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How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity (and How to Break the Habit)

Sad girl

“Spending today complaining about yesterday won’t make tomorrow any better.” ~Unknown

When I was about sixteen or so, one of my parent’s friends got into some trouble with the law. When we’d visit him he’d often shake his head from side to side and mumble, my life is in the toilet.

He said it many times, for many years, even when things seemed to have gotten better for him.

My life is in the toilet was his mantra.

At the time I thought it was funny, so I adopted it for myself, until one day I started to believe it. I’ve since dumped that charming phrase and gotten a new mantra.

Things haven’t magically become ideal for me since I did that. I mean, there’s this pinched nerve in my neck and those construction sounds across the street, and I could really use some more work, and…

Type of Drains

Everyone complains, at some point, at least a little, says Robin Kowalski, PhD, a professor of psychology at Clemson University.

There are different types of complainers, according to Kowalski, such as The Venter. The Venter is a “dissatisfied person who doesn’t want to hear solutions, however brilliant.”

Venting. We’re just letting off steam, right? Maybe not. I’ve personally found that the complain drain can be soul draining, not just for the complainer, but for all within earshot.

Other types you may have met along the way (or may be yourself) are the Sympathy Seekers, the I got it worse than you do, and the habitual everything sucks folks.

The Chronic Complainers, those living in a state of complaint, do something researchers call “ruminating.” This basically means thinking and complaining about a problem again and again. Instead of feeling a release after complaining, this sort of complaining can actually make things worse. It can cause even more worry and anxiety.

No one is suggesting you be a peachy-keen-Josephine and pretend all is swell when it isn’t. What I’ve learned in my mindfulness practice is to aim to do the opposite.

In mindfulness meditation, we try to experience fully the truth of the situation, in this exact moment, and allow it to just be. Easier said than done (but what isn’t?) Still, with practice, the need to express our dissatisfaction for things not being how we’d like them to be lessens.

Can’t We Just Call Roto-Rooter?

Running with this drain analogy…

Call Roto-Rooter, that’s the name and away go troubles down the drain!

When I was a kid I loved singing along to those Roto-Rooter commercials. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could “away go troubles down the drain?” Well, maybe we can.

Most of us may have been unintentionally reinforcing the nasty habit of complaining, by virtue of… complaining.

There’s something called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” which is the continuing creation and grouping of neuron connections in our brains that take place as a result of our life experiences.

Neuroscience teaches us that neurons that fire together, wire together. Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist, coined that phrase back in 1949. What this means is that whenever we think a thought or have a feeling or physical sensation, thousands of neurons are triggered and they all get together to form a neural network.

With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time.

So, if you keep your mind looping on self-criticism, worries, and how nothing is working out for you, your mind will more easily find that part of your brain and will quickly assist you in thinking those same thoughts again.

This shapes your mind into greater reactivity, making you more vulnerable to anxiety.

Imagine a truck driving down a muddy road. The wheels create a groove in the mud, and each time that truck drives down that exact spot, the groove gets deeper and deeper.

The truck might even, eventually, get stuck in that mud rut. But it doesn’t have to. Instead of repeating the same negative complaints, we can drive our thoughts on a different road so we don’t get stuck in that negative mud rut.

Throughout our lives we are wiring our brains, based on our repetitive thinking. We get good at what we practice.

If we worry, creating more unease and anxiety, we become stellar worriers since our brain is responding, making it easier for us to worry each time we do it, thus creating our default mode living.

Default mode living is our habitual way of going about our lives. It’s our reacting minds as opposed to our responding minds.

Our reacting minds are often knee-jerk reactions to something. We often say or do things that we’ve said and done in the past, as if we were in that default mode living, on automatic pilot. But our responding minds come into play when we give ourselves a pause before responding to a situation.

We ask ourselves what’s really going on and what the next best step is. It’s a clearer response in the moment that’s not linked to past responses. So, how do we respond instead of react?

4 D.I.Y. Tips – Stop The Drain!

You’re stuck in traffic and not only are you complaining out loud to the cars that are in your way, you’re imagining getting home and complaining to tell your significant other all about it. You’re practicing this conversation in your head while in the car. Your heart races, your forehead tenses up. It’s all so very annoying! What to do?

1. Catch yourself.

During meditation we soon find out that our minds will wander. The moment when we notice it wandering and we bring it back to our focus, our breath, that moment is what one of my teachers calls “that magic moment.”

The catching yourself is the practice. Also, the not judging or berating yourself for having a mind that thinks thoughts. All minds think thoughts. That’s their job.

So to stop the drain:

  • Catch yourself in a complaint.
  • Stop complaining.
  • Congratulate yourself—you’re aware!

2. Be grateful.

I’ve tried it; I simply can’t seem to complain and be grateful at the same time!

I’m stuck in traffic, but I’m grateful to have a car. I’m grateful for the song that’s playing on the radio and the sunny day.

It doesn’t matter what you’re grateful for; it can be the smallest thing, just notice. Complaining could very well be the evil twin of gratitude. Favor gratitude.

3. Practice wise effort.

In Buddhism, wise effort is letting go of that which is not helpful and cultivating that which is skillful.

In the book Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das breaks down wise effort into four aspects, the first one being, restraint: “the effort to prevent unskillful thoughts and actions.”

Make the effort to pay attention and catch your complaining, negative thoughts before they become words.

Try it out and see how it feels. You might be surprised as to where you habitually have been putting your energy. Everything takes a certain amount of energy.

Next time you find yourself caught in a complaining loop, pause and regroup. Make the choice to put your energy elsewhere. The more you do this, the easier it gets.

4. Make a new groove.

Just the way our thoughts created that groove to make negative thoughts easier to replicate, we can create a brand new groove for pleasant feelings.

The more often we allow our minds to remember the good stuff, the easier that kind of thinking becomes.

Do you want to be the person who’s never satisfied and can always find fault in others, yourself, and the world at large? Or would you rather be someone who sees things as they are and finds a way to make peace with it? Let’s pretend it’s up to you. Oh, wait, it is up to you.

So, what do you say? You don’t need Roto Rooter to flush your troubles down the drain. Just make a new groove.

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About Annie Wood

Annie Wood is a Hollywood native, lifelong actress, writer, optimistic realist, and an enthusiasm enthusiast. She’s an award winning playwright with a web-series that she created, wrote, and stars in, Karma’s a B*tch. Her books can be found on Amazon. She’s into yoga, zen, dogs & contemplating stuff. Visit her at anniewood.com and DoGoodStuff.org and on Twitter @anniewood.

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  • Good tips. I practice every one of your suggestion. I have to say that the biggest thing for me was when I started to meditate daily. I would do it right after waking up for 20 or 30 minutes. When things get stressful at work, the old me would have undoubtedly hated life and started complaining and stressing out. The new me is more or less indifferent and ambivalent.

  • Annie Wood

    yes, same here. a daily practice has helped me in big ways! thanks for the comment. may your days be peaceful and happy. ツ

  • Laura Duggan

    Thank you for this good read. The phrase is actually “Neurons that Fire together Wire together” meaning that when we experience or practice an activity (or thought or output association of any sort over and over again… that’s the firing part) the neural connection becomes learned/connected and more likely to occur in the future (that’s the wired part). The learned association is sometimes called a neurotag or neuro-signature because the synaptic firing of one neuron almost predicts or “causes” the firing of another that its been repeatedly paired with. Neuroplasticity (ironically only accepted by the scientific/medical community some 20 years ago) is what motivates my practice. 🙂

  • PJ

    I’ve been told my whole life that I’m such a negative person. The most bothersome part was that I knew they were right. But I didn’t know how to be less negative.

    When I started learning about Buddhism (VERY recently), I was able to relax my mind, and yesterday, found that after 4 or 5 minutes of complaining about something, my mind shifted to accepting that while it [the situation I was complaining about] sucked, it was easier and more effective to accept reality, change my attitude, since I couldn’t change the situation, and move on.

    And I actually did. It felt so bizarre to me. Not complaining though 🙂 Never too late to start rewiring your thought patterns

  • Joel Scott

    Great tips. Do you mind if I add one? Find an accountability partner to discuss the times you succeeded and the times you didn’t. Don’t find just anybody though. Find someone whose thoughts are aligned with your. I have found that having someone to work with side-by-side further ensures success.

    Thank you Annie for the article. It was a wonderful read

  • Annie Wood

    oops! you’re so right! thank you for pointing it out! i will have it fixed. thanks, laura! 🙂

  • Annie Wood

    love that, joel! kind of like a work out buddy but for the mind.

  • Annie Wood

    that’s fantastic. i’m so happy you had that experience. thanks for sharing it!

  • Laura Duggan

    Hi Annie, after I left the comment I finished reading the article (lol) and realized it was probably just a typo! Sorry about the long winded explanation. This stuff (neuroplasticity) is my passion and I get overly excited by it!!! 🙂

  • Annie Wood

    no worries at all. i’ve said the line before, correctly, but i wrote it down incorrectly. i love this stuff too, so i’m happy that you pointed it out!

  • Tricia Kulmacz

    OMG, is that a stock photo or do you know the girl in the picture? She looks exactly like my daughter!

  • frenchtoastgirl

    This sort of sounds like a denial of emotions and lying to oneself.

  • Kathy

    I’m praying these tips will help me. I have been in a horrible bipolar spiral for 2 months now. My mind repeats the mantra over & over, of how challenged I am financially, having lost all of my savings & investments 9 years ago. My record continues on about how will I live, how will I get by, as I don’t have financial means, so it seems, that I will ever be able to care for myself. I worry about living in someone’s bedroom in a strangers home, or worse. I look at everyone who seems to have their act together. I grind it over & over as if I’m just waiting for something to happen. This bipolar cycling, spinning, ruminating, whatever, it’s got me eating up inside.

  • great read thank you

  • Liz

    What if you have anxiety disorder? Is there even a buddhist article about anxiety disorders?