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What will it be: Fight or flight?

| Friday, January 24, 2020

I’m sure you’ve heard of Maya Angelou (if you haven’t, what the hell are you waiting for; just Google her name). There’s this one quote of hers that I love. It is not the most poetic nor the most charming, but the real-world complexity it conveys is definitely thought-provoking: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”

Most of us, if not all of us, have a humorous love-hate relationship with complaining. On one hand, it can feel quite satisfying to complain. As Alina Tugend so bluntly wrote for The New York Times, “There is little that is more satisfying than chewing over a meaty complaint … the really annoying thing that friend does or how unbelievably rude a teenager can be.”

Moreover, ironically enough, complaints often serve as icebreakers. As Tugend reported in the New York Times: “‘It’s one way to create rapport,’ said Joanna Wolfe, a professor of English at Carnegie-Mellon University whose research focuses on communication styles. Complaining about a late bus with other riders, for instance, ‘creates kind of a solidarity,’ she said. ‘I’ve made friends that way.’”

On the other hand, I don’t need to pull up much statistical evidence to convince you of the detrimental effects of complaining. To begin with, your brain, which is designed to maximize efficiency, will easily pick up on your patterns and recurring behaviors (complaining in this case). Your neurons will grow closer and forge more connections between them. That’s when complaining is almost impossible to unconsciously avoid. Repeated complaining rewires your brain: It makes it easier for you to complain. You are also then at greater risk of turning into a chronic complainer.

In Psychology Today, Dr. Guy Winch illustrates a very realistic description that I’ve included below:

Optimists see: A glass half full.

Pessimists see: A glass half empty.

Chronic complainers see: A glass that is slightly chipped holding water that isn’t cold enough, probably because it’s tap water even though I asked for bottled, and wait, there’s a smudge on the rim, too, which means the glass wasn’t cleaned properly and now I’ll probably end up with some kind of virus. Why do these things always happen to me?”

Over time, complaining can easily become a trap. And here’s the worst part: According to research from Stanford University, complaining can also damage and shrink your hippocampus — an area of the brain that’s critical to problem-solving.

Just to be clear, complaining is not defined as expressing emotions like sadness or stating needs. In fact, discussing hardships and sharing how you feel is actually quite relieving. It helps you understand and navigate your emotions; it helps you move on. Complaining, however, is when you constantly blame other people or outside factors for situations gone wrong. Instead of accepting some form of responsibility and trying to fix the errors or flaws, you look for someone/something to blame.

Another phenomenon I found quite fascinating is the fact that, if you surround yourself with people who often complain, your brain with naturally pick up on it and start mimicking the moods and behaviors witnessed. This process called “neuronal mirroring” is essentially rooted in humans’ inherently social nature. As Dr. Laura Markham writes, “It makes complaining a lot like smoking — you don’t have to do it yourself to suffer the ill effects … Think of it this way: If a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke?”

Complaining is our grown-up version of whining, a way to vent or rant, but Dr. Markham puts it truthfully by quoting Mark Waldman: “Every time you complain, your irritability — like a virus — is neurologically picked up by every person who hears your voice or sees your face. So by all means, train your brain to be optimistic and positive because (according to 30+ years of longitudinal research conducted by Duke University and the Mayo Clinic), it will literally add years to your life.”

On a final note, I wanted to highlight a movement that has made quite a difference in the world. In 2006, motivational speaker and bestselling author Will Bowen kickstarted the “Complaint Free Movement.” He set out a plan to reduce complaining in 21 days as he helps people create self-awareness and practice gratitude. Since 2006, the movement has exploded worldwide with more than 11 million participants. How about we start increasing this number?

I have noticed complaining seems to come so naturally. For most of us, it is easier to complain than it is to express gratitude. But the truth is that the world is always going to be imperfect: It is going to rain the one time you forget your umbrella, you will run late to some meeting, your car will break down when you least expect, you will have a bad day. Life is never linear; you will have to navigate a lot of ups and downs. On top of that, life seems to be stubborn and pretty dedicated to cause us to fall or mess up. The true challenge here is how you will face all those impromptu annoyances and challenges. Will you start drafting a plan immediately or will you spend hours complaining and blaming every living, breathing creature you can think of?

So, what will it be: fight or flight?

Krista Lourdes Akiki is currently part of the Mendoza College of Business. Coming from Beirut, Lebanon, she always enjoys trying out new things and is an avid travel lover. She hopes to take her readers on her journey as she discovers new lifestyles and navigates new cities. She can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter @akikikrista.

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