Neuro-psychology Of Complaining & What We Can Do

Himaja Boinapalli General Psychology

According to the Cambridge dictionary, complaining is the act of saying that something is wrong or not satisfactory. An average person complains 30 times a day. (Will Bowen, leading author & speaker on the topic, founder of ComplaintFreeWorld) We can complain to start/ end a conversation, we complain when we feel powerless, frustrated, complain out of habit, to avoid responsibility, to brag about superiority, control others, pre-excuse poor performance or behaviour etc. We all complain and it’s okay, right?

Have you wondered why we complain?

  1. Fallacy of permanence: Our idea that things can be permanent. We think that the presence of our loved ones & materialistic things is constant in our lives. We assume that they may always be there. Hence, we tend to not acknowledge their importance as much as we should.


  • One of the reasons students complain about their mom’s food at home is due to fallacy of permanence. They come to realize it’s worth all the more when they are away, when the idea of hot, delicious food being served on the table instantly is not permanent.
  • A section of the population says absence/distance makes our heart grow fonder; because that’s when we begin to increasingly recognize how valuable someone’s presence is in our lives or how much we enjoyed their company.
  1. Habituation: Factually, we do know that things are impermanent & that life is fleeting. Yet, why do we continue to take things for granted without even realizing? Habituation, a psychological and cognitive function can explain this behaviour. Habituation refers to a decrease in subjective experience or behaviour, & is mostly governed by an area of the brain called Amygdala, responsible for perceptions of emotions & memories. (Habituation, 2020) When a stimulus is presented frequently to us without change, punishment or reward, we learn to not respond to it. Hence, this phenomenon of habituation can lead us to not pause and appreciate our lives and people enough.


  • We have been habituated to the services of domestic workers, house helpers, paramedical staff, farmers, grocers, garbage-pickers, street-vendors etc. and we have learnt not to respond to them as strongly, until the world-wide lockdown brought us to a stand-still, highlighting the social hierarchy. Today, people have increased respect, and value their contributions more than ever, due to this brief period of time where their absence/ unavailability has caused major inconveniences.

Habituation can also be based on duration (how long or short the stimulus has been repeated), intensity of the stimulus, frequency & change of the stimuli.

  1. Desensitization: It refers to causing someone to experience something, such as an emotion, event or a person, less strongly than before. People can get desensitized to things or people that may seem constant in their lives.


  • People’s de-sensitization to the precautions, negative emotions of pandemic over time & the act of flouting rules.
  • De-sensitization to news items, to vulnerable sections of the society & the grave injustice perpetrated against them.
  1. Locus of control: (Diener, 2017)

Complaining behaviour may be based on the extent of control a person believes they have in a situation.

  1. Catharsis: (Bregman, 2017) We can release our bottled-up frustration and negative/uncomfortable feelings, as venting off and complaining is probably the easier way of dealing with an annoying situation.

It’s interesting to know that there are many underlying psychological processes behind our complaints that we are not always conscious about. Complaining is fine, yes? The problem arises only when that complaining becomes a habit and is very frequently repeated.

Some research studies concluded that complaining led to decrease in mood, and affirmations led to increase in mood, underscoring the “saying is experiencing” effect (SIE), i.e., you experience what you say/bring it into existence. Another study concluded that pet peeves were negatively correlated with satisfaction in relationships, well-being, and mindfulness (Kowalski et al., 2014).

Consequences of complaining:

Habitual complaining leads us into a cycle of negative thinking, where it becomes easier and automatic for us to be negative about a situation, than to be positive irrespective of the nature/context. (Bregman, 2017) This also brings a change in how people perceive us. Firstly, negative thoughts and complaints are reinforced in anyone present around the complainers (neuronal mirroring), especially children as they are comparable to sponges, who can absorb anything you say or do. (Marham, n.d.) Second, when the complainer is continuously complaining about something and is always bringing it up, it mostly leads the other person to perpetuate their behaviour but not address it by solving. (Lefave, n.d.)

Example: Complaining that a person’s room is always messy and untidy doesn’t lead that person to clean up, but only perpetuates their messy behaviour.
Third, it can make the complainer appear as a negative influence or an energy sucker. It could also potentially lead to strife, annoyance, & anger in others. Our catharsis may cause us to spread or amplify our initial frustration (Bregman, 2017). Primarily, repeated complaining shrinks our brain, particularly the hippocampus volume (another brain organ governing learning & memory) and increases the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone (BP, diabetes) (Burnison, 2019) (Lefave, n.d.).

Hence, frequent complaining is highly unfavourable and detrimental in the long-run.

Benefits of not-complaining

Refraining from complaining or complaining less helps us let go of our past and accept our feelings & self, inculcates a pro-active, learning attitude, improves one’s clarity and optimism, allows others to be and improves the quality of our relationships, helps one lighten up, helps attain peace, lowers blood pressure and improves our health, & leads us to productivity (Devalia, 2014). Ultimately, our quality of life is enhanced multifold.

Having said that, to complain less takes consistent practice. Some ways we can shift our attitude on how to complain less or complain in a healthy way include:


  1. Stop out-complaining/ automatically responding to other people’s complaints with further complaints
  2. Notice any time you start to complain. Breathe. Notice your thoughts, feelings & physiological changes (Bregman, 2017).
  3. Ask yourself if it is complain-worthy?
  4. Check your locus of Control: Is it internal or external? What do you attribute the situation to?
  5. Ask yourself if you can take charge of the situation instead, by looking at alternative solutions & strategies (Marham, n.d.).
  6. Instrumental Complaining-Complain in a healthy way to bring about a goal (Diener, 2017) (Lefave, n.d.).
    Example: Instead of complaining in the form of snapping/criticism/yelling at someone or something, give them honest feedback about how you feel in-order to bring about a positive change.
  7. When you feel an urge to complain about what’s going wrong, focus on the positives of the situation instead and deal with negatives head on.
  8. Finally, do limit your exposure to complaining (Diener, 2017)

It is important that we address the root-cause of our complaints, the worry, sadness or frustration associated, if any. We must accept any feelings that surface, embrace them and learn healthy ways of coping. Practicing mindfulness helps master our internal triggers. Mindfulness is a flexible state of mind when we are situated in the present and become sensitive to context and perspective. It is about being aware on a moment-by-moment basis and a non-judgemental awareness of one’s mind, body and surroundings. “Mindfulness is not the answer for all’s life’s problems. Rather it is that all life’s problems can be seen more clearly through the lens of a clear mind.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013)

Accepting and embracing the impermanence of things, carrying an abundance mind-set vs. scarcity mind-set, & counting our blessings every day can help us complain less.

Not to forget is the attitude of gratitude, and the umpteen number of benefits of gratitude and mindfulness in our lives. According to the, “The opposite of complaining is gratitude. We should talk about things we are thankful for rather than things we are unhappy about. Our minds are like steering wheels; they take us in the direction we point them. If we focus on positive things, we move in the direction of greater happiness and more success.”

So, who’s ready to participate in a #NoComplaints challenge with me? 🙂 Can you go a day without complaints?


Bregman, P., 2017. The Next Time You Want To Complain At Work, Do This Instead. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: <>

Burnison, G., 2019. Stop Complaining—It’s Making You Dumber. Here’s What Successful People Do Instead. [Online] CNBC. Available at:

Devalia, A., 2014. 21 Powerful Reasons Why You Should Never Complain Again! [Blog] Make it Happen, Available at: <>

Diener, R., 2017. The Three Types of Complaining. [Online] Psychology Today. Available at: <

Kabat-Zinn, J., 2013. Full Catastrophe Living. New York: Bantam Books.

Kowalski, R., Allison, B., Giumetti, G., Turner, J., Whittaker, E., Frazee, L. and Stephens, J., 2014. Pet Peeves and Happiness: How Do Happy People Complain? The Journal of Social Psychology, 154(4), pp.278-282.

Lefave, S., n.d. I Stopped Complaining For 21 Days And It Changed My Relationships. [Online] Fitness Magazine. Available at: <>

Marham, D., n.d. The Average Person Complains 30 Times A Day…Would You Like To Stop? – Active Family Magazine. [Online] Active Family Magazine. Available at: <> 2020. Habituation. [Online] Available at: <, gill%20and%20siphon%20withdrawal%20reflex.>

Meet the Author


Himaja Boinapalli is pursuing her final year in Bachelor of Sciences, Psychology from Stella Maris College, Chennai (Class of 2020, University of Madras). She has authored & presented her research papers in national & international conferences of NAOP & IAAP, in the field of organizational & positive psychology centering around Authentic Leadership. She also takes a keen interest in social, cultural & applied psychology.