All of us have probably met at least one chronic complainer. You know the type. He always has something negative to say. He's never satisfied. He's quick to find something he doesn't like in any given situation. He's not very pleasant to be around; he casts a dark cloud wherever he goes. Even the most compassionate of us has a point at which listening to the woes of others becomes emotionally depleting. Being around the chronic complainer is draining; he leaves us feeling exhausted. For this reason, we try to avoid him whenever possible.
Or maybe you've known someone who seems to complain about the same thing over and over again. She never does anything to change or improve the situation in question. She is quick to reject suggestions or advice. She seems completely uninterested in solving the problem yet she constantly complains about how unhappy it makes her. You eventually get sick of hearing about it. Her negativity and hopelessness are contagious. You become frustrated when your attempts to help are repeatedly rejected. Talking to her makes you feel bad. Understandably, you start avoiding her calls.
This kind of complaining has negative social consequences. Nobody wants to be around someone who complains all the time.
And yet complaining is pervasive, despite the negative social consequences. It stands to reason, then, that we must derive some benefit from it. Why else would we be willing to risk social ostracization?
As it turns out, there are actually a lot of good reasons to complain. On the most basic level, complaining allows us to express frustration and to receive validation from a sympathetic other. It enables us to discharge negative emotions, to "vent," or to "blow off steam." It has a cathartic effect. We feel better after complaining. In fact, research suggests that people who rarely complain have higher levels of depression than people who complain regularly.
Complaining also helps to avoid the consequences associated with holding emotions in. We need an outlet for our negative emotions. We have to have some way to express them. They don't simply go away if we choose not to deal with them. Feelings like frustration, anger, and resentment tend to fester. We ruminate on the object of our frustration, which only makes us angrier. These feelings eventually boil over and we lash out at whoever happens to be nearby.
Complaining is essential to maintaining healthy relationships. It is the means by which each person in the relationship expresses dissatisfaction or brings to light existing problems. Once problems are identified they can be addressed and ultimately resolved. This prevents the build up of resentment and other emotions known to be toxic to relationships.
So while complaining is beneficial and even healthy, in excess it becomes caustic. The problem is that most people who cross the threshold from healthy to excessive complaining are not aware of having done so. We rarely tell someone we are put off by his or her constant complaining; instead, we start trying to avoid him. I suppose one day the chronic complainer wakes up to find himself isolated and alone with no idea why. Ironically, this gives him something else to complain about...if he can find someone to listen.