If you ask my husband, he will tell you that I am a major complainer. I complain about anything and everything. Usually I get over it fairly quick, but sometimes I can sit in a complaining mood for quite a while. It's not fun for me, it's not fun for him, and it's also not fun for our kids. As a mom, complaining seems to just come with the territory. But when you find yourself doing it so much that your last Google search is "how to stop complaining" it might be time to take a good, hard look in the mirror and start actively trying to complain less.
But how? That's the million dollar question. For moms, understanding why we complain may be the key to answering that very question.
I asked marriage and family therapist, Laura Jordan, MA, LPT, about tips for moms specifically to use to stop the cycle of endless complaints. She explains that chronic complaining is something ingrained within our thought patterns. "I'm all about being able to vent, but too much complaining ends up perpetuating the negative thought cycle, making it more difficult to ultimately come out of it. It becomes habit and pattern at a certain point because that pathway has been forged in the brain," Jordan says.
In short, complaining too much is a habit and it's a hard one to break. After speaking with experts in the mental health field, the number one piece of advice they all gave has to do with retraining your brain to think differently. This can be done by reframing frustrating situations, validating emotions, interrupting thought patterns, and highlighting the good things in life.
In her book The Happiness Project, author Gretchen Rubin chronicled the year she spent incorporating more positivity into her everyday life. As part of her project, she attempted to do the very thing so many fellow moms (raising my own hand here) struggle with — to complain less. Instead of focusing on the things people around her failed to do and nagging them about it, Rubin reframed situations and focused on what she could do to be happier in the moment. When dealing with her husband's less-than-stellar housekeeping abilities she wrote, "I can't make him do a better job of doing household chores, I can only stop myself from nagging — and that makes me happier."
Basically, when you reframe your experiences, your focus shifts and you are able to focus less on the complaint itself and can become proactive instead of reactive. An article on Changing Minds explained reframing as being able to simply say, "Let's look at it another way." Try stepping back from the situation you want to complain about and look at what you may be able to change about it. Perspective is everything.
Jordan puts it this way: "I think when we complain the, oftentimes, accompanying feeling is lack of control. Is there anything that can be done to counteract this perception of a lack of control? For example, if you find that you complain about toys being left out, is there room to weed out the toy collection? Maybe the surplus of toys in your house is making it impossible to have them put away the majority of the time. Additionally, have your kids been taught to clean up their toys (if they're old enough)? Setting boundaries is another excellent way to get back a sense of control and mitigate complaining."
In my experience, reframing is a great tool. But, it takes a while to get the hang of, and may not come naturally right away, especially if positive thinking doesn't come so easily. Clinical psychologist Venus Mahmoodi, PhD, gave me some insight into how we can understand balance when it comes to our thought patterns in order to stop complaining.
"With negative thinking patterns, our goals are not to all of a sudden 'think positively.' Often times we think that we have to think positively to feel good, but this isn’t always possible, especially if we’re feeling overwhelmed by attempting to complete everything on our to-do lists, both for ourselves and little ones," Mahmoodi tells Romper. "I often suggest seeing how we can balance thinking. This day isn’t the worst day ever, but it certainly can’t be labeled the best day ever either. So we balance the thinking by saying, 'This day has had some very challenging moments' or 'This day has been more challenging than other days.' And validate the attempts that are made to manage the distress that might come up about having a challenging day through deep breaths, venting or complaining to a friend, or doing some quick mental exercises like 'today was challenging, I’m hoping tomorrow will be better.'"
Dr. Mahmoodi also stresses the importance of limiting complaining in addition to self-validation. She says that in sessions with her patients, she will often model validating language in order to help others learn how to do it for themselves by working through troubling events like a toddler tantrum. She suggests moms ask themselves things like, "How can I manage a tantrum differently in the future?" and "How can I more effectively manage my thoughts and emotions so when my little one has a tantrum, I can support them and hold their emotions because they may not know how to do that just yet?"
In addition to validation, Jordan suggests that interrupting negative thought patterns can be a strategy moms implement when circumstances are beyond our control. "If the source of complaining is unchangeable or you find that the complaining has simply become pattern and no longer serves a healthy venting purpose, it's important to acknowledge your unmet need (often disguised by complaint) and validate what you're feeling before you can move forward in changing the habit," she says.
Jordan suggests a strategy that therapists call "thought stopping," which involves using a "trigger word" to keep negative thoughts from overtaking our minds and stop the complaint cycle. A simple word such as "stop" can flash a lightbulb in the brain and keep the cycle from occurring.
"Once the thought has been stopped in its tracks, I recommend replacing the negative, complaint-based thoughts with thoughts of how your life is going well. It's easy to get stuck in the negativity loop that accompanies complaining, so looking for positivity can be challenging and feel unauthentic at first, but if you go through the motions of writing down what it is that you're grateful for, the neural pathway of negativity can begin to be rerouted," Jordan says.
Just like Jordan suggests, looking for the bright spots can be hard. Gabrielle Mauren, PhD, LP for Park Nicollet Clinics gave me advice on how moms can shift their focus to have a more positive outlook in order to help stop complaining.
"On any given day, whether you have small children or teenagers, there are highlights and low lights. Though it’s good to think about the not-so-great moments and what could have gone better, it can be even more important to not dwell on those moments and find the uplifting parts of the day, too. Focusing on the sweet, proud, loving, content, or silly moments helps balance your thinking. Having a balanced perspective of things helps moms feel less guilty, weak, flawed, or 'not good enough,'" Dr. Mauren tells Romper.
She gives her patients advice to write down three things at the end of each day that were good. "Over time, they create a long list of these 'highlight' moments. Later on, when they are feeling down on themselves or a situation with the kids, they can refer back to this list to help recalibrate their thinking. It’s a simple thing to do but super helpful," she says. And for moms, simple is often exactly what is necessary.
All of these strategies are great for helping cope with complaining that may have gotten out of control, but it is important to remember that occasional venting is completely healthy. Everyone does it. So, the next time you have one of those days where your toddler breaks down in the middle of the diaper aisle in Target, you spill coffee all over your brand new yoga pants, and you whip out your phone to call and start the mountain of complaints to your bestie, take a deep breath and know that you're definitely not alone.