It’s Okay: To Complain About Problems Without Trying to Fix Them
In It’s Okay, we defend our most embarrassing, unpopular opinions.
Can we talk about how little time there is in the day to do things? Work, socialize, rest, take up hobbies for self-growth. No, I’m not asking for a time-management lesson on the magical benefits of waking up early or making to-do lists. This is more of a tirade against the need to fragment our time and lives in tiny, meaningless batches. A similar tone of discontent spills into other dimensions — Why does it take so much money to enjoy things? Why is my partner being hot-and-cold? Why must the dress I’ve wanted to order for weeks go out of stock?
The focus here is on delivering the tirade, and not using it as a means to an end (the “end” being a solution in this case). But popular wisdom tells us that complaining, and then complaining some more, stacks itself to form a tower of displeasure — which may rattle people’s patience. While some may have a problem with venting in and of itself (variations of “I like someone who doesn’t complain all the time and looks at the bright side instead” pop up routinely on dating apps), others take issue with the futility of it. Why vent needlessly without mustering up the energy to act or fix things?
One word, nine letters, and you have the answer. Validation. Or, more accurately: emotional validation. After a long day of work, your friend or partner doesn’t want to hear about how they should stand up to toxic work culture. No, an emotional let-out is like releasing the pressure from a pipe. It acts as a salve to let the person process their emotions while expressing them.
“Letting it all out can relieve the inner tension we feel from a difficult situation, and help us feel ready to face the next frustration. Sometimes we just need to blow off steam by expressing ourselves,” clinical psychologist Elizabeth Scott noted.
I don’t need to convince people why they should vent. Even psychologically, the ritual of venting is almost an emotional rite of passage to recovery — it is linked to feeling better, finding a new perspective, and finding that semblance of social support. “Like a shaken bottle of carbonated goodness, when we are under pressure, we can sometimes feel the urge to ‘explode’ in complaints. Letting it all out can relieve the inner tension we feel from a difficult situation, and help us feel ready to face the next frustration,” Scott added. The sense of peace that washes over the person when they hear “I get what you mean; I’d be frustrated too” or “Wow that sounds horrible!” is incomparable.
But more often than not, the person hearing the problem assumes the responsibility to fix or come up with a solution. Dislike your job? Switch. Disappointed at something your best friend said? Hash it out with them or let it go. To x number of problems, there is an equal x number of solutions.
Here’s why they may be missing the point: sometimes all people need is a good venting exercise. “People are going to differ, depending on what they’re dealing with, how intense their experiences are,” researcher Ethan Kross argued. “Being sensitive to the fact that some people may need more time before they’re ready to transition from venting to thinking is really important.”
When someone interprets this expression of emotional vulnerability as “whining” or being a constant “Negative Nelly,” it’s hard not to feel like they are dismissing your feelings. “We want to connect with other people who can help validate what we’re going through, and venting really does a pretty good job at fulfilling that need. It feels good to know there’s someone there to rely on who cares enough to take time to listen,” Kross noted. Plus, quick, easy “solutions” are often routes people have thought about already, so reinforcing those can make this emotional exchange more daunting.
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Of course, this doesn’t mean we harangue people we love with regularly-programmed radio shows of our struggles. There’s only so much kindness and patience people can have; people may have an even contracted emotional bandwidth given the mental toll living through a pandemic takes. The trend of “internet dumping,” where people non-consensually overload their emotional baggage on people without respecting their boundaries is one such counterintuitive result. Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist, and social scientist, believes “emotional dumping on your friends, acquaintances, or strangers without warning or permission is abusive and manipulative.”
We can then identify some mutually agreed-upon rules, etiquettes of complaining if you will. People can test the correct dosage of how much to complain and how to complain, chequering the whole exercise with some deliberate cognitive reframing. The person doing the venting can also make sure to check-in, but dismissing the whole exercise as one that is “negative” and “harmful to others” overlooks a crucial component of every relationship.
One could argue that complaining comes at no cost, but fixing requires time and energy — so the person is taking the easy way out. Okay, that’s partially true, sometimes acting on things is the biggest leap one can make. But venting or expressing one’s issues is also draining; it requires accepting the problem to oneself and emotionally opening up to the other person. So many times admitting a problem requires time and energy in its own way; it seems mutually destructive to pit two equally emotionally laborious things against each other. Why elevate something at the expense of others?
Some people may be tempted to interpret complaining as unseemly or entitled; that people who find faults may just be perpetually unhappy people. But positioning venting in opposition to feeling grateful/appreciative is a false dichotomy. You can appreciate the mental health policies of your workplace whilst taking issue with the salary you get; it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Arguably, anything that doesn’t serve a constructive purpose, or doesn’t help the maximum number of people, is often met with apathy. Venting, as a means to finding the solution oneself or getting some emotional succor at that moment in time, defies a crucial expectation of capitalist dynamics: that everything/everyone must be working towards something or else its existence is meaningless. Think of this as an act of defiance. It is a way to assert one’s identity by way of working through their own fallibility.
We know nothing in the world comes with a guarantee. Some quietly process it; while others hash it out gestures and well-argued paragraphs and monologues punctuated with “that sucks” every now. Perhaps, our response to obstacles is a tacit acknowledgment of this universal helplessness.
It’s okay to let people run wild with their displeasure — of themselves and the world. Feel free to join this chaotic mishmash of annoyance and anger.