Another day, another excellent article about therapy. This one comes to us from Inc magazine, thus, from the business press. Much of the best work in social and what they call industrial psychology comes from the world of business. See the Harvard Business Review.
It should not surprise us. People who do business have different standards. They care about what works, not necessarily what makes everyone feel good. Thus, they care about whether advice and information bring a practical benefit.
As you know, and as I have explained on countless occasions, therapists see their work differently. If it doesn’t work they will tell you that you just need more of it. Psychoanalysts have built an industry on that specious notion.
Today, Jessica Stillman offers up some good advice about complaining and venting. You know that the therapy culture promotes complaining. Therapists have spent a considerable amount of time telling people to express their negative feelings, to get it all out, not to keep it bottled up. They have insisted that if you do not vent and complain you are going to get sick.
To which Stillman responds that the best current science says that complaining is not just useless. It is bad for your mental health.
This might explain why therapists keep recommending it. Even if it is bad for your mental health, it is good for business. One hates to put it in such cynical terms, but, do you have a better explanation?
Some people will disagree. If you are among them and you want to learn the art of complaining, you should work at seeing the dark side of all things. You should learn to find fault wherever you look and to ignore anything that is right.
If you like, you can take a course in critical theory. It will instill in you the bad habit of finding fault with everything. Then you will always have something to complain about.
If you turn to the masters of critical theory--the Frankfort School-- you will learn about everything that is wrong with America, with capitalism and with Western Civilization.
Ideally, you will never run out of things to complain about. After developing the bad mental habit of complaining about everything and venting your spleen, you will always find a way to put it to good use.
The point is relevant to today’s political climate. Large numbers of people—in my neighborhood, at least-- are so thoroughly unhinged about the recent elections that they can do nothing but complain, vent and moan. I leave for wiser heads to determine whether they are right or wrong. I will only mention that the complaining is not providing any mental health benefit. Venting does not inspire people to vote for your cause.
Stillman has consulted with the experts. They explain that people vent because they believe that they need to get all of that negative energy out of their systems. They think that it's catharsis. The latest science begs to disagree:
Why do people complain? Not to torture others with their negativity, surely. When most of us indulge in a bit of a moan, the idea is to "vent." By getting our emotions out, we reason, we'll feel better.
But science suggests there are a few serious flaws in that reasoning. One, not only does expressing negativity tend not to make us feel better, it's also catching, making listeners feel worse. "People don't break wind in elevators more than they have to. Venting anger is...similar to emotional farting in a closed area. It sounds like a good idea, but it's dead wrong," psychologist Jeffrey Lohr, who has studied venting, memorably explained.
Not only do repeated negative thoughts make it easier to think yet more negative thoughts, they also make it more likely that negative thoughts will occur to you just randomly walking down the street. (Another way to put this is that being consistently negative starts to push your personality towards the negative).
Negativity breeds negativity. Sharing your negativity with other people makes you a less desirable friend and partner. Then you will really have something to complain about. Yet, when you discover that all that complaining is not doing you any good, it will have become a bad mental habit. You will then have a devilishly difficult time disembarrassing yourself of it.
"Through repetition of thought, you've brought the pair of synapses that represent your [negative] proclivities closer and closer together, and when the moment arises for you to form a thought...the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel, the one that will create a bridge between synapses fastest." Gloom soon outraces positivity.
The same rule applies to hanging out with negative people. If you complain to your friends all the time, or if you hang out with people who accent the negative, you will discover that negativity is contagious.
In Stillman’s words:
Not only does hanging out with your own negative thoughts rewire your brain for negativity, hanging out with negative people does much the same. Why?
"When we see someone experiencing an emotion (be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain 'tries out' that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you're observing. This is basically empathy. It is how we get the mob mentality.... It is our shared bliss at music festivals," Parton writes. "But it is also your night at the bar with your friends who love love love to constantly bitch."
Considering that therapists have been telling us that complaining is good for our mental and physical health, it is interesting to learn that the opposite is true. Complaining all the time, being critical of everything and everyone compromises your physical well-being.
All of which sounds like a good argument for staying away from negativity to protect your mental health, but Parton insists that quitting the complaining habit is essential for your physical health, too. "When your brain is firing off these synapses of anger, you're weakening your immune system; you're raising your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, and a plethora of other negative ailments," he says.