Sam Holstein

Never Criticize, Condemn, Or Complain

Commiserating is an important part of the human experience. We humans are social animals, as they say, and rely on those around us to help us meet many fundamental needs. One of those needs is as a way to relieve stress; studies show those who talk about problems with a friend experience a reduction in their emotional pain, even if that talk resulted in no concrete action or move forward to actually solve the problem. Pain shared is pain halved.

But almost everyone I’ve ever met takes this too far. Women friends go out for margaritas and make the main topic of conversation complaints about their husbands. Men go out for boys night and issue clipped complaints about their wives weight and their sex lives. Employees stand in huddles during break and talk of nothing but how much they hate their job. Shared criticism, condemnation, and complaint are even the keystones of some people’s social lives, forming important platonic and familial relationships. Hell, some people’s marriages are founded on a bedrock of complaining about each other. And this is really, really dangerous.

We like to think of ourselves as little brains in jars controlling our bodies like a tool, but that is far from the truth. We are as much a product of our environment as we are of our own will. When we go shopping, we choose the clothes we like, but the clothes we like are a result of the pressures our environment places on us. If we hope to control who we become, we must not only make the choices we want to make at the moment but create an environment that encourages us to do so.

One of the ways this happens is through what psychologists call cognitive priming.

Priming is a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention. For example, the word NURSE is recognized more quickly following the word DOCTOR than following the word BREAD.

Wikipedia, Priming (psychology)

This little fun fact about psychology has a powerful influence on our lives. For example: if your friend starts complaining about her partner’s behavior that morning, you are primed to:

  1. Perceive more negative things in your morning
  2. Complain about those negative things
  3. Perceive more negative things about your partner
  4. Complain about those negative things too

If you act on this and complain about your own life in response, you are effectively telling your brain “Yes, complaining is a good thing to do. I need more of this behavior.”

One common cliche in the self-help community is the saying “you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with.” It’s true, and this is why. As your words and actions shape them, their words and actions shape you. You cannot have one without the other.

I learned this lesson the hard way

I had a best friend once with whom I complained a lot. The basis of our friendship was a mutual attitude of victimhood, a belief that the world had done us wrong. In one sense, it was true; like anyone, both of us had suffered misfortunes in our lives. But we took it way too far, and we complained endlessly about it. Everything from the weird dude at the mall to systemic prejudice against the mentally ill was fair game for our complaining, and since there’s a lot going wrong in this world, there was a lot for us to complain about. Most of our conversations were analyses of these things gone wrong, either at a micro or macro scale, and how they negatively impacted us.

It was terrible for me. I began to see only what was going wrong in my life, not what was going right. What did go right I saw not as a blessing to be grateful for, but only as further evidence of an unjust world — and what went wrong I began to see as unchangeable.

The longer I stayed friends with her, the more negative my outlook became. Our habit of complaining together spilled out into other parts of my life. My conversations with other people began to revolve around perceived slights, both personal and political. My conversations with my then-boyfriend turned more and more critical. It even began to affect my health; as my attitude toward the world became one of victimhood, I failed to take care of myself the way I should, and the chronic health conditions I’ve been fighting since middle school became dramatically worse.

When I noticed what this negativity was doing, I immediately resolved to turn things around. When she pointed out something shitty about American culture, I empathized with the people who let it turn out this way. When she complained about her position in life, I pointed out things that were going right for us. When she said something shitty about my then-boyfriend, I stuck up for him.

It was for naught; whatever positive things I had to say, she swiftly shot down. Her reply was quick as a whip: “you’re naively optimistic.” The subtext: if you had it as bad as I did, you wouldn’t be.

Eventually, we parted ways.

Even today, given the right provocation, I’ll start on a tirade about whatever or whoever it is that has been annoying me on that day and the numerous ways in which they are wrong. Doing so always leaves me feeling sick like I’ve eaten an entire bowl of candy. Emotionally, that’s what I’ve done.

Most people don’t see a problem with this. When I notice this behavior in myself, others are quick to leap to my defense. “You’re just talking about your problems! It’s no big deal!” Done occasionally, it may not be a big deal, just like how eating candy occasionally is not a big deal, but (also like candy) it is far too easy for ‘occasionally’ to slide into ‘regularly’ and then ‘all the time.’

Most people don’t behave as if this is true. Most people behave as if they are in control of what they say and do at any given moment, each instant independent from the next, an island of the will, free from outside influence.

They’re deluding themselves. We are never free from outside influence. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, our environment is luring us into acting one way or another. The way those close to us speak and act lure us into speaking and acting like them. And when we criticize, condemn, and complain, we are creating an environment that creates us.

If we hope to have a life full of happiness, achievement, and joy, the words we say must reflect that. If we want a happy marriage, we must use the words people use in happy marriages. If we can’t use those words because they are a lie, we must (except for private, intimate conversations) say nothing. Like our parents taught us; if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.