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Venting … we all do it. Maybe you’ve griped to coworkers about how your boss never listens, or grumbled to friends when your significant other forgets to take the trash out, again. These days, fast-paced schedules, a climate of constant change, and relentless negativity in the headlines seem to provide plenty of fodder for expressing discontent. But where is the line between venting and complaining? And how much complaining is too much? If you find yourself constantly airing your grievances — it might be time for a complaint cleanse.

According to psychiatrist Jonathan Martin, Medical Director of the Baptist Health outpatient behavioral clinic in Corbin, KY, a complaint cleanse is all about training yourself to complain less and ultimately, to adopt a more positive point of view. “It’s reworking your negative thought process and catching yourself when you are doing those things to try and reframe your way of thinking,” he says.

The point of a complaint cleanse is not to outlaw venting, nor is it even to cut complaining out of your life completely. The point is to recognize when a habit of complaining is consistently affecting your day, your relationships, and your overall outlook on life.

Dr. Martin adds that complaint cleanses are usually one component of mental health treatment. “The basis of therapy,” he says, “is just to reframe your thought process and your thought patterns … and try to adjust that and not be so negative about situations in your life and about yourself.”

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Typically, patients come to Dr. Martin recognizing their need for a complaint cleanse. Usually, a family member has brought their incessant complaining to their attention, or they’ve noticed that their relationships are suffering because of it. Other times, however, patients don’t see their behavior as harmful — they mistake pessimism for realism.

“People tend to think they’re being realistic when they are being pessimistic,” he says, adding that the outside advice these people often receive is simply to ‘be positive’ instead. “[But] that is so difficult. I don’t tell them to do that right off. I say to get to neutral first; once you’re in neutral, it’s easy to go to positive. You’d be surprised at how much more positive neutral feels than negative, because you’re not adding those little negative hints all day long so that by the end of the day, it’s stacked up. When it’s neutral, you don’t have that, and you look at it more objectively.”

Woman looking out over a body of water

“Venting’s good — you want to let the pressure out here and there,” says Dr. Martin, “The point of the complaint cleanse is not to take away the venting; it’s not to take away all complaints. It’s to change your own attitude and your own thought process so that you don’t jump to negative or pessimistic [thoughts] for things that aren’t necessarily negative.”

Dr. Martin offers an example of an exercise that can help jumpstart your complaint cleanse — start by identifying negative thoughts, then reframe them as neutral statements:

Negative: “I have to go visit my family this weekend.”
Neutral: “I have the opportunity to visit my family this weekend.”

Negative: “I have to work extra shifts this week.”
Neutral: “I have a job, and there are extra shifts available this week.”

Negative: “I have to do laundry today.”
Neutral: “My dirty clothes will be clean tomorrow.”

“It’s not necessarily positive, but it takes the negative attitude out of it,” he explains. “Take the same idea but frame it in a way that makes it ‘taste’ better so that your brain registers it not as a negative thing, [but] just something that’s happening.”

Dr. Martin adds that people who need a complaint cleanse are in the habit of being negative, and it takes time to develop a new habit. The idea is to allow for a neutral — and eventually, a positive — thought pattern to set in and become second nature. “[It takes] at least a month of working on it actively,” he says. “You still have to revisit and touch base here and there to keep it up. It’s not going to be something that maintains by itself.”

Think you could benefit from a complaint cleanse? Dr. Martin says that if you feel like your complaining isn’t having a hugely negative impact on your everyday life, it might be something you can manage on your own. Check out self-help books, podcasts, and videos to learn about different strategies, then start taking small steps throughout the day.

For most, it begins with a commitment to self-awareness. “Catch yourself being negative and try to reframe that thought — right then, in that moment, to a more neutral or more positive thought,” he says. “Take a break from social media [and] take a break from watching the news, especially politics and pandemic talk; all that stuff brings you down.”

Dr. Martin says that social media can have a major impact on negative perceptions because we’re often comparing ourselves to others, even though what we see is a masked version of other people’s experiences. After all, influencers and celebrities typically don’t reveal the negative aspects of their lives to their followers.

“You only see the good part of what’s happening to this person or how happy they are, or what their relationship is like — and then you immediately are comparing yourself to that,” he explains. “And if you’re not meeting those standards, which are already kind of masked and inflated, then it puts you in a negative place.”

iPhone with 'Social Networks' app folder

One component of an effective complaint cleanse, according to Dr. Martin, is to take a break from activities that put you in a negative headspace — like scrolling social media or obsessively checking the headlines.

He adds that lately, with the political climate and the pandemic, people also tend to post their opinions and attitudes for all to see. But when you realize that someone you used to respect has different viewpoints than you do, or a friend of yours has ideals that you didn’t expect, it puts a negative connotation on that relationship moving forward. “It also doesn’t ever let you shut down,” he says. “When we were kids, we would go to school, and if there was a problem where there were bullies or whatever, we’d go home and [it would be] over. That’s not the case [today]. You’re always accessible — everyone can always reach you, see what you’re doing, and comment on it. I think that adds more stress.”

While a certain level of stress may be inevitable, Dr. Martin recommends cutting negativity out of your life wherever possible: overtly negative people or excessive social media scrolling, for example. If you’ve tried making these adjustments on your own and don’t see an improvement, or if your behavior is negatively impacting your relationships or career, it might be time to speak to a professional for guidance.

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Whether you opt to do a complaint cleanse on your own or seek outside help, Dr. Martin says to rest assured that it isn’t as intimidating as it may seem. “We all tend to complain, and we all tend to vent,” he says, “but that’s not necessarily what this entails. It’s more about changing those base-level thoughts. Venting’s good — you want to let the pressure out here and there. The point of the complaint cleanse is not to take away the venting; it’s not to take away all complaints. It’s to change your own attitude and your own thought process so that you don’t jump to negative or pessimistic thoughts for things that aren’t necessarily negative. In that way, train yourself to be less negative so that [your] automatic thought pattern is not going to be bringing you down day to day.”

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