Stop Telling Those Stories! Complaining Kills Performance and Productivity.
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
A client of mine who was fairly depressed told me a story of how someone had cheated and betrayed him. He marked it as the beginning of his depression. We had been working together for about three months, and this particular occasion was about the tenth time he repeated that story. In fact, he repeated that story every time we tried something new to break through his extreme resistance to any change that would help resolve the depression. I listened to him tell it all the way through and then said, "You have to stop telling that story."
He looked a me in disbelief. I might as well have just slapped him. His expectation, like that of many others, was that talking about his negative experiences was a way to come to grips with them, to analyze and understand them so they would just resolve themselves. Nope. It was just complaining. And it was one of the things that was making him depressed. It wasn't the actual experience that depressed him. It was all the meaning that he originally attached to the experience -- all the beliefs and feelings -- that started him off on the downhill road to depression.
Every time he told that story, he was re-experiencing the event, in full living color, complete with all his interpretations of and feelings about it. That's why most psychotherapists (at least, cognitive psychotherapists) don't allow complaining. We call it "rehearsing negativity." It doesn't matter if the story is about something that had practical consequences -- such as causing the loss of a job, for example. It doesn't matter if the story is just about an event that resulted in resentment and anger, but no external consequences. It doesn't matter if the event was last week or ten years ago. If you tell a story repetitively, without speaking with satisfaction of lessons learned rather than feelings hurt, you're just complaining.
Of course, if you are complaining to others, you are also complaining to yourself. In fact, you are probably constantly grumbling to yourself about the same old stuff, seeing the same old stuff happening over and over again in different ways. Feeling the same old feelings.
Emotions are called feelings because you feel them in your body. Your body doesn't know the difference between reality and imagination. So, when you retell your negative experiences, your body gets the same impact as if you are experiencing them now. That means complaining, and thereby rehearsing negative memories, causes stress. It causes the kind of stress that can result in all kinds of distress, including memory deficits, flawed judgement, lowered productivity, deficient performance and physical illness.
You see, instead of learning from the experience in a practical way, you learn to associate strong emotions with similar incidents and react to them in the same way as the old memory. That means you shut down your "dealing with" faculty and engage your "react to" response. You create primitive flight/fight responses in what are in fact non-threatening circumstances.
Since you are constantly in the closed loop of the story, you can't move on, can't problem solve and get back to work, don't get work done or make mistakes. And the more often you retell the negative story, complete with all the negative feeling, the more likely it is that not only will your performance and productivity suffer, you also will find your physical or mental health compromised.
Stop telling those stories. Especially be sure to stop telling them to yourself. Free yourself to remember and tell open-ended, positive, hopeful, motivational stories. Free yourself to feel better and make the changes necessary to improve your life.