I’m always surprised at how little attention the world of professional psychology and mental health gives to grumpiness.
It’s a near-universal phenomenon that we all struggle with from time to time. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a reliable and practical source for understanding and dealing with grumpiness.
Which is weird, right?
In fact, it’s become a little habit of mine whenever I’m interacting with other therapists and mental health professionals to ask them about grumpiness—What is it? Why does it happen? What do you do about it? And funnily enough, a lot of them have simply never given much thought to the psychology of grumpiness!
Well, in this guide I aim to shore up my field’s collective ignorance of grumpiness.
As a psychologist, grumpiness and being grumpy is something I’ve thought a lot about. And over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time working with my clients (and myself!) to work out the best tactics for managing grumpiness in a way that’s both healthy and effective.
Let’s dive in!
What Is Grumpiness?
There’s no technical definition or criteria for grumpiness in the world of psychology and mental health. Which means, the best I can do is give you my take on the topic, which is based on my own study of psychology and experience as a therapist:
Grumpiness is when you’re in a bad mood and you don’t know why.
Let’s break that down a bit:
- Grumpiness is a mood. A mood is a prolonged emotional state, typically between a handful of minutes to several hours or even days. You can’t be grumpy for 10 seconds. That would just be an emotion.
- Grumpiness is mysterious. What distinguishes grumpiness from the more general category of ‘bad mood’ is that we don’t understand it. If your coworker criticizes some part of your work and you feel sad or irritated for the rest of the day, that’s a bad mood because you basically understand why your mood is bad. Grumpiness, on the other hand, tends to have mysterious origins. People talk about “waking up grumpy,” for example.
So much for the formal properties of grumpiness—chronologically prologued and of uncertain origins. Now let’s move on to the content of grumpiness.
While grumpiness can take on just about any emotional flavor, it typically manifests as irritability. People who are grumpy are much more likely to describe their emotional state with words like annoyed, irritable, or frustrated. However, grumpiness can also include some degree of sadness, anxiety, guilt, or really any other emotion or combination of emotions.
What Causes Grumpiness?
The technically correct but mostly unhelpful answer to What causes grumpiness? is that all sorts of things can. I’ll spare you the full list and instead, we’ll focus on the most common causes of grumpiness.
Grumpiness often begins with some sort of need or desire which was not getting met.
Now, I don’t just mean you were thirsty and didn’t have a drink handy—I mean a psychological need, often one that’s interpersonal in nature. For example, you’re feeling stressed and anxious and you want your partner to comfort you. But after several hours of them not noticing, you’re still stressed and they haven’t noticed.
Of course, the bigger issue here is your lack of assertiveness. Instead of waiting for your partner to read your mind (or body language), you could have communicated your distress and desire for comfort to your partner in a straightforward way.
When an expectation is repeatedly violated—something that tends to happen when they’re unrealistically high!—grumpiness is often not far behind.
Suppose you’re a pretty diligent employee at work and that you regularly get your work done on time or even early. And suppose your underlying expectation is that other coworkers—especially people working with you directly on a given project—will do their work just as diligently and get it done in just as timely a fashion as you.
Well, it’s not hard to see where this train is heading… Chronic Frustration Station.
Of course, unrealistically high expectations can be so old and so common that we don’t think about them often—and we certainly don’t think to update them often. After all, when was the last time you deliberately thought about your own expectations? As a result, these expectations can lead to grumpiness without much awareness on our part.
I recommend setting a recurring appointment in your calendar (monthly is probably fine) to examine your expectations of key people in your life: What are they, exactly? Are they still appropriate? Are they realistic? How might I update them to be more realistic?
The way you habitually talk to yourself profoundly impacts the way you feel; and if you’re constantly mean to yourself, expect bouts of grumpiness.
One of the most common causes of grumpiness I see is people being mean to themselves, especially in the way they talk to themselves in their minds. They’re overly critical, judgmental, harsh, rude, even threatening. But the real problem is that this negative self-talk can become so habitual as to be virtually automatic and outside of their awareness. Which means they can put themselves into a grumpy mood without even knowing it.
Usually, this happens in response to some kind of mistake or error. Suppose you forgot to pay a bill on time and get charged a late fee. Your automatic negative self-talk is something like: Ah, I’m such an idiot! I can’t believe I forgot to pay that stupid bill. Now my credit score is going to tank and we probably won’t be able to get approved for that new car loan.
To avoid negative self-talk inflicted bouts of grumpiness like this, learn to observe your own thinking, especially your self-talk. Watch the language you use with yourself, especially when something bad happens. Then, once you’ve begun to gain a little more self-awareness about your self-talk, work to modify your self-talk with tools like cognitive restructuring.
Why Am I So Grumpy All the Time?
There are two types of people in the world:
- People who occasionally find themselves grumpy (all of us), and
- People who struggle with grumpiness on a regular basis.
If you’re one of those people who finds themselves grumpy quite a lot, there are a couple likely reasons why.
The first cause of chronic grumpiness is that one or many of those three factors we discussed in the previous section have become habits for you:
- If you habitually defer your own needs to those of other people, habitual grumpiness is likely.
- If you habitually set and maintain unrealistic expectations, habitual grumpiness is likely.
- If you habitually judge and criticize yourself with your self-talk, habitual grumpiness is likely.
But there’s another more common cause of chronic grumpiness that almost no one thinks about: meta-grumpiness.
Meta-grumpiness is when you get grumpy about being grumpy.
Here’s how it works:
Something happens that leads to a bad mood. Your spouse makes a sarcastic comment while you wash the dishes, let’s say. As soon as you notice that your mood has dropped, you say something critical about the fact that your mood has dropped: Why am I always in a bad mood? I’m such a grouch. I should just let stuff like that roll off me.
But every time you criticize yourself for feeling bad or being in a bad mood, you’re teaching your mind that it’s bad to feel bad. This has two negative side effects:
- You’re going to feel even worse. In addition to feeling bad as a result of your spouse’s comment, you also feel bad about feeling bad. This second layer of painful emotion isn’t doing you any favors.
- But even worse, you’re teaching your brain that it’s dangerous to feel bad. When you “attack” yourself for being grumpy or in a bad mood, you’re effectively training your brain to see grumpiness as a threat and something dangerous. This means your brain is going to be hypersensitive to grumpiness in the future and make it even more likely that you are critical of yourself when you feel bad. Cue the vicious cycles…
If you feel like you’re always getting grumpy, there’s a good chance that you’re being overly critical of yourself for feeling grumpy.
The solution is to practice a little self-compassion and learn to be gentle with yourself, even when you feel grumpy. We’ll talk more about the specifics of how to do this in the How to Be Grumpy Like a Pro section below.
The Benefits of Learning to Manage Your Grumpiness Well
We all get grumpy sometimes. But grumpiness doesn’t have to be such a negative influence on our lives. When you learn how to manage your grumpiness well, many areas of your life will improve:
- Relationships. A lot of interpersonal and relationship conflict happens because of mismanaged grumpiness. In my work as a therapist, I hear all the time about how major arguments and blow-ups began with a little episode of grumpiness that, because it wasn’t handled well, exploded into something unnecessarily big and distressing. Learning to manage your grumpiness better will improve every important relationship in your life from your spouse to your boss to your best friend.
- Work. I’ve never seen a study on this, but I have no doubt that bad moods and grumpiness account for a shockingly high amount of lost productivity and creativity in the workplace. I mean, we can all relate to showing up to work grumpy and in a bad mood than spending the rest of the day only half-focused because we’re ruminating on our grumpiness or what lead up to it. Learn to manage your grumpiness well and your work doesn’t need to suffer.
- Mood. As we discussed earlier, many people get stuck in chronic grumpiness or extended bad moods because of meta-grumpiness—they get grumpy about being grumpy. When you learn to manage your grumpiness more effectively, you’ll be surprised that many of your bad moods are less frequent and less sticky than they used to be.
Those are just a few of the key benefits of learning to get better at being grumpy.
In the final section of this guide, we’re going to look at a step-by-step method for dealing with your grumpiness well.
How to Be Grumpy Like a Pro
This section is called How to Be Grumpy Like a Pro for a couple reasons:
- How to Be Grumpy reinforces the idea that some amount of grumpiness from time to time is inevitable. Which means our goal shouldn’t be how to avoid grumpiness (impossible) and instead, how to minimize its effects and manage it well.
- Like a Pro suggests that your ability to manage grumpiness is something you can work on and get better at. Everybody can throw a football, but Tom Brady is really good at throwing footballs, mostly because of how much he’s practiced. This section will teach you to become an expert at navigating your grumpiness in a healthy way.
Step 1: Acknowledge the Grumpiness
The biggest mistake you can make with grumpiness is to pretend it doesn’t exist and live in denial about it.
But you can’t improve something you’re not aware of. Which is why the first and most essential step to managing your grumpiness well is to improve your awareness of it by acknowledging it.
Acknowledging your grumpiness is remarkably straightforward:
I feel grumpy.
That’s it. Acknowledge the grumpiness simply means telling yourself that you’re feeling grumpy. It means resisting the impulse to run away from it or distract yourself, standing firm, and just label it for what it is.
This probably seems too simple to be effective, but I promise you that it’s harder than it looks. Nobody wants to feel grumpy, so we develop all sorts of sneaky habits designed to avoid grumpiness.
The first step to managing your grumpiness like a pro is to face up to it.
Step 2: Validate the Grumpiness
Validation sounds fancy but all it really means is saying that something is valid.
When you start to feel grumpy, you probably don’t enjoy the fact that you’re feeling grumpy. In fact, you probably feel bad to some extent. But just because something feels bad doesn’t mean that it is bad.
Validating your grumpiness means reminding yourself of this distinction—that just because your grumpiness feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad, something dangerous, harmful, or immoral.
Here’s how to validate your grumpiness:
It’s okay that I feel grumpy, even though I don’t like it.
Validating your grumpiness just means that you remind yourself that no matter how bad it feels, there’s nothing wrong with feeling grumpy. It doesn’t make you a defective person, or weak-willed, or any other of the nonsense interpretations that usually race through our mind as soon as we start feeling grumpy.
When in doubt, treat your own grumpiness like you would treat a good friend’s.
If your best friend called you up for support because they were having a bad day and feeling grumpy, chances are you’d be validating. You’d say something empathetic like Ugh, I know… feeling grumpy is miserable. But it makes sense given what your coworker did. I’m sure you’ll feel better after a good workout.
Step 3: Get Curious About the Grumpiness
Once you’ve acknowledged and validated your grumpiness, feel free to simply move on. A surprising amount of the time, those first two steps alone will get you through most episodes of grumpiness. But if it’s an especially sticky case of grumpiness, it’s time to get curious about the cause(s) of your grumpiness.
Notice that I didn’t title this section Analyze the Grumpiness. It’s important to be gentle and open-minded when you start to think about what caused and is maintaining your grumpiness. If you get too harsh or judgmental in your thinking, it can signal to your brain that your grumpiness is bad, which will just prolong it.
Curiosity, on the other hand, signals confidence and keeps you open to a wide variety of potential causes and contributors.
In general, there are two good places to start getting curious about your grumpiness:
- Events. Ask yourself: What happened immediately before my grumpiness started? The trick is not to discount anything because it seems small and trivial. Even the tinniest remark can set off a cascade of grumpiness.
- Thoughts. Ask yourself: What was I thinking to myself immediately before my grumpiness started? Thinking about your thinking is an essential skill but it takes practice. Even in non-grumpy times, practice observing your own thoughts and self-talk. This is critical because almost always, bad moods of any kind, including grumpiness, are triggered by some kind of thought or interpretation of something that happened to you. And if you can learn to see these, you can discover that much of the time your automatic, habitual thoughts are not entirely accurate, which is a big contributor to grumpiness.
Getting curious about your grumpiness begins with a simple statement:
It’s interesting that I’m grumpy…
Learn to be curious about your grumpiness and you’ll find that it’s usually far less mysterious than it seems.
Step 4: Welcome the Grumpiness
Most people have a combative relationship with their grumpiness—meaning, they react to it by either fighting with it or running away from it.
But as we’ve discussed, this only makes the grumpiness more intense and long-lasting because it signals to your brain that your grumpiness is dangerous.
The better strategy is to train yourself to react to grumpiness by approaching it and welcoming it. Thankfully, doing so is simpler than it sounds. Just remind yourself:
I can go about my day despite feeling grumpy.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that once you’re grumpy, all of life has to be put on hold until you figure it out or get rid of it. But actually, this isn’t true at all.
Human beings are actually remarkably good at getting on with life despite how we feel. I mean, we probably wouldn’t have survived very long if our ancestors had to mope around in their underwear for a few days until they figured out their grumpiness!
The final step to managing your grumpiness like a pro is to train yourself to carry on with life with your grumpiness in tow.
Start small. When you feel grumpy and all you want to do is curl up on the couch and brood, commit to doing some extremely small task and welcome your grumpiness to come along for the ride: wash the dishes, organize the stuff on your desk, go for a 5-minute walk, call a friend, make a sandwich, whatever… Just do something with an attitude of willingness for your grumpiness to be there.
When you welcome grumpiness along for the ride, you train your brain to view grumpiness as a non-threat. And when your brain isn’t concerned at all with grumpiness, it’s amazing how much easier it is to manage it and get on with your life.
All Your Need to Know
Grumpiness is a bad mood whose origins we don’t understand. While some amount of grumpiness is an inevitable fact of life, you can drastically reduce the frequency and intensity of your grumpiness episodes by learning how to manage it well:
Acknowledge the grumpiness.
Validate the grumpiness.
Get curious about the grumpiness.
Welcome the grumpiness.