A few months ago, I went to lunch with a small group to celebrate a friend’s promotion. We talked about work, family, upcoming vacations, all the usual things. One friend began complaining about her husband’s refusal to clean up around the apartment. Like a virus it spread quickly and we each succumbed in turn. The next hour (I’m not exaggerating) was spent venting about a litany of issues.
Then, somehow, I heard myself. I was suddenly drained by the conversation I’d helped to create. I’d boarded the complain train with the people at my table and was whisked away without even realizing it.
I meekly attempted to change the subject. “So, I heard that Ben & Jerry’s is developing a new ice cream flavor.”
Complainer #1: “Oh, I hate ice cream.” (Side note: I didn’t know this was humanly possible.)
Complainer #2: “You know what I hate? Marshmallows. They’re squishy and spongy, and they squeak in my mouth.”
Complainer #3: “That reminds me. I’m going to ask Sam to bring marshmallows on our trip to the shore. We had such a hard time finding a rental house for the week. Some owners want you to bring your own towels and some don’t have wi-fi and…and…and…”
I was sucked right back into the fray. I’m not proud of that. I want to be able to remove myself from these situations, or barring that, stay in the right frame of mind. That afternoon I realized how negativity is self-reinforcing and becomes addictive.
Author Tim Ferriss suggests doing a no-complaint experiment. Spend 21 days without complaining. Wearing a special bracelet helps in reprogramming your awareness because if a complaint slips out, you move the bracelet to the opposite wrist and the clock starts again. Could I do it?
I don’t think i’m an excessive complainer, though I suppose my friends and family would have the final say-so on that point. I know I feel better, lighter when I don’t complain. Tim had a few resets and made it through the full 21 days in about three months. One of important changes he noticed was a shift from unproductive commiserating to problem solving.
“I defined “complaining” for myself as follows: describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem.”
I disagree with Tim a bit on this point. Allowing “helpful complaints” only works if you’re complaining about a problem that can be solved. But I find that when I fall prey to complaining, it’s most often about random things that are out of my control. In fact, that’s one reason why I complain: to regain some illusion of control. The subway car is too crowded. So-and-so left dishes in the sink. Again. The store didn’t have those shoes in my size. The weather. Roxanne Gay writes, “I really don’t intend to change most of the things I complain about. Griping is seductive on those days when happiness requires too much energy.”
Martha Beck has an alternative: stop complaining aloud and vent on paper. I think by the time I wrote a couple of sentences I’d see how silly most of my complaints are and move on. The ones that aren’t silly might get resolved with thoughtful, positive action and without turning social events into a huge drag.
This is not easy. Complaining seems to be hard-wired in us humans. (“Mom, I’m bored!” “She’s touching me!”) The more I think about it, the more I think the reason we complain is to be acknowledged. We’re looking for someone to back us up. Someone agree that my friend’s husband is wrong for not getting his dirty socks off the floor. Someone validate the horrible commute I had this morning. Please.
In our lives, the people around us lift us up, or they drag us down. —Leo Babauta
Does complaining spur you to action? Have you tried a no-complaint experiment?
Have a great weekend, everyone!