I have a confession. I found lately I am complaining. A lot. So much so, that complaining became my default. It was my automatic pilot. In truth, I know I have a natural tendency to criticize. When I was younger, I remember my mom telling me that she wouldn’t watch TV with me anymore because I never had anything nice to say.
“What is she wearing?!” I’d mutter.
“What are they doing?!” I’d ask while rolling my eyes.
“That person is an idiot.” I’d say to no one in particular.
Those were my younger years when I was steeped in hormones and judgment. Middle and high school years are not exactly the times in your life when people feel accepted and accepting. Certainly, these examples of my commentaries are much more on par with what teenagers say than if I had said things like, “To each his own” or “Who am I to judge?”
As an adult, I have actively tried to counteract my more natural tendencies. I truly and consciously look for people doing good things. I make it a point to tell people that I respect this or like that. I have tried to rewire my thinking because my thinking influences the way I act.
In fact, several years ago, I saw a great video (which no longer exists, or else I’d include it here) where Jon Gordon, author of The No Complaining Rule, share the quote, "complaining is like bad breath. You notice it in others, but not yourself.” That really resonated with me.
He went on to say imagine you are served a bowl of soup and it has a fly in it. What do you do? If you tell the people at your table but not the waiter, you are complaining. The people at the table cannot do anything to help you. If, however, you tell the waiter in a manner that is factual and not personal, then that is not a complaint.
Not a Complaint
Saying, “Waiter, what is wrong with this restaurant? You serve soup with flies in it!” is a complaint.
You have made it personal and are not offering a solution.
Saying, “Waiter, my soup has a fly in it. I would like you to take the order of soup off of my bill please since I cannot eat it” is not a complaint.
You have stated a fact and have done so in a manner that is not personal. You shared your concern with the person who has the ability to respond to the concern. You even offered a solution to the problem.
The problem is that we often tell our spouse about the fly in the soup. We tell our co-workers about the fly in the soup. We post on social media about the fly in the soup. Yet, we never tell the waiter. Then we wonder why every time we go to that restaurant there is a fly in the soup. It is not conflict-avoidant to say nothing to the waiter; it is perpetuating a problem that can easily be resolved. Telling the waiter allows for resolution when the issue is small and easy to address.
This is not to say there are not justified concerns from people; it’s to say there are often mindless complaints. Justified concerns are helpful and shared with people who have the ability to do something about the concern. They are often offered with possible suggestions on how to resolve the concern (though the person offering the suggestion has to be open to the fact that their suggestion may not be viable due to reasons they may not have been aware of when making the suggestion). Mindless complaining, on the other hand, is harmful and contributes to a negative environment. In a nutshell, justified concerns focus on solutions whereas mindless complaining focuses on problems (David Gousset).
I recently found myself complaining a lot again. I didn’t take this quiz on complaining, but if I had, I would have been off the charts. I was like a person who is snoring so loudly that I woke myself up. So, I wondered if some of what I was feeling and seeing was just a byproduct of how I was allowing myself to think. In other words, I wondered if the reason why I was complaining all the time was linked to seeing what I was looking for. I believe I saw people as jerks worth complaining about because I was looking for them to be jerks. If I had looked for positive behaviors and interactions, I would have seen the exact same situation differently. Stella Grizont writes about this in her blog post, “What Complaining Does To Your Brain…And Your Happiness” saying
When our negativity bias gets triggered, our attention goes to all the bad stuff, which makes it really hard to see things in any other light. And without being aware and making a conscious effort to override our instinctive negative tendencies, we keep ourselves from seeing what’s good around us, and all the possibilities for correcting or improving the situation.
After watching Gordon’s video years ago, I read the book The No Complaining Rule. Certainly, no one wants a fly in their soup, but in life, there are times when you are served a bowl of soup with a fly. Even so, Gordon offers five things to do instead of complaining including
Focusing on success
Letting it go
Praying and meditating
Gordon also suggests a 21-day challenge. The challenge is to go 21 consecutive days without complaining. You consciously remind yourself to stop complaining by wearing a bracelet. When/if you complain, the bracelet needs to be switched to the opposite wrist and you start back on day 1. This certainly isn’t easy.
Recently, I decided I needed to go back to my bracelet. I needed to give myself a physical reminder to remember if I have nothing nice to say, I don’t need to say it at all–or at least I should be telling the waiter about the fly rather than everyone but the waiter. What’s more, when I tell people about the bracelet and what I’m trying to accomplish, I find they are less likely to engage in complaining around me–which is healthier for me because I can so easily get sucked into those behaviors, and worse–that mindset. So, rather than giving you a piece of my mind, I’m choosing to share how I am trying to find peace of mind.
P.S. This week’s Catch of the Week is the Tedx Talk, “Getting Stuck in the negatives (and how to get unstuck)” by Alison Ledgerwood.
“Alison Ledgerwood joined the Department of Psychology at UC Davis in 2008 after completing her PhD in social psychology at New York University. She is interested in understanding how people think, and how they can think better. Her research, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, investigates how certain ways of thinking about an issue tend to stick in people's heads. Her classes on social psychology focus on understanding the way people think and behave in social situations, and how to harness that knowledge to potentially improve the social world in which we all live.”