Habits are powerful little things! I talk about them frequently, because they are strong drivers of behavior. Habits can help us or hurt us because we repeat them over and over. As the famous quote says, “We are what we repeatedly do.” (Often attributed to Aristotle, but actually coined in 1926 by Will Durant.) One particularly damaging habit we often fall into is complaining. While it seems harmless in the moment, the habit of complaining frequently becomes a barrier to achieving the change we desire.
What’s so bad about complaining?
1. Complaining exacerbates stress.
We may convince ourselves that complaining is a way to “vent” bad feelings so that we will feel better, but in reality, we are focusing our minds and energy on a topic which is distressing.
2. Complaining perpetuates the sensation of being out of control.
Complaining is a way to avoid dealing with an undesirable situation. When we feel empowered to make an improvement, we generally take action. For example, few people “complain” about an untied shoelace. We simply bend over and tie it. In contrast, we complain about circumstances that we either don’t feel like addressing, or that we don’t know how to fix. When we complain, we settle into a pattern of griping as a way to deal with our negative feelings.
3. Complaining is contagious.
When we complain, we invite others to join us in our unhappy state of mind and affirm our “right” to be unhappy. Misery loves company. Similarly, when we hear someone else complain, we often join into the conversation in the spirit of being supportive and empathetic. However, when we don’t share the same complaint, we often offer our own trial to share, “one-upping” one another with how bad our lives are.
4. Complainers are often “tuned out.”
When we repeatedly complain, many people eventually grow weary of listening and ignore us. We become known as negative and unpleasant to be with. The very people who might otherwise be able to help us change our situation become frustrated by our preference to wallow.
While complaining may feel good in the moment, the results are rarely positive. Like running on a treadmill, we strengthen our “complaining muscles,” but ultimately go nowhere. When we complain, we tend to remain where we are.
The question, therefore, is how can we break the complaining habit and actually improve our situation?
There are a couple of techniques we can try.
FIRST: Clarify your triggers.
It is critical to be willing to dig deep enough to clearly define what is making us unhappy. Is the complaint really that our spouse leaves clothes on the floor, or is it that we feel that we are seen as a maid? Are we upset because the house is too small, or are we disappointed with ourselves because we can’t seem to make ourselves put things away? Try to clearly articulate the true source of frustration.
SECOND: Do not dwell in discontent.
When the urge to complain rears its head, rather than acquiesce, we can choose to acknowledge the existence of the problem and then redirect our thinking. Refuse to keep talking and thinking about it. Have you ever heard someone say, “You are going to eat your words?” This phrase bears much truth. The words we speak enter back into our ears and down to our spirit. Like it or not, we listen to ourselves all day long. Rather than succumb to complaining, we have the ability to speak words of gratitude, hope, and optimism to ourselves.
THIRD: Do not let the reasons for your unhappiness become excuses for inaction.
Often, we have valid reasons for complaining. For example, our home is full of chaos because the kids are forced to do e-learning, the pets are chewing on everything, we are busy trying to care for a sick and aging parent, and our spouse’s work supplies are all over the kitchen table. We have little time to regroup get our own work done, let alone to participate in the activities that refresh and restore us.
While this situation is understandably challenging, it isn’t beyond improvement. For instance:
- We can have a family meeting to discuss a reassignment of household chores.
- We can establish new organizational systems to make it easier to restore order at the end of the day.
- We can declutter crowded areas so there is less to manage.
- We can hire professionals (e.g., a junk hauler, professional organizer, extra childcare, etc.) to ease the burden of trying to figure it out on our own.
- We can carve out a space in our home that is ours alone, where no one else is allowed to come in and create a mess. (e.g., bedroom, closet, corner of the basement, desk, etc.)
- We can negotiate a time each day/week when we can reliably be “off duty” to focus on our own needs.
We don’t want to allow the valid reasons for our complaining become mental barriers to pursuing positive change. It might take a bit of trial and error, but if we push through, we can diffuse the tension and make the scene more palatable.
Did you know that the lotus flower grows in the mud? Your situation may indeed be sticky and heavy, but you can still thrive and bloom. The antonym of complain is “rejoice.” Which would you rather be doing?
Do you struggle with complaining? What techniques have you found helpful for quashing the tendency to complain?