February 6, 2020

How to Stop Complaining

When things go wrong, our reflex action can often be to complain.

Not necessarily to someone who can make a difference; just to whoever happens to be in earshot. The problem with this is that complaining doesn’t change anything; it just makes us focus on the negative aspects of a given situation. That is not a recipe for happiness.

Wouldn’t it be great if we knew how to stop complaining and could find a more constructive way to deal with our problems?

There are two main reasons why we complain about things:

  1. To vent our frustration
  2. To seek validation of our feelings

While these might make us feel better in the short-term, they do nothing to address problems in the long-term. 

I’m not saying we never have a legitimate reason to feel aggrieved and express it. But, if your default position every time something rubs you up the wrong way is to complain to someone, you’re doing it wrong. 

Imagine if, instead of getting stressed out when things don’t work out as you hoped, you could learn to sit with them, shrug, and say, “Good”?

Before you can learn how to stop complaining, you need to realise the most constructive ways to deal with something you don’t like are to:

  • Change it
  • Accept it
  • Walk away from it

These options share some common qualities; they are things you can control and act on. They reframe the problem so that you are focusing on positive behaviours. They put the power back in your hands.

Ask yourself this: if there is something you know you complain about and you have the power to change it, why don’t you do anything about it? If you’re not prepared to act and solve the problem, maybe it is not that bad in the first place. In which case, stop complaining about it and learn to live with it. If you can’t live with it, get it out of your life. If you can’t do that, you have no choice but to find a way to live with it, which means accepting it.

The first of the three options is the most effective, but often the hardest. The last one is the simplest but may have the highest cost – you have to give something up, after all. I want to explore the second option; how do you learn to accept and live with something that yanks your chain?

Firstly, breathing. I know you’ve heard this a million times, but when did you last try it? Next time something is bothering you, and you feel your stress response kicking in, take some deep breaths. It does wonders in the moment. Try to slow your breath down by pausing between inhalation and exhalation. This should help to calm the monkey rage and help you think straight.

Once your emotional state is back on planet Earth, try to identify why the problem annoys you so much. What underlying assumptions are you carrying? Are they valid? Can you let go of them by reframing the problem so that they are no longer relevant?

Byron Katie has a useful framework for this, which is worth a look. Some people find it a bit full-on, but you might at least be able to apply the general principles of it to help you work towards constructive ways of dealing with bothersome situations. This approach requires discipline, patience, and self-awareness. Still, it offers you an opportunity to learn about yourself, let go of negative emotional baggage, and overcome and negate sources of stress.

An excellent way to curb habitual negative thinking is to try the 21-day “no complaints diet”. All you need is a plain old vanilla elastic band, which you wear on your wrist, and a touch of self-awareness. 

Here’s how it works. Every time you catch yourself complaining about something, you move the wristband from one wrist to the other. This action makes you more mindful of when and how often you complain about things. 

If you want, you can add a bit of negative reinforcement to make the process more effective. Instead of swapping the band from wrist-to-wrist, keep it on the same wrist throughout the challenge. When you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts, pull the band back and release it, so it snaps lightly against your wrist. The minor physical discomfort this causes will make you even more aware of your negative behaviour and can further help to break your complaining habit.

Try it along with the approaches outlined above and see what happens. You may break your old thought patterns and be able to make positive changes in many areas of your life. As a result, you should find yourself complaining less and feeling happier and more mindful.