One morning I noticed that my friend Erin was wearing a loose orange rubber band on her wrist.
“Do you like my new bracelet?” she asked, giving the rubber band a snap. “I got it at my retreat this weekend. It’s to help me remember not to complain. I’m trying not to complain for 21 days straight.”
“Oh, oh, oh, I want to play!” I exclaimed. “I want to stop complaining too!”
I started that day. No complaints. I’d either be positive or hold my tongue. It was going to be a whole new me. By mid-morning I had proven the theorem, “That which you resist, persists.” I complained more in a few hours than I had in months. Everywhere I went I crabbed about how busy I was, expressed annoyance when inconvenienced, and sighed over how hard my life was. It went downhill from there. By the end of the week, I was so sick of my verbal negativity (as I’m sure everyone else was) that I had to stop and ask myself, “What is all my complaining really about?”
And that is when the anti-complaining campaign got interesting. After making a list of the past week’s complaints, I inspected them carefully. I discovered that they tended to fit into one of three categories:
1. A complaint that simply needs to be rephrased.
One of my chief complaints that week was that my children weren’t doing their chores without me reminding them even though they had a chore chart taped smack in the middle of their bathroom mirror. I felt justified in my complaints until I stepped back and looked at the children’s behavior on the whole. When I did that, I recognized that while my girls aren’t perfect, they are pretty darn good kids. They forgot their tasks sometimes but when reminded, they get right on their chores and completed their duties with good attitudes. And if I focused on that behavior, my complaints shifted from, “Why don’t you do your chores without me asking?” to a more positive approach of “I’d appreciate your checking your chore chart to make sure you’ve done everything.”
2. A complaint that is a subconscious request.
Most of my complaints that week fell into this category. The general theme of my negativity was “I’m so busy,” “There is so much to do,” and “I don’t know how I am going to get everything done.” I realized that my grumblings were really a cry for help–messages from my deepest self asking for permission to take a break. These complaints were subconscious requests coming to the surface.
3. A complaint that was really a lesson to be learned.
Midweek, I caught myself complaining about someone who avoided helping out when asked. I simply couldn’t see why they were reluctant to pitch in. I fussed over their behavior most of the day. Late that afternoon, someone approached me with an idea that they wanted me to execute. I declined their offer due to an overloaded schedule and they simply didn’t understand or accept my excuse. I spent the rest of the evening expressing my outrage over how I was treated. It was only later that pieces fell into place. My complaints were trying to teach me that we really don’t know what it is like to walk in another’s shoes so we should give them the benefit of the doubt and try not to pass judgement. An important lesson to be gleaned from all my negativity.
Once I had a bit more understanding about what my complaints really meant, it was easier for me to catch them, listen to them, and dispel them. Sometimes I could even do it before they left my mouth. The key, for me, was not to suppress my complaints, but to examine them more closely for the hidden meaning. By categorizing them, I can use my negative thoughts as means to lift me up rather than pull me down.
And the funny thing is, I’ve noticed that the more attention I pay to my complaints, the less I complain. I will probably never make it 21 days without uttering a single grievance–I have too many lessons to learn–but a little awareness can help me know what those complaints are all about.
(Try it yourself: Take out a sheet of paper and make a list of all the complaints that have passed your lips in the past week or so. Reread your complaints carefully and mark them with a 1 if they need to be reframed, with a 2 if they are a subconscious request, or with a 3 if they are a lesson to be learned. What did you discover?)