In a comment on my last post about taking a “complaint budget” approach to complaining, a reader said:
“The only issue I see with it is that some people may also need a strategy to help get the idea or what they wanted to complain about out of their head. If they don't complain about it then it could linger and eat away at them. What do you recommend for people to get rid of their complaints without wasting budget?”
Great question, and the answer felt like it needed a post of its own. Here are several suggestions.
All complaints are not created equal. Some truly are merited, while others are the mental equivalent of reaching absent-mindedly for a cigarette.
Think of rating each complaint that pops up on a scale of 1 – 10. How important is it? Is it something that is deeply bothering you, or is it just a minor irritation? If we’re not conscious of the distinction, we tend to give all our complaints equal billing.
If the complaint rates low on the importance scale, it’s a good sign that the only energy it really has is the energy you give it, so you can safely ignore it.
Deciding not to express habitual minor complaints leaves a vacuum that can lead to filling it with more of the same. To minimize that risk, practice consciously replacing those complaints with positive observations.
For example, for Christmas I drove down and visited my parents, who live four hours from Seattle. The holiday traffic going down was horrible, and I found myself getting cranky about it. The internal grumbling was affecting my mood, which in turn affected the entire experience. So decided to start tallying the ways I was fortunate, the things I could be thankful for, and the things I could enjoy about the drive.
The traffic didn’t change, but my experience of it was better because, instead of adding my own negative thoughts to the mix, I was filling the space with something positive.
Use it as a springboard for action
One of the reasons complaining can be so toxic is that it doesn’t lead anywhere. You just sit and simmer in it, and nothing changes. It’s completely disempowering, and the negative charge around it saps your energy.
So you get all of the toxicity of complaining with no benefit. To change that, try a simple question: “What am I going to do about this?” Whenever possible, take action.
Not only will this counter the disempowering effect of complaining, it will also be a catalyst for positive change.
Write about the positive
A couple years ago I did an experiment with what I called positive journaling. It was a journal that had space for nothing but the positive. I wrote about good things that happened, things that I was grateful for, people I admired, positive events, etc.
Writing about the positive is a great way to develop the habit of looking for good things to notice in life.
Write about the negative
When I started my positive journal, I was going through a particularly hard time in my life. Every once in I while I would look at my journal and want to scream, “Bullshit!” When the negative pressure was through the roof, and focusing on the positive felt too contrived, I would sometimes just shift to another journal and let it rip.
This wasn’t my default mode. It was more of an infrequent “pressure release valve” that kept me from stuffing what I was feeling and glossing it all over with happy thoughts. As an added bonus, getting it down on paper rather than letting the thoughts careen around inside my brain allowed me to sort through it more readily.
The more grounded you feel, the less inclined you are to get upset and complain. Meditation is a great way to build a solid foundation for non-complaining.
Complaining is often a way to let off steam. Exercising can perform the same function, in a healthier and more beneficial way.
Finally, when you feel a complaint coming up that you decide not to give voice to, try pausing and taking a deep breath. Better yet, stop and focus on your breathing for a minute. This is actually a short-form version of meditation, and like meditation, it can help create a buffer between you and the desire to complain.
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