A Complaint Free 21 Days

Like so many other things in our culture, constant complaining is so common that it usually goes unnoticed. Sure, we all know those people who are exceptional at it. These are also usually the people you don't want to spend much time around. It's simply hard to feel good around somebody who sees the glass as perpetually half-empty. Like a nasty cold, pessimism is contagious. Although you might take notice of someone who is exceptionally negative, the complainer has become so identified with this behavior that they have no idea how often it is occurring. Shining the light of mindfulness on the words you use to either reinforce or diffuse your current thoughts and emotions is one of the biggest benefits of taking on a no-complaining challenge. Many therapeutic approaches, including neuro-linguistic programing (NLP), have connected the process of language and its effects on behavior. By creating some space between a stimulus and the verbal response you have to it, you can actually change your whole experience. It takes the average person 4-10 months to hit 21 consecutive days without complaining but is well worth the effort. 

  • Qualifying a Complaint: This challenge has been around for a long time in various forms and millions of people have participated. In fact, Will Bowen has build an entire foundation around the concept called "A Complaint Free World". His movement gives away purple rubber bracelets to wear during a 21 day challenge. Every time you complain, you switch the wrist you are wearing it on and start the 21 days over again. You can use your own bracelet, a watch or ring to achieve the same effect. This foundation has specific rules that qualify a complaint, but I personally like the spin that Tim Ferris put on it. If you identify a problem and then a viable solution, that is different than just incessant whining. If you were experiencing exceptionally bad service at a restaurant, a common complaint might be, "This waiter sucks and the food is cold. It doesn't even taste good. What a waste of money." An observation followed with a solution might be, "The service and food here are horrible. I'm going to talk to the manger after we eat and write a review online so that other people might avoid the same experience." How about screaming out a four letter word in a moment of frustration? Yes. That's complaining along with ranting criticisms. As a general rule of thumb, you usually know if you're complaining or not, so just be honest with yourself. 
  • Being Mindful: The most valuable part of this challenge is simply shining the light of consciousness on your thoughts and actions. For most of us, there is very little buffer between action and reaction. Years of reinforced neurological wiring makes it very difficult break free of the complaining cycle. However, even catching yourself complaining is a huge win in itself. As a result, you'll start to be mindful of the language other people use around you as well. The average person complains 15-30 times a day and you'll be amazed at how many conversations are opened with a complaint amongst friends and strangers. "This weather is horrible! Can you believe how humid it is? Can you believe how rude Jim in accounts payable is? Ugh-Another Monday. Can't wait until happy hour." Sound familiar? 
  • The Healthy Choice: Letting off steam. Venting. Commiserating. These can all be healthy and helpful things when done the right way. But when it comes to fruitless complaining, study after study reveals that it is bad for your health. Thinking about how bad something is and then reinforcing it with verbal language starts to make it worse than it actually is. The cycle continues from there until you've convinced yourself and everyone around you that the rain outside is theWORST thing ever. This is especially true when constantly fixated on problems as opposed to the solutions. If you need more convincing that pessimism is not productive nor good for you, psychologists have data showing optimists are healthier, live longer, have more friends and better social lives, enjoy life more and have more prosperous careers.  
  • Filling the Void: Like so many well-intentioned endeavors, we often get pulled back into old habits when we don't replace them with better ones. So what's the polar opposite of complaining? Gratitude. If you take a few minutes a day to write down some things you are grateful for, they can be your go-to focal point when negative energy starts welling up in you. Another anti-complaint is action. When something is really starting to eat at you, take five and brainstorm a quick list of potential ways to make the situation better or change it completely. 
  • Accepting Responsibility: At its essence, complaining is saying, "I don't want to be responsible for this". However, at the most important level, we always are. There are many things outside of our control, but our interpretation of the events in our life is where responsibility starts. Next time a complaint starts bubbling up in you, stop and say (to yourself or out loud, with real conviction) "I want to accept more responsibility for everything in my experience." If you don't like your present circumstances, you must change them. If you don't want certain people in your life, you must attract and invite the onces that you do want. If there's a problem in the world that upsets you, you are responsible for fixing it. If somebody needs help, you are responsible for aiding them. Sometimes it seems as though you have no options at all, yet you still have the option of acceptance if you choose to take it. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle uses the example of being stuck in a traffic jam. Option one is to just turn off your car, get out, and start walking. Option two is to get really mad and scream at the traffic and complain about your misfortune and how late you will be. Option three is to wholeheartedly accept the situation as if you had chosen it yourself. Given the choices, option three is really the only "sane" thing to do. Option one kind of sucks for the other people who will have to get around your discarded vehicle, although I've considered doing this several times on Los Angeles freeways. Option two is like yelling at the universe, "This is reality and I totally disagree with it! I disagree with what is!" Kind of crazy, right? 
  • Cultivating Optimism: After a bit of time trying this (like one day), you'll discover that it's very, very hard. Like other very challenging endeavors, there are some things you can do to help yourself though the process. Taking care of yourself is a very basic one. This can be as simple as scheduling a break for yourself in whatever way that looks like for you. A hot bath, a funny movie, a manicure- anything that relaxes or energizes you. A yoga practice is also very helpful. The very foundation of yoga has an emphasis on the breath and teaches you how to be less reactive and deal with stress, one pose at a time. Stay mindful of who you choose to spend your time with. Remember how contagious language is and try to associate yourself with other optimists. With all that can influence such a state of mind, one might say that optimism is an acquired skill. Don't forget the mother of skill: repetition. The more positive thoughts and language you use, the easier they will come to you until they become habitual. 

-Elijah Szasz