When do our family interactions become toxic?
I recently did a “30 Days of No Complaining” challenge. And I’ll confess, I wasn’t very good at it—at least, at first.
Just hours into the challenge, I hopped on the phone with my health insurance provider to contest a bill. After being on hold for 45 minutes, disconnected a few times, and then transferred to a person who said the forms I mailed in three times hadn’t been received, a rant was inevitable. So, yes, I lost my cool a few times—especially after my car began leaking oil two days after I’d paid for an oil change.
But the whole not complaining thing eventually got easier. Seven days in, I realized that I had become more aware of my criticisms. After complaining, I’d take a moment to stop and reconsider if the incident that inspired them was really worth grumbling about. For instance, one day a man in a car buzzed past me on the freeway and flicked me off for going too slow, unaware it was the car in front of me that was holding up the flow. Instead of getting mad, I took a moment to reframe the situation. “Maybe he is running late to an appointment. I know how stressful that can be,” I thought. And eventually, when I passed by the slow car that created the whole scenario, I realized it was a mother driving with a baby in the backseat. “She’s probably a new mom and being overly protective of her child. I’m sure I’ll be like that too one day,” I noted.
As similar scenarios occurred throughout the following weeks, I began to harbor an enhanced sense of gratitude. I found myself taking moments to reshape my perspective and pausing to count my blessings in the face of something that was bothering me. As the month progressed, I eventually got to the point where I was able to keep the majority of my complaints at bay. Here are six realizations I had during the challenge:
A lot of what I venting about was out of my hands, so complaining about it was pretty pointless. And the things that were bothering me that I could control, I had the power to change. In the time it took to gripe about tripping over my dog’s toy, I could just pick it up and move it into the backyard. And when the weather was too hot to go for a hike, I popped in a workout DVD instead. “A more useful option to complaining would be noticing what isn’t working and then just creating a better alternative,” says Ben Rode of The Rode Institute. “For example, instead of complaining to your girlfriends about sex with your husband, schedule date night once a week, read a book about improving things, or get the support of a professional.”
As I progressed through my challenge, I realized that a lot of my complaints were directed toward “what ifs”—whining about the way that I imagined a conversation would turn out before even having it, lamenting over how hard it would be to finish a task at work that actually turned out to be pretty easy… Turns out, complaining about things that haven’t happened yet is actually a massive waste of time.
Have you ever found yourself trying to strike up a conversation with a coworker or a stranger by wallowing over a certain situation? I realized I was doing that a lot. I’d be at a party and say, “I’ve been so busy lately. It sucks” or when waiting for an elevator to open, I’d often look at the person next to me and mutter, “Geez. This is taking forever.” So I set out to find positive things to talk about. I complimented a stranger’s shirt in line at a restaurant. And on a rainy day when traffic was terrible, I bonded with someone over how badly our city actually needed the rain. In doing this, I realized that people prefer to be around positive people and a good attitude is contagious.
I found that a lot of my complaining was directed toward the actions of others—someone walking too slow in front of me at a supermarket, a friend showing up late for coffee, etc. So instead of focusing on what others were doing, I began to pay attention to what I was doing. Maybe I needed to slow down in Whole Foods because who needs to be in that much of a hurry to get to the register? And if Julie was late to meet me this time, well at least I got there in time to secure a table.
“When we focus on what is bothering us or not working in our lives, we automatically enter a space of negativity and pessimism and attract more of the same. Those individuals who continuously complain tend to alienate friends and family, release higher than normal stress hormones, and have a drastically reduced quality of life,” says psychotherapist Ilissa Nico. “Conversely, when we choose to focus on looking for the positivity in our lives, our entire outlook and the way in which we approach life changes.”
Whenever something triggered a complaint, I stopped to find something I could be thankful for about the situation. When I had to cancel plans to stay up late and finish a deadline, I stopped to think about how lucky I was to have the job that I was doing. When my dog had runny stools all over my backyard from eating wild berries, I shifted my focus toward how much joy he brings into my life on a daily basis.
Of course I still occasionally complain, but the thoughts that follow my occasional negative outburst are a lot different than they used to be. I’m a lot more grateful and, consequently, have found that it’s definitely harder to justify what actually warrants a complaint.