We all complain.
Your puppy pees on the carpet for the umpteenth time. Your favorite series airs its final episode. Your laptop crashes and the repair technician is charging a fortune.
So, we complain a little.
But sometimes we get into the habit of complaining – and it becomes as much a part of our life as breathing.
Lately I’ve been feeling drained and irritable, something that seems to get worse each day and – at a glance – for no apparent reason. It wasn’t until I was talking complaining to a friend about (the same) situation that she said, “You’ve been griping about this for a while. What do you really want? And, what are you going to do about it?” I hadn’t realized just how much I was complaining about the same thing or how my complaining was affecting me.
The stress in our lives can, at times, be infuriating and overwhelming and complaining can make us feel better – to a point. A little bit of venting allows us to blow off steam and those short bursts prevent stress hormones from building up in our system. More than releasing stress, complaining can be a form of connection, bringing people together. Research shows that when we complain about something and the other person feels the same way, we feel validated and they feel an affinity towards us. As social creatures, we’re wired to look for commonalities to determine kinship and community.
But, like most things in life, too much of something isn’t usually a good thing.
The slippery slope with complaining is that once we’re in it, it’s easy to continue the feedback loop. Constantly complaining leaves us stranded in the very places we most dislike, creating a sense of powerlessness, something which only fuels more complaining. It’s a situation that can become truly toxic – even dangerous – like an exhaust pipe pumping fumes back into a car.
Research from Stanford University has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus, an area of the brain critical to problem solving and intelligent thought. Just half an hour of complaining daily is enough to physically damage the brain. Beyond damage to the brain, complaining also releases cortisol, a stress hormone that impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
I know I want my current situation in one area of my life to be different, but for various reasons I feel limited as to what I can do. Complaining about the situation and what was out of my control seemed like an easy way to get it “off my chest” and be done with it. Problem was, complaining about this particular situation didn’t relieve the tension – it did the exact opposite. It strengthened the energy of the complaining to the point where I felt constrained and locked in my present reality for as far as my eyes could see.
If barriers are all that you see, it’s a good sign you’re caught in a spell of chronic complaining.
When life is barrier-focused, rather than solution-oriented, we see life as one challenge after another. Every change is a problem we need to fix. We look to the future and see a brick wall. We apply for the job, but don’t think we’ll get it. We want to meet someone great but can’t envision it ever happening. And because we feel powerless to our circumstances, we cope with complaining.
Like most things in life, the way out is through and the way out of complaining is to confront the very situation head-on, or something I’m calling “Confronting Your Duck”.
In the movie, Julia & Julia, a young amateur chef sets out to make every recipe in Julia Child’s classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. One of the most daunting recipes requires boning a duck, something the main character puts off until, finally, she draws courage from Julia’s words: You may think that boning a duck is an impossible feat – don’t be afraid. Take your knife; confront the duck.
You may think that boning a duck is an impossible feat – don’t be afraid. Take your knife; confront the duck.
Basically, your “Duck” is any situation that makes you vent. and vent. and vent. This isn’t a one-time complaint about the weather or your bills. We’re talking about the incessant gripe on the same situation without ever changing your behavior. Confronting Your Duck means using all your energy to push yourself through your fear, so you can take action towards positive change.
Confront Your Duck
In the life coaching I do with The Handel Group (LINK), we use something known as “The Purge” – and it’s just as pretty as it sounds.
Lauren Handel Zander, creator of the Handel Method, says:
“A purge is when you write down everything that is upsetting and frustrating you in a stream of consciousness. And I mean everything. From what pisses you off about a coworker, online dating sites, your commute, your career, your tween, the economy, to the gluten-free frenzy.
A purge is about letting out every last part of the narrative you have in your head. In all its detailed detritus. Because until you get that very last thing that is running rampant in your head out of your head and onto paper (or your iWhatever) the entire saga feels real.
Worse, all those contradictions in our mind are what shapes and informs our reality.
…What gets unearthed in a purge is the very thing you need to step back, see, figure out, and change. It’s the very thing that’s stopping you, haunting you, and keeping you stuck. But, until you unearth is, you can’t change it.”
As quick as I am (and we all are) to complain verbally about the same stuff, putting it on paper in all its messy glory is somehow less attractive and appealing. Writing it out forces us to look at and confront our shit head-on. This is by far my least favorite exercise that my coach makes me do – BUT, it works every time.
Two things always come out of writing a purge. First, writing out my purge allows me to see why a situation is really bothering me and once I’m connected to what’s really upsetting me, then I can choose what I do about it. Second, every time I purge, the purge reminds me that I am the single common denominator in every situation…and you know what that means? If there’s nothing I can do about the situation, complaining is only a waste of my time and energy. And, if there is something I can do (by the way, there usually is), then it makes me accountable to myself – my energy around the situation, the language I use, and the actions I take.
Once you unearth what’s keeping you stuck in the complaint (re: yourself), then you can get clear on what it is you do want and what you’ll do if you don’t get it.
Getting clear is a checks-and-balances system of what you want and the work you are willing to do. It’s about setting boundaries and honoring yourself; it’s not about building walls or making demands. It’s going, “This is a non-negotiable for me and if I can’t have/do ‘x’ then I’ll have to do ‘x’”.
Getting clear might mean you have to ultimately leave the relationship or the job. It might mean you have to give yourself a new deadline and be patient with the process. It might mean having a difficult conversation about what you want and why it’s important. Whatever “it” is, getting clear requires sacrifice and only once you’re clear on the bigger picture are you willing to take those steps.
Do the BIG Things
When you’ve identified that there’s something you can do, do it. It won’t be easy and there’s no guarantee that the action you take will give you the exact result you want; but it’s the action itself of putting your nonnegotiable stake in the ground that opens up the door to possibility and freedom:
Have the difficult conversation explaining what you want and why it’s important. Even if nothing comes from the conversation, you still get to decide your next move.
Start researching new ventures so that you can leave your unfulfilling job.
Make the move and design the conversation to leave the toxic relationship.
Do the Smaller Things
Inevitably, in the process of doing the BIGGER things, the discomfort will intensify and it will be easy to give into complaining. In these moments, do the smaller things.
Use the “But-Positive” technique. When you find yourself griping, add “but” and say something positive. For example, “I don’t like driving an hour to work in the city each day BUT I’m thankful I have a job and a car to drive in”. The But-Positive technique is all about reframing and what we reframe in our mind, affects our attitude and our attitude influences our reality. This small shift, overtime, can lead to massive impact.
Change the words, “I have to” into “I get to”. When we say, “I have to” there’s a sucky kind of energy that just doesn’t want to do something…because, well, we “have to” do it. But, when we say, “I get to” there’s a sense of excitement and wonder with what we “get to” do. The small shift in how we say what we say, turns a complaining mind into an appreciative heart.
This week, take a close look at the areas of your life where you complain the most. More often than not, we complain the most in the areas where it matters the most, meaning that if career is the most important thing to us and we’re not getting the results we want, we’ll find ourselves griping there – even if other areas of our life are subpar.
Remember, if there’s nothing you can do, your time and energy can be better spent. On the other hand, if you are complaining and can’t seem to get yourself out of the cycle, it’s because deep down you know that it can be better – and that means it’s time to Confront Your Duck.
What do you want and what are you going to do about it?
Maybe It’s You: Cut the Crap. Face Your Fears. Love Your Life. by Lauren Handel Zander
Your attitude and potential go hand in hand: webinar by Patricia Moreno, creator of the intenSati Method