Complaining is counterproductive. It only takes one moment of complaining to turn a good day into a miserable one.
The goal of this article is not to make you stop complaining altogether. I don’t think there’s a person in the world who never complains! The goal is to help you be aware of what triggers your complaints and how to deal with the triggers. Learning to recognize your triggers and cope with them will lead to a reduction in overall complaining - to yourself and to others.
Learning to stop complaining has everything to do with observing your emotions. If you are aware of a specific emotion, you have the chance to deal with it head-on.
There is a wonderful book, Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio. In it, Dalio talks about the two versions of you, the “logical you” and the “emotional you.” I was captivated by this concept, feeling like this is some superpower I can learn to process. I began to read more and watch videos on the subject. However, I still wasn’t able to understand this concept clearly enough. What should I do with the two “me’s”? How do I use this idea to improve myself?
I eventually picked Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now as an audiobook. I’ve always loved books with rational reasoning. Before I read The Power of Now, I assumed it was full of “woo-woo” stuff. You know what I mean! But I was completely wrong. It was very rational. Tolle explains that the two “you’s” are the “observer” and the “thinker.” After listening to the book, I began to practice truly observing what I was thinking and feeling - and when I was thinking and feeling it.
“To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.”
― Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
Now, let’s break down this impactful quote.
You complain when you are not accepting reality. Complaining doesn’t have to be verbal. When your spouse says something mean to you that is untrue and then you have an annoyed look on your face, that’s complaining. When someone cuts in line and you don’t say anything or show any emotion, but you feel slightly angry deep inside, that’s complaining. Body language also shows when we are upset. Crossing your arms, avoiding eye contact, hunching over, shaking your head to hurry someone up - those are all non-verbal signals and complaints. We have to know what complaining really is to be able to minimize it within ourselves.
All situations that happen around you are inherently neutral if you view yourself as a very small part of the overall universe. However, we are each the main character of our own story. And let’s be real: There are always situations worth complaining about. Let’s call them “negative situations” for now.
As Eckhart Tolle suggests, there are only 3 ways to deal with any situation:
To change the situation, you have to ask yourself two questions: Is it worth it to change it and is it within your ability to change it?
On a day when you need to get a lot of work done, is it worth it to talk to someone that cuts in line? Don’t get me wrong, if you are someone who can talk to an inconsiderate person without having negative emotions, go ahead and say something to the line-cutter. But be aware that even if you say something, that does not mean the person will listen or change their own actions. I honestly can’t keep my emotions neutral talking to someone like this, even in minor situations like this example.
To change something, you need to have both the time and capability to make the change. If you see some people treated unfairly and want to help, but you are only willing to spend a few minutes of your time to help, ask yourself, “Am I able to help them within the time I have availabler?” Another way to approach it is to ask, “What is the one thing that I can do right now that can make a positive impact on the situation?”
Another great quote about complaining is from Maya Angelou, who said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”
You will not always be able to talk directly to a person in any given frustrating situation. Road rage is a great example. You cannot control how other people drive, you can only control yourself. So, if someone is driving way too slowly in front of you or driving erratically, you could choose to change the situation by leaving it - change lanes or switch to a different route. If neither is possible, you can only change your attitude and reaction. Try putting on some music or an interesting podcast and letting yourself enjoy a few extra minutes in your car instead of complaining and yelling about a situation you can’t change.
When you are in a negative situation that is not worth spending your time and energy changing, you may just want to leave the situation.
Imagine you are in a cafe, doing some important work at your laptop, and there is a person at the table next to you speaking on the phone really loudly. If you can’t afford to have your mood and work affected, just change your seat. Or leave and work from somewhere else.
Taking responsibility and accountability for your actions is the best way to respond to anything. When you cannot or don’t want to get into a confrontation, walking away is a completely acceptable and encouraged response. You are removing yourself from a negative or frustrating conversation and giving yourself space to not be part of it.
Some situations can be both difficult to leave and not worth it to spend energy changing. In these cases, there is only one path: accepting the situation.
You are again in a cafe working and the person next to you is speakinging loudly and taking a call on speakerphone. But this time, there is no empty seat to switch to. Your only options are to stay where you are or leave. But you need to finish your project in the next 15 minutes before heading to your client’s office for a presentation. You don’t have the time or energy to deal with talking to the person because you are sure you are going to have negative emotions. And you don’t have the time necessary to recover from those negative emotions before needing to be in the right headspace for your client meeting.
What can you do? You can accept that it is happening and that you can’t fix it. Just tell yourself that you are going to finish your work in the next 15 minutes regardless of the situation and people around you, and then do it.
Sometimes, the right thing to do is knowing that there is nothing you CAN do about it. Take a deep breath and keep moving. Sometimes the only way forward is through.
The option you choose depends on your personality and the specific situation you’re in. There are situations where it makes more sense to just leave than to jump in and try to change things. And some people are better at accepting a situation without losing their calmness.
In many cases, it may not be clear what the “right” thing to do is. It is always going to be up to you. If you can maintain control over your emotions, then standing up and saying something and trying to change a situation may be the best way to go. Then if that doesn’t work, you may need to simply walk away from it.
Nothing is black and white and there will be many times in your life when the answer is to use a combination of strategies. Perhaps you do say something and the situation still does not change. Then, you simply decide to accept it and move on.
If you catch yourself complaining, don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself a pat on the back for being aware of it. Michael Jordan only hit half of his shots. Doing your best is almost never going to be perfect. Doing your best is the best you can do in any given situation. Strive for excellence but don’t expect perfection.
Letting go of perfectionism is a huge step forward in positive mental health and happiness.
Some situations are just hard to deal with. You will recognize that some things will upset you more than maybe they “should,” or there will be situations where you make the “wrong” choice and beat yourself up over a missed opportunity. Instead, try to look for a recognize the things that trigger you most so that you can work on your reactions and strategies.
Here’s my list of specific triggers:
If you can reduce complaining, you will live a much more joyful life. The first step for stopping complaining is to be aware of your emotions and the events that trigger them. Next time you face a situation that can possibly trigger your negative emotions, choose one of these three actions: change the situation, leave the situation, or accept the situation.
Don’t blame yourself when find yourself complaining - negativity and complaints are still a part of life. You won’t get to a point where you never complain! But spending the effort to learn how to deal with your own emotions and the situations is very much worth it.