Drop the judgment to turn a complain into useful information.
by Mike Neill
From time to time in my life, I’ve gone on a “complaint fast”—that is, I go a day or a week or a month deliberately not complaining (out loud!) about anything.
That’s not to say that if I order pizza for lunch and they bring me a hamburger I won’t send it back—I just don’t follow it up with a list of complaints to my waiter, friends, manager of the restaurant and the editorial page of the Times about what an awful place the world has become when decent, hard working folk can’t even get a slice of pizza without having to deal with gross incompetence and possibly criminal negligence.
Why I do complaint “fasts”
1. Complaining is the opposite of creating
When you think about it, a complaint is simply an observation with a judgment attached that whatever you’ve observed is a bad thing, or bad for you, or shouldn’t be the way it is.
For example, when I first begin working with someone they’ll often begin with a series of complaints about some aspect of their life.
“My wife,” one client told me, “is going to bankrupt us. However much we’ve got it’s never enough. Sometimes I wonder if she’ll ever be content!” I nodded, which he took as encouragement to go on with his litany.
“I just bought her a new car and now she wants to go to Hawaii on holiday. She doesn’t seem to understand that it takes money to live the way we live, and the more she wants the harder I have to work.”
While I didn’t actually agree with the “more money = harder work” equation, I decided to leave that for a while and I asked what I thought was the obvious question: “So what?”
He looked at me, nonplussed.
“What do you mean, ‘so what?’”
“Well, it seems to me you’ve made a few observations about your wife that I have no reason to question—that she doesn’t seem to be contented by having more stuff, and that she hasn’t yet really grasped the connection between your stress levels and the amount of money she spends.”
He was still looking at me, but his look had turned more curious.
“That’s just a statement of fact. It doesn’t have any positive or negative implications at that level. If you look at it in the context of “my wife should be the perfect woman and should be content and should understand all that,” it will seem pretty miserable. But if you look at it in the context of wanting to create a wonderful relationship with her, that’s just what is.”
I looked at him more directly now.
“Here’s my question: if you can see that she doesn’t get more content by you’re getting her more, nicer stuff, why would you keep doing it?”
He looked confused, as though he couldn’t even comprehend the question.
“Let’s think about it in another way,” I continued. “If you were eating cake in order to get thin but you noticed that the more cake you ate, the fatter you got, would you keep buying cake?”
“Of course not.”
“So if you want to create more contentment in your marriage, why would you keep buying your wife more stuff when you’ve already established that doesn’t work for either of you?”
While all their marital difficulties were not instantly resolved in that moment, dropping the judgment from the observation turned it from a “complaint” into a piece of useful data for him. He was trying to create better feelings in his relationship through the acquisition of stuff, and perhaps unsurprisingly it wasn’t working very well.
By focusing on what he wanted to create—a happy, loving marriage—he was able to make changes in himself and the way he responded to his wife’s discontent that did over time lead to more of what he truly wanted in his life.
2. Complaining is addictive
When I was a kid, I noticed something odd about my relationship with chocolate. I could quite happily go without a Mars bar for months at a time, but if I had one on a Tuesday, I craved another one on Wednesday. While the links between chocolate and serotonin levels in the brain are well-established, I suspect that if a study were ever done scientists would find a similar link between complaining and some brain chemical that relieves stress.
The problem, as with any addictive substance, is that the drug in question (in this case “complaining”) winds up creating more of the very stress it was originally designed to relieve, thus plunging its user into an ongoing cycle of stress and stress-relief that can only be interrupted by eliminating the drug from your system completely.
Here are some strategies I’ve found effective for those of you who’d like to live in a less toxic environment and are willing to begin by detoxifying yourself…
1. Create a “no-complaint fast” for yourself. The first time I did this, I decided I would go one week without complaining. If I complained at all, I would immediately begin again with day one. It took me the better part of a year to complete the experiment, but it was worthwhile.
2. The next time you notice yourself complaining, see if you can separate out the observation from the judgment. This can be subtle! For example, you might hear yourself say “I’m so busy today!”, which may well be an accurate observation. The judgment will be hidden in the angry or defeated voice-tone in which you say it, or in the heavy sigh that precedes or follows the statement.
3. Turn your complaints into acts of creation. The next time you are tempted to complain about something, ask yourself what is it you want to create in this situation and then go about creating it.
4. If you like, visit www.acomplaintfreeworld.org and order some purple bracelets as reminders for yourself. They used to give them away free, but at last check they had gone up to about 37 cents apiece. I considered registering a complaint, but then I thought better of it… 🙂
Have fun, learn heaps, and use your observations about life to create a better world! ?
Michael Neill is a life coach and author. Hear him Thursdays at 11am on HayHouse Radio or visit his website, www.geniuscatalyst.com.