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the decision to stop complaining

November 10, 2009

Note: My brilliant college friend Cianna Stewart wrote this moving personal essay for her friends, posting it to her website (link is in the title). How could following her advice improve your life? — Dr. O


The decision to stop complaining

By Cianna Stewart

Sometime in January or February of 2006 I gave myself a serious challenge: I decided to stop complaining.

It had been about seven months since my One And Only Forever had dumped me unceremoniously and without warning, taking with him all my plans for the future and a good deal of my finances. I found myself feeling lost, needy, and perpetually teary. My family gave me as much support as they could within their own strained circumstances. I had moved away from all my friends and felt deeply alone. I left the country for a while. I drifted.

Then the universe beckoned me back to San Francisco. I found a job, stayed at friends’ houses, and prepared to start over. Everyone was so kind to me. They all knew my story and wanted to help me heal.

My life was once again on track. I was reconnecting with people I cared about who cared about me. I was back in the Bay Area, my home. My job was actually an opportunity – a chance to be mentored by an icon in my chosen field. I was having fun.

…and still I had a heavy heart that couldn’t believe that anyone wanted to spend any time with me.

One day I was driving on the freeway, moving through the tail end of the morning commute. I had just left the home of friends who had invited me to stay with them indefinitely as part of their family. I was on the way to work with a brilliant man on a fantastic project. The sun was out and I could see San Francisco and the Bay, glistening in the crisp light of a clear winter morning. All of a sudden I was exhausted by myself. I heard my own voice telling and retelling the story of my breakup. I could hear every “but” that intruded on my tales of fun times with friends or the interesting work that I was doing. I heard repetitive, circular conversations play out where all the characters changed but one: me. My mind painted a self-portrait that I hated: I was weepy, dependent, weak, and – worst of all – negative.

I realized that I was the one perpetuating this image. Each time I complained about my past, I was reinforcing the feeling of being stuck there. No matter how much I was enjoying what I was doing, I was reminding myself and others of the pain as if I had no interest in forgetting it – even though I said that I did. Those awful times in my past were continuing to wreak havoc on my beautiful present, and I was the one inviting them in. I felt like a kid whose parents have given her super fun toys and thrown her a great party with all of her friends where she laughed all day and ate too much cake and as she goes to bed that night she only says, “Yeah, but what I really wanted was a pony.”

I imagined being her parent and hated how that made me feel.

I decided to stop complaining.

Now, lest you think that I’m all unicorns and rainbows, let me be clear: I was naturally drawn to sarcastic humor and sardonic wit. My instinct to snark was my ticket into inner circles of East Coasters, British ex-pats, drag queens and just about every group I was part of. I was straining against so much of myself and my world when I decided to let this go.

Yes, it was difficult, but I’d made a decision and I stayed with it. It’s been almost four years since then. I can tell you without reservation that it’s one of the best presents I’ve ever given myself. I’ve learned some incredible things, things that I never expected.

I learned first that it’s really really hard to stop complaining. I noticed how often I would have to stop myself. I would start and then abruptly cut myself off, often explaining, “I was about to start complaining but I’ve promised myself that I wouldn’t complain any more.” Unexpectedly, this often led into a conversation about my decision, ending up with others offering to help me keep my resolution.

Once I had a greater handle on what I was saying, I started to get really sensitive to what I was hearing. I realized that we have a culture of complaining, that it’s the backbone of many conversations and, therefore, many relationships. Standard conversation openers included complaints about traffic, parking, the weather. I realized how much time we all spent talking about unfixable situations that were bigger than we were (airports, corporations, society), were in the past and therefore unchangeable, or just situations where we felt stuck (jobs, relationships, our bodies). I started to notice how these conversations would make me exhausted, how I would lose energy or feel my body tense with frustration. Even a lot of comedy – something that I had seen as a way of relieving stress – was an elaborate and creative version of complaining and had started to make me anxious.

As a result of my decision, I found myself staying silent in many conversations or simply having to leave them. I was unable to spend much time around certain people because so much of everything they said was rooted in complaint. I also started to be repelled by the close cousins of complaint: cynicism and bitchiness.

After a while, I started to think about what we were trying to accomplish with all this complaining. It struck me that at times there was a kind of bonding that happened in complaining, a way of trying to establish that “we’re all in the same boat,” an equalizing through shared misery. Sometimes these complaints seemed to start as a way of showing that they understood someone else’s pain, but would often lead to a focus on self. Some people seemed to be bragging through complaining, talking about how hard something was as a way of giving examples of how they used their strength, creativity, or intelligence to respond. This was closely aligned with all the times I saw people complaining to establish that they were superior, where complaints centered on the theme, “I know better.”

Through all versions of complaining I heard one thing over and over: “Poor me.” There was a way in which complaints reinforced the sense of being a victim. People who complained a lot converted this sense into an identity. No matter what happened, they interpreted it in a way that telegraphed a picture of themselves as subject to the whims of others and the world. Even when good things happened, they either viewed them as insufficient or hung on to bad things from the past as if needing to live in a state of constant alert for their recurrence (which is what I had been doing).

In this state, it’s impossible to change your world to make it better. As long as you think and act like others are in control you render yourself powerless in your own life. I knew, without a doubt, that I didn’t believe that others were in control of everything in my life. I could point to so many times when I made decisions to get myself out of bad circumstances. I also thought about negative (sometimes devastating) things that I couldn’t change and how deciding not to let them overshadow my entire life improved everything in my world. I remembered how great it felt to go from feeling stuck in a bad situation to taking some control. I started to see the decision to stop complaining as simply an expression of my belief that I was in charge of my own life, my unwillingness to be a victim.

I encourage you to take on this challenge for yourself. It’s amazing. Without a doubt, I still catch myself saying negative things. But having made this decision, I’m now able to recognize what I’m doing and stand a little outside of myself so I can try to figure out what I’m really trying to accomplish. For instance, if I’m wanting to bond with someone, I try to find sources of common interest, to talk about something that excites us both. It’s way more fun than finding affinity by tearing ourselves down.

I’ve also started to sort out the differences between venting, problem-solving, and complaining. This way of looking at conversations I encounter every day has really helped me. The distinction comes in understanding someone’s intention behind what they’re saying.

Venting occurs when something happens that someone needs to purge. It’s like a release valve, an explanation for a current state of mind or mood which – once vented – allows them to get back to what they were doing or what they’d rather be thinking about.

Problem-solving is when someone is telling a story that sounds a lot like a complaint but their goal is to end the situation. They’re often elaborating on what happened as a way of getting the listener’s insight or as a way of providing background for figuring out a solution.

And then there’s complaining. Complaining is often circular, repetitive, and without resolution. The complainer is trying to accomplish all those things I had been noticing, like establish affinity through misery, demonstrate their superiority, or brag. There’s often nowhere to go after someone complains, no next step. If you don’t want to complain and don’t want to support someone else’s complaints, then it’s a conversation killer. One of the most annoying things I’ve noticed about complaints is that they’re likely to crop up again in another conversation, often sounding almost exactly the same.

In the end I found that the gift I gave to myself on that cold winter morning was the ability to take control of my life and to keep moving forward. Even more, I find that I’m so much more able to feel the joy that’s available to me if I don’t squash it with a complaint. I’ve also been able to find others who want to celebrate life, who operate from a place of curiosity, who genuinely have fun. Time that I spend with them gives me energy and makes my creativity spark like fireworks.

As a result of this one decision, I feel more alive. I want the same for you. Do you want it, too?

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