“Negative thinking limits our understanding.”
~ Bert McCoy
Can You Go a Day Without Complaining?
When I first heard of this challenge, I thought to myself: “Oooh! That sounds really hard!” Yet I don’t see myself as a negative person. I have a daily gratitude practice, and it was born from my darkest days with rheumatoid arthritis. When pain seemed to be my whole world, I needed to find a way to still see beauty. That gratitude practice saved me. Now, many years later, my health is significantly better and gratitude remains a cornerstone of my self-care.
That said, I’m not perfect! No one is. So, I do complain sometimes – maybe too many times. I can sweat the small stuff, complaining about things that don’t really matter. And when it comes to big stuff – the things that do matter – complaining doesn’t change anything. In fact, it often drains the energy I could use to take action. So, why do I it? And why is it so hard to stop?
Our Brain Has a Negativity Bias
Our brain’s primary job is to keep us alive, and it does it in countless ways that we take for granted every day. It regulates our heartbeat, our breathing, our organ function, our cellular processes, and so much more! There are trillions of things happening in our bodies every second, and our brain keeps track of it all.
In our external life, our brain also keeps us alive by looking out for danger. It’s vigilant, and in modern life, it can tag anything “negative” as a low-grade threat. This is why we tend to notice negatives far more than we notice positives. It’s not a flaw in our character. That’s how our brain is designed. We do have the ability to train our brains to look for positives too, but that takes effort. It’s not the default.
Now, it makes sense that we complain. Our brain draws attention to negatives on a daily basis which increases stress, so we reach out to other people for support. However, there are many ways to get support. Complaining – while it feels good in the moment – increases stress long-term.
How Venting Harms Instead of Helps
Now we know that our brains are wired for negativity, but did you know that venting and complaining reinforces that negativity? It’s not solution-oriented. Not only that, but emotions are contagious. When we vent to other people, we’re increasing their stress response and spreading the negativity. This is true both in-person and online.
With the rise of social media, many of us have developed a habit of venting on the internet. We’re looking for people to agree with us, and there is a momentary mood boost from doing that. But research shows that long-term, online venting has the opposite effect. It increases our anger instead of decreasing it. The same thing happens to other emotions. If we simply complain about a problem without looking at it more deeply, it intensifies our feelings instead of helping us move through them. It can also fool our brain into thinking we’ve done something about the problem, so we are less likely to take effective action instead. This is one of the reasons many online groups for autoimmune disease leave people worse instead of better. If complaining is the main purpose of the group, it’s not helpful.
There’s also some fascinating research about the power of words on our physical body. Autoimmune disease comes with a lot of pain and challenge, so it’s natural to complain sometimes. However, chronic pain research shows that talking about our pain may actually increase it.
The Difference Between Complaining and Getting Support
This doesn’t mean we should repress our emotions and never talk about things that bother us. That’s not healthy either. It’s all about intention. Venting and complaining are knee-jerk reactions with negative side effects. Embarking on a no-complaint challenge helps us “catch ourselves” when we’re about to complain. This gives us the opportunity to make a different choice. For small stuff that’s not important, we might simply choose to let it go, and take a moment to seek out a positive thought or experience instead. That’s rewiring the brain for positivity.
For big stuff, deep emotions are part of being human, and we all go through extremely tough days and even tough years. Complaining doesn’t change that. Consider what type of support would be more helpful. Research shows that therapy not only benefits mental health, it also has an anti-inflammatory response that can improve physical health. Art is another healthy way to relieve stress and express emotions, and you don’t have to be an artist to gain these benefits. I have a podcast tutorial on written and visual journals, and music is a great form of expression as well. When it comes to getting support from the people we love, there are ways to communicate and share our burdens without being “negative”. We can be honest about how we’re feeling, ask for support, and when we’re ready, brainstorm solutions. That’s not venting or complaining. That’s loving ourselves enough to ask for what we need – not only of others, but ourselves.
- Choose your day. Try to go the entire day without complaining. No complaints about the weather, the news, politics, your job, other people, pet peeves, stressors, burdens, symptoms, pain, etc.
- Choose self-compassion. This challenge is likely going to be difficult. Don’t judge yourself for that. Rewiring the brain takes effort, and perfection isn’t the goal. Awareness is.
- Choose a challenge buddy. While you can do this challenge by yourself, it can be helpful to ask a friend or family member to join you. This helps in two ways. You give each support, and you can also give each other much-needed reminders (but do it kindly). Complaining is something we’ve been doing so long that we don’t always notice we’re doing it. However, we do usually notice when someone else complains.
- Set reminders. If you have a smartphone, set a reminder to go off intermittently throughout the day. You can also use paper reminders: put a note by your alarm clock, by your desk, on the fridge, and other places you’ll see throughout the day.
- Plan your stress relievers in advance. When you feel a desire to complain, it’s helpful to have a toolbox of techniques you can choose instead. In the next section of this article, I’ve listed five favorites. I also have a whole book filled with 90+ mind-body techniques that can help not only during this challenge, but every day.
- In the evening, process the experience. This challenge is all about self-awareness. What was the experience like for you? Was it easy or difficult? Were there any themes or topics you were tempted to complain about the most? If yes, are there actions you can take to address those concerns? What stress relievers helped the most? You can write about your experiences in a journal, or talk about it with a close friend (maybe one who did the challenge with you!)
- Praise yourself. This challenge isn’t easy to do, so give yourself a gold star for trying it! If you enjoyed this one-day challenge, consider extending it for a week, a month, or a year. Remember, it takes time to rewire the brain. For many of us, complaining is a habit. The no-complaint challenge is a powerful tool for breaking that habit and replacing it with a positive stress management habit instead.
5 Things To Do Instead of Complaining
- Take a few deep breaths. This calms the nervous system and gives us something to focus on besides the complaint.
- Move your body. Emotions are a physical experience, and moving our body is a great way to release them. Walk, dance, shake it out, whatever feels good to you. And if it’s painful to move right now, going for a drive sometimes offers that same feeling of release.
- Step outside. Often, a change of scenery changes our internal landscape too. While nature is a great stress reliever, stepping outside in the city can be invigorating too.
- Choose gratitude. What’s interesting about the brain is that it will focus on the negative, even in the midst of many positives. For example, I’m an author, and I have hundreds of 5-star reviews of my books, but if I get a bad review, that can stick with me. It’s silly! Redirecting our minds to the positives helps restore perspective. So, when you’re inspired to complain, ask your mind to show you something good.
- Seek humor. Pull up a favorite comic strip or a funny video, and give yourself inspiration to laugh. If you can find humor in the situation that’s bothering you, even better!
Living an Empowered Life
When we stop complaining, we’re often inspired to address our concerns in other ways. I’ve always loved the serenity prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Doesn’t that sound like the key to a happy and successful life? But we know this isn’t easy. Our default is to focus too much on the things beyond our control and not enough on the things within our power to change. Below, I’ve listed some of the most common areas we complain, and where we might take positive action instead.
- Politics: This is an area that gets many of us riled up, myself included. Complaining doesn’t help. Instead, one of the most powerful things we can do is vote in every election. I’m not just talking about the presidential election. I’m talking about state offices, town councils, school boards, local referendums, primary elections, and more. The “smaller” elections have fewer voters, which means your vote has more power. And the elected officials in your town and state have a huge amount of power over your actual life – often far more than the federal government.
- News: Doomscrolling is the practice of reading bad news constantly, and it’s one of the worst things we can do for our mental health. Become mindful about how you take in the news. I have two resources to help. One is an article: 5 Tips for Cutting Through Overwhelm in the Face of World Tragedies. The other is a podcast: Navigating the News with Sharon McMahon.
- Social Issues: Social media is full of outrage and disagreement about the biggest issues of our time. That’s not an effective strategy for change. Instead, choose one cause you care about the most, and one way you can support it. Narrow it down. It’s okay to pick just one thing. We can’t do it all, and when we try to care about everything we become overwhelmed and often do nothing. If we all choose one thing, together we can make a huge difference. If you have my book, Healing Mindset, Chapter 23 is called “Caring for the World While Caring for Yourself”. It guides you through this process and honors the reality that with chronic illness, what we have to give may change from day to day. Yet we all have something to give.
- Work: Many of us complain about our jobs, and if that’s true for you, it’s an opportunity to think about it a little more deeply. Are there things you enjoy about your job that you can do more of? If you truly like nothing about your job, can you polish up your resume and start applying for different ones? And if you have a dream of a different career altogether, what’s the first step toward making that dream a reality?
- Other People: So many of our complaints are about other people, aren’t they? Whether it’s coworkers, doctors, family members, spouses, friends, neighbors, politicians, etc. It’s helpful to remember that we can’t change other people, we can only change ourselves. If there’s a big problem in one of your relationships, it’s better to address it than ignore it. If it’s a very difficult conversation to have, counselors can help. But also consider your social circle overall. Who do you spend the most time with? Can you take distance from the ones who annoy you the most and spend more time with the people you find uplifting? We are highly influenced by the people who surround us. Lastly, one of my favorite techniques to transform negative thoughts about other people is The Work of Byron Katie. It even includes a “Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet”.
- Chronic Illness: We know this one well, don’t we? Autoimmune disease is unpredictable and often painful. It can disabling, discouraging, and leave us feeling completely out of control. Yet there are some areas where we have control. While there is no cure for autoimmune disease, the choices we make every day can have a powerful impact on how feel both mentally and physically. This whole website offers resources for this process. We can begin with baby steps. Choose one positive action you can take today in the areas of nutrition, lifestyle, mindset, or medicine.
- The Art of Letting Go: In all of these areas (and others) we will face things we cannot change, and that’s one of the hardest things in life. Learning to surrender in these moments often feels like giving up, yet it can also bring peace and clarity. Accepting reality isn’t the same as giving up. From a place of acceptance, we can stop fighting what can’t be changed, and focus our energy on what can be changed instead. We can also start to intentionally appreciate the gifts in our life that we may be taking for granted.
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Credit: image at top of page purchased from iStock.