The decision to stop complaining

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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26 responses to “The decision to stop complaining

  1. I like the distinctions between complaining and venting. I recently had some troubles with a friend who vented very aggressively, usually with a strong sense of indignance. I would react badly to it, and just respond with “okay”, which strained the friendship. She wanted me to join in, react, or bond. I didn’t have any of this in me. It’s hard to fight this pattern in the world.

  2. Cianna, this is awesome! Very deeply thought and felt, and I think it will be very helpful to others. When I think of something pithy to head it, I’d like to repost it on FB and link to it from my website. And I’m probably going to try to follow in your intelligent and courageous footsteps! (Sorry about the poopy ex, too…)

  3. Howard – I hear your frustration. I wrote this significantly because I know first-hand how entrenched this pattern is in the world, and also how valuable it is to fight it. It’s been a great help to tell people about making this decision, particularly those who, like your friend, are negative drains. By making it about me and my efforts for myself, I’ve been able to explain why I had to excerpt myself from those conversations.

    Orna – Thank you! I would love to have you re-post this. I hope that it does help people. It’s been wonderful to introduce this to people over these years and help them start this process. Just starting to think about this and notice it make a huge change! (and as for the ex, no worries any more! My life is so much better now!)

  4. Miles Vorkosigan

    CENT ONE: I realize that I knew you mostly a couple of decades ago, long before the things described in this entry…but “negative” was not one of the top 1,000 adjectives I ever associated with you.

    CENT TWO: This entry maybe came at the right time for me. I have a close friend who is in the middle of a ten year prison sentence, and during a recent phone call, HE started commiserating and sympathizing with ME about certain things I’d been posting in my blog, that other friends had shared with him. I was struck silent. I had been bemoaning my lot in life so much that a man who isn’t even allowed to leave his space and go outside, who spends his days in the company of criminals, whose children are reaching adulthood without him, someone who has it worse than most people I know well…he felt sorry for me. Made me think about what’s coming out of my mouth and my keyboard these days, and whether I notice the good things, starting with the fact that the ground continues to be down there and ” wake up above it.

    Maybe I’m ready to make a resolution like that, too. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Like a big hug and gentle smack in the head. Really relevant for me these days as I try to deal with raising two kids, one of whom is a serious complaint-head. xoxo

  6. This sure brings back memories of seeing you in ’06. It was sad and frustrating to see you suffering so much and for so long. I’m so glad you found your way out of it.

  7. Miles pointed at this blogpost over on facebook and I sure am glad he did. Bookmarked for when I’m having one of ‘THOSE’ days. Thank you for writing it!

  8. Sarcastic East-Coaster checking in 🙂
    Thanks for this post, Cianna. You have always inspired me through your amazing strength and sensitivity. Just want you to know that.

    While I can’t promise that I won’t be snarky anymore, I can say that I’ve been trying to appreciate everything good that I have (and I have alot of good) in life, and trying to choose what I allow to affect me. Some days I succeed, some days I do not. (In my defense, I *DO* work in customer service. JOY!)
    Love you and miss you tons from out here in the midwest!

  9. Cianna —

    I’ve posted it here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Portland-OR/Celilo-Natural-Health-Center-LLC/171211464803?ref=ts.

    That’s my business FB page, which automatically feeds to twitter and my website, http://celilohealth.com/. (I’d love to repost the whole piece to my website. Would you be up for that?)

  10. Oops, I thought it would list me as me on that comment. This is Orna!

  11. Cianna,

    Not sure if you are still working on your documentary, but a friend of mine does these pinup style photos of beautiful girls in SanFran that also happen to love baseball, in case you’re interested…

    http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=-3&id=1245611248

    http://www.facebook.com/BaseballBeauties

  12. That’s just awesome, Cianna. Very inspiring in today’s oh-so-hectic why-me kinda world. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Thank you all so much! I’m loving hearing everyone’s responses. Super-excited that several more people are going to try doing this!

    Miles – I love hearing the perspective you have on what I was like back then. No, negative has never been a dominant description for me – lets you know how bad 2005 was, huh?

    Shirley – Do you think he’d respond to talking about what he’s trying to accomplish when he complains? I haven’t talked about this with kids.

    Orna – I would be honored to have you repost this on Celilo!

    Allegra – You’re very welcome! Thanks!

  14. Snora – Thank you, love! I honestly can’t imagine you snark-free… that’d be probably a lot less funny. However, truly appreciating what you have and are without smashing down that joy will, I’m sure, feel really good!

    Penny – that doc is on hold indefinitely. 😦 But I’m loving these pinups for sure! Thanks!

    Dave – Thanks!

  15. Cianna — It’s in there! Thanks for letting me repost!

    http://celilohealth.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/286/

    —Orna

  16. Cianna I was so happy to read this thoughtful reflection. I have been trying to oust negativity from my life and am inspired to keep at it after reading your thoughts. I too became uncomfortable with the amount of negative energy I noticed around me when I became sensitive to it. My growing impatience and the magnitude of the undertaking had started making me feel sort of disorganized in my quest. Now I feel more focused again, so, thanks!

  17. veryscary – I hear you about the magnitude of all that negative energy around us throwing you off. There are times that I can feel myself checking out because it’s too much. I’m so happy to help you get focused again on it! It’s a definite journey – and journeys are always better with friends so you can call on me!

    Orna – thanks!

  18. How inspiring! Well-written and, I don’t know what to say, I want to change my life! Thanks,

  19. this is amazing!!! i am practicing!!
    thank you!!

  20. Suzanne – thank you! Saying you want to change your life – well that’s amazing! Thank you for that. I hope that this helps you on that path.

  21. Hey Sarana – enjoy practicing this one. it’s fun!

  22. Pingback: the decision to stop complaining « Celilo Health

  23. Great post! As a person who is trying to walk a path to positivity, I do indeed agree. However, you must be careful of a couple of things:

    1) Not being honest. In some situations ‘not complaining’ could lead to a lack of honesty in relationships. If you really are having a hard time or you are in pain, there is nothing wrong with sharing it with those you love and who are close to you.

    2) There is a difference between being negative and being in mental trouble. I realized this the hard way when I couldn’t change my mind about the negativity and got diagnosed with depression and anxiety. It is okay if you cannot help yourself change and it can be harmful to your self esteem to beat yourself up if you don’t have the proper brain chemicals to do it on your own!

    Other than that, great idea! I hope more people can help themselves move away from the negative and into the mindful, positive! 🙂

  24. Pingback: The decision to stop complaining | Happiness Exercises

  25. Magnificent! And having met you and seen the result of the practice, I feel I’ve had first-hand proof of its power. You’re a radiant personality. I’m tickled and honored to have met you.

  26. Pingback: Need To Be Right | Cianna Has Something to Say

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