My native language is complaining. I’m also fluent in Bitching, Moaning, Whining, and I speak a passable Kvetching.
So, when a boatload of articles about the negative impact of complaining started coming across my path this year, I tuned in. Essentially, every article was some variation on this theme: complaining keeps us in a negative mindset, feeling like victims, and trains us to be hyper alert to noticing the bad in any situation. Complaining may feel good for a moment, but long term it leaves us feeling worse.
Francoise Mathieu, author of The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, refers to bitching, moaning, and whining (the BMWs) as a “fake workout.”
In other words, complaining is the equivalent of sitting on the couch watching someone else workout on TV. At the end, you’re exactly the same as you were before you watched.
Complaining is the same – we feel like we’re doing something because we’re actively talking and discharging energy – but in the end, there are no real results. You may even feel worse.
In many workplaces (and I am mega-guilty of this) complaining becomes the primary way that we communicate with and connect to one another.
Truth is, there’s a lot to complain about in our work and the state of the world. But there’s a difference between taking action to make things better (which includes healthy coping through supportive conversations) and the false sense of action or release that we get from complaining.
One gets results, the other trains us to keep focusing on what’s broken and sucks the life out of us.
When complaining is our primary way of experiencing and communicating about the world, it’s like our mind gets stuck tuned into one toxic radio station run by a troll.
Let’s call it WSUXS (thanks for the inspiration Anne Lamott!).
Not too long ago, I went on a 5 day silent meditation retreat. This meant no talking or direct eye contact with other people was allowed. Silent meals, silent meditation, silent everything…except inside your own head. It’s really loud in your own mind.
As if that’s not hard enough, I soon discovered that my room was directly across from the communal bathrooms and I was kept awake half the night by noise coming from across the hall.
That’s when WSUXS started broadcasting loud and clear.
“Why can’t people close the door more quietly?” “Why did I get this crappy room?” “This isn’t fair.” “Is that sewage I smell?” “I never should have come here.” “Meditation is dumb.” “This SUCKS.”
I found myself physically aching to complain to the woman who was staying in the room next to me, knowing she was likely experiencing the same nightly torture.
For two days I had imaginary conversations in my head with my neighbor about the noise and our stinky rooms. But I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. I couldn’t even make eye contact with her as we walked into our adjoining rooms – no eye roll with a knowing head tilt towards the bathroom.
At night, I found myself having imaginary conversations with my husband and friends. They’d ask me how the retreat went and I’d tell them about the bathrooms! How gross, they’ll say. So disappointing, they’ll commiserate. Vindication!
And then something weird happened. Two days of WSUXS and I couldn’t take it anymore.
Not the bathrooms…
I couldn’t stand my own negative thoughts for one more minute.
I was boring myself. I was making myself miserable.
I didn’t want this unique experience that I was having at the retreat to be defined by my complaints.
So I decided to stop.
Thanks to my mindfulness practices, every time I became aware that WSUXS was coming on in my head, I noticed it, acknowledged it with an inner smile (Hello again you old crank!), and then I turned the volume down by placing my attention on something else, like my breath.
By day three WSUXS was just static in the background. I hardly heard it anymore.
Nothing changed externally. The bathrooms still stunk. I still had a hard time sleeping.
But internally, I was changing the way I was relating to my experience, letting go of what I couldn’t change or fix, so that I could be at peace.
I was able to do this to a large degree because I didn’t speak my complaints out loud. I did not feed the troll.
If I had been able to talk to my neighbor, we would have turned up the dial on WSUXS to 11 and blown the roof off of that place. The complaint, and the negative energy within it, would have grown stronger as we discussed it.
But since we couldn’t talk about it, we didn’t feed energy into and it faded away without sucking us dry.
What I learned in my five days of silence is that where we place our focus – our attention – is also where our energy will go. And that really matters. It shapes our entire lives. If we’re always looking for and talking about what sucks, then that will define our experience.
Our life becomes a WSUXS marathon.
Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t things worth getting upset about or that we should bottle up our feelings. But there’s constructive talk where you feel upset about an issue, policy, or person’s behavior and then you either take action to address that issue directly with the person who is responsible or you cope with your feelings in a healthy way. And then there’s complaining as a primary way to discharge your discomfort, but which ultimately leads to little change and a whole lot of toxicity.
This is especially true at work. We complain and feed into that negative energy, which only reinforces our focus on what’s going wrong, rather than what we will do to change it, let go of it, or what’s also going well.
The more we talk about it, the more power we give the complaint and the more we wire our brains to see everything through the lens of WSUXS.
So what can you do?
Mathieu writes in her book Compassion Fatigue Workbook, that she and a couple of friends at work deliberately decided to stop gossiping and complaining about work for 3 months. She reports that the, “…results were striking. We were not necessarily successful at changing our dysfunctional workplace, but we were no longer part of the toxicity and that significantly improved my work experience.”
Lauren Glickman wrote a great article about experimenting with going complaint-free for Animal Sheltering magazine. You can check that out here.
Turning down the dial on complaining is one way you can improve the quality of your life right now, even if things are far from ideal. As Trauma Stewardship author, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, wrote, “Nothing has to change in the world for us to transform our own life experience.”
How to Complain Less
Why Complaining is Literally Killing You
What It’s Like to Go Without Complaining for a Month
Finally, you have the power to make small, but meaningful changes that can improve the quality of your life, no matter what’s going on at work. Really. I know there are so many issues that need to be fixed, policies that need to be changed, people that need to behave differently, and resources that need to be increased! And yet, even if none of those external factors change, you can still transform your own life experience. My online course, Compassion in Balance, is designed to help people who work with animals improve quality of their lives and reduce the impact of compassion fatigue. Join us!