Curb Your Complaining

by Dr. Carla Rotering


“The only thing complaining does is convince other people that you are not in control.”– Unknown

There’s an old saying that “misery loves company” – and over the last couple of years, things may feel pretty miserable to many if not most of us.  It seems a natural extension to transfer what we experience into the act of complaining.  

Complaining and connecting with those who share our disturbance not only provides some emotional release but it also creates a place of belonging. Who doesn’t want to spend time with people who “get” what we are talking about – who notice the same miserable things we do, push against the same miserable boundaries we do, and complain about the same miserable details that we do?   We become misery buddies, an exclusive club of complainers, operating with the belief that we are bonding and validating one another through our shared complaints.  

We are inherently social beings, and as humans we have the capacity for neuronal mirroring.  Mirroring happens when mirror neurons in the premotor cortex area of your brain respond to an observed behavior or mood of another person as if YOU were actually engaged in that behavior or mood yourself!  So rather than finding comfort and relief, as we unconsciously mimic moods and behaviors, we actually deepen our misery and ultimately habituate the practice of complaining.  That habit of complaining doesn’t make anyone happy.  And you don’t even have to be the complainer!!  Studies show that 30 minutes of LISTENING to someone complain impacts our health and wellbeing just as much as BEING the complainer for that 30 minutes.  The average person complains between 15 – 30 times a day, according to Will Bowen, author of “A Complaint-Free World”.

Have you ever heard the saying “Neurons that fire together wire together”? Neuroscience tells us that repetitive complaining, like any repetitive behavior, re-wires our brains so that the neurons branch out toward each other to create a more permanent bridge, making future complaining more likely.  Over time, it becomes easier to be negative by defaulting to this now-established neural pathway than it is to be positive, which would require the creation of a new pathway – and that holds true even when what is happening around us changes for the better! explains this phenomenon perfectly:

“The more you complain about things like flakey friends or being asked to push up a project’s 

deadline, the more neurons in your brain stitch themselves together to easily 

facilitate this kind of information. Before you know it, complaining becomes so 

easy for your brain to grasp, you start doing it without even consciously registering

the behavior.”

A Stanford University study using high resolution MRI’s found that complaining or listening to complaining can result in actual damage to our brains by shrinking the hippocampus.  Equally concerning, chronic high cortisol levels, besides triggering our flight-or-fight response, are now thought to damage the hippocampus in the same way.   The hippocampus is an area critical to memory formation, learning, emotional regulation and problem solving.  It is also one of the primary areas of the brain destroyed in Alzheimer’s Disease.

Who wants that???  And what can we do to shift?

Here is a summary of tips offered by the Cleveland Clinic to interrupt the habit of complaint – whether you notice it in yourself or your peers, friends, family:

  •  Look at the big picture – will this really matter in 5 minutes/months/years?  If the answer is “yes” see #5
  • Ask yourself if this IS the issue?  Is “this” (whatever it is) really pushing your buttons or is there something going on that is deeper, harder, more personal.
  • Make it a game!  Wear a bracelet or rubber band around your wrist – and every time you notice yourself complaining (even silently) shift it to the opposite wrist.  The goal is to keep your rubber-band bracelet on the same wrist for longer and longer periods of time.
  • Share legitimate concerns in the right time and place – not on social media, not in a public hallway or shared space.
  • When something really matters, share your concern in a way that is seen as helpful rather than critical. Be a part of the solution!
  • When you offer a valid complaint, start and end with a positive statement. When we start with negative words, no one can hear anything else we say. When we end with negative words, no one can remember what we said before.  This sandwiches your concern between caring statements– and makes all the difference to others and to YOU!!
  • Practice gratitude.  If negativity has become a habit for you or those around you, noticing one small thing daily for which you are thankful can begin to forge a new, positive neural pathway!!

Our invitation to you is to experiment with a “no complaint day” – and see what happens to your energy, your mood, your level of contentment and satisfaction.  

And if you like it, start building new neuronal bridges!!!

Unmet Expectations, Created in Isolation?

We sat in the driveway, my sister and I, each peering out our opposite windows, each wrapped in the disappointing sense that we had failed one another while the uncaring car simply idled in the background. “We agreed on this” my sister said, still without turning her face toward me. “No, you told me how we were going to do this, and I said nothing” was my response as I also turned toward my own window. Somehow, she thought my silence meant I agreed. Somehow I thought my silence would indicate I did not agree. Just as the view was different for each of us through our opposing windows, we had an entirely different and singular understanding of what we had agreed on. The spoken and unspoken expectations we had of one another had dragged us unwittingly toward this predictable moment of upset and disappointment.
We carry all kinds of expectations into our days – expectations about relationships, performance, quality standards, purchases – nearly anything we encounter in the details of our personal and professional lives. What makes expectations challenging is that they are unilateral, often unexplored, and are frequently made known in either vague or authoritative ways – or both. Most people resent expectations – especially authoritative and unreasonable expectations – although they may try in earnest to meet them. On the other hand, most people like to keep agreements that are co-authored – to have the chance to agree to what you can count on from them.
Take a seat in any break room, boardroom, meeting room, or bedroom and you are sure to hear complaints, the drone of disappointment, and the bitterness of having been let down. You can hear the utter disbelief that the world didn’t come through for you or me (or Bobby McGee) in the way that it was supposed to, the way that it should have – the way that it would have if anyone cared enough! We might hear something like “he really let me down” or “she should have known better” or “I can’t count on anyone but myself” or, perhaps the most poignant of all, “If he REALLY loved me, he’d know. I shouldn’t have to ask.” When that is the conversation, we are living in the realm of unmet spoken or unspoken expectations.
And when we operate in the realm of expectations – when we engage in our relationships expecting that people will behave the way we want them to, want exactly what we want, understand in tandem with how we see the world, we set the stage for one of two outcomes. We will either feel disappointed or we will feel nothing at all. If others fail to meet our expectations, we will feel upset and disappointed. If others actually meet our expectations, we may not feel anything at all, because that is simply, without celebration, what we expected. It is, after all, the very least they can do!
Disappointment can sink you like a stone and yet, with a simple rearrangement in our thinking, disappointment can be significantly minimized if not eliminated.
What if our complaints could be turned into requests? When we first notice we are disappointed and hosting a complaint we can choose to gain a little altitude and ask ourselves if we have a request of that person. Is there something inside the complaint itself that actually assists us in recognizing what it is that we want or need to bring about success and dissipate the potential for disappointment? What if we simply, then, made that request?
Of course, making a request does not assure an agreement will be established. It does, however, open the possibility of co-authoring a strong, solid agreement that reflects everyone’s voice. Making a request is bold, and courageous, and an act of integrity. It is the first step in negotiating an agreement that brings all the invisible barriers and potential to the table.
But what if a request is made, and the answer to the question “can you agree to this” is no? That’s when we can ask questions that can point us toward agreement:

  • What are you willing to do, if it isn’t this?
  • Here’s what you can count on from me. What can I count on from you?
  • What would you need from me (the organization) to support you in an agreement like this?
  • What do you think we would need to do to make this even better?
  • What might get in the way of us keeping this agreement with each other?
  • We can use our imagination and perception to create an authentic agreement that can be honored by everyone because it was formed by everyone.

Before closing the deal, check on the strength of the agreement. People may mumble that they agree when, in fact, there is still something standing in the way of their being “all in.” If the phrase “I’ll try” shows up anywhere in the conversation, there is no real agreement. Trying suggests that there is doubt, disagreement with the overall direction, and a remnant of unwillingness that puts the agreement at risk of being broken.
Of course, there are still times when even an agreement that seems strong is broken. This is the time to review the agreement in slow motion:

  • What was the actual response to the request?
  • What exactly did they say they were going to do? Was it the same thing you were asking for?
  • Was it a strong agreement with specifics?
  • Is there something that was left hanging? A little loose?

Expectations are hard on the human heart and mind and allow us to shift blame to anyone else but ourselves. Agreements offer us the opportunity to co-author the path by which we move life along in more effective and generous ways and enhance our self esteem by the simple act of taking personal responsibility for our yes’s and no’s. Agreements tap into the creative process, honor the relationships we have at work and at home, rescue us from the disappointment of failed expectations, and save the time often spent in places like an idling car on a gray winter day staring out the window wondering what went wrong.

Pushing the Wild Frontier

When I was a youngster my parents would often tell me “Don’t get too big for your britches.” Indeed, my entire tiny village on the prairie would announce it regularly, accompanied by clicks of the tongue and a practiced scoff.