Complaining is Only a Symptom — Experiment No. 5 Results

complain

Done. My campaign to go 21 consecutive days without complaining or gossiping is finally over, and what I discovered surprised me.

To recap, the experiment was to cease complaining or gossiping for twenty-one straight days, as long as that took. If I complained, I started the count again from zero. The idea was inspired by the book A Complaint Free World, by Will Bowen. The original post is here.

I cruised through the first week complaint-free, then cracked on my eighth day. I had to restart four times in total. My last screwup was on the eighteenth consecutive day, within 72 hours of finishing.

It took a total of 55 days.

In the book Bowen says it takes most people about six months before they can string together 21 consecutive days. My 55 days sounds like a breeze in comparison, but before that I had been practicing non-complaining unofficially for about four months, without counting days.

Why I did it

The main goal was to completely kill the impulse to complain. According to Bowen, when you stop complaining out loud, your negative and critical thoughts begin to cease in kind.

The secondary goal was to see how well the bracelet technique works. If it was effective, it could be used to stop any other compulsive behavior.

What I learned

Most of my discoveries were quite unexpected. Italicized portions below are excerpts from my experiment log.

Five days in I recognized that complaining can actually be a lot more subtle than plainly saying, “This sucks.” If the mind really wants its dissatisfaction to be known, it will find a way, with or without words:

I haven’t yet complained, but I’ve learned that there are plenty of ways of expressing negativity and frustration that don’t include your vocal cords. I’ve been cranky and short plenty of times since I started, which manifests itself (seemingly automatically) in the form of rolled eyes, disappointed faces, and clenched teeth. I’m learning that negativity is alive and well inside me, even if I don’t let it ‘leak.’

A week or so later I had an experience that made me recognize how completely subjective complaining is. It isn’t always clear whether you’ve complained or not, even if you’ve established a strict definition for yourself:

Another interesting discovery is that I can make a vaguely snarky comment without really saying anything overtly negative. Just now, as I watch some refreshingly understated Olympic coverage, I remarked “You know, I sure don’t miss [Canadian Olympic broadcaster] Brian Williams. This New Zealand coverage is very good.” I was just communicating my sense of appreciation for this nice, unpretentious coverage, rather than tearing Brian Williams a new one.

But I suppose I didn’t have to say anything about Brian Williams at all. I did it because I knew my mom would laugh — my father was a lifelong Brian Williams critic. I did not count that remark as a complaint, because it certainly wasn’t, but if somebody in the room happened to like Brian Williams, they might have found my comment to be unwelcome negativity.

It’s interesting, because I’m starting to see that whether a comment is negative or not really only depends on the emotions it stirs up in me and the people around me. In other words, negativity is subjective; it has much more to do with intention and emotion than what is actually said.

I was also surprised to discover that mild griping does have social value in some situations:

…I don’t feel like it’s entirely natural or even preferable to never say anything derogatory. It isn’t always appropriate to insert a lame positive counterpoint when your co-workers are enjoying a light-hearted gripe about the events of the day. Nor is it better to say nothing. Complaining will never again be a big part of my life, but I am looking forward to being able to make a negative comment freely when my 21 days is up. It isn’t always a horrible thing. I see now that criticism is actually a valid way of bonding with others sometimes.

I never would have believed that before. I always thought complaining was complely useless. But sitting there with my friends I noticed they were all connecting with each other by expressing shared grievances, and I wasn’t allowed to. Internally I did share the same grievance, but I couldn’t tell them — in the most direct and natural way — “I know how you feel.”

Inner vs. Outer

A recurring theme in my report (and in my mind) was that the change was almost entirely external. I didn’t see a dramatic difference in my thoughts. They did not become any more positive just because the negative ones were not expressed.

I haven’t seen much of a change inside. I’m currently dealing with a difficult (for me) situation and I don’t think I’m a whole lot less negative internally as a result of this experiment. The book made quick work of the objection “Well how do you stop complaining internally,” by assuring the reader that the internal talk will quickly reflect the improvement in the external talk. Maybe if my external talk had been really bad to begin with I would be seeing a substantial change, but right now I don’t.

During one part of the experiment I found myself in a difficult situation and my negative thoughts really snowballed. I had several thoroughly miserable days that were completely complaint-free.

Two days later, on the eighteenth day, I complained (several times) during a cathartic phone call. Back to zero.

After my outburst, I wrote:

I never bought the idea that there is value in venting. I always figured it was an excuse to indulge in complaining. And it is, but maybe indulgence itself is important sometimes. We do defend the occasional indulgence in other forms: ice cream and alcohol come to mind.

Sometimes you just want to articulate what’s on your mind, and maybe saying it out loud is the only way to really look at it. Until it emerges in words, it can be slippery and ambiguous. It’s hard to judge its scale and truth when it’s just a feeling.

That was another new revelation: Articulating your frustrations can help you realize what it really is that’s bothering you. You may not realize your problem until you make a sentence out of it and put it into the air.

I did gradually begin to notice that I was simply less attracted to the idea of complaining. It was unsatisfactory because I knew I would still be left with the same frustrating situation.

Another thing I noticed (but did not report in the log) is that you don’t always realize when you are complaining. So much of speech is completely unconscious and reflexive, so we don’t always have that “whoops” moment in which to catch ourselves. So without someone watching you 24-7 you can never actually know for sure that if you haven’t complained for 21 days.

The Verdict

I came to a number of conclusions about the 21-day complaint-free challenge and its method.

I think the “bracelet method” has great potential for other habits. The end of any behavior you want to stop can be worked up to quite naturally. Your streak creates pride, and once you’ve got the momentum of a few days in a row, your resolve strengthens. If you’ve done three straight days before, you know there is nothing stopping you from doing six, or ten, or twenty-one.

It isn’t perfect, though. As I mentioned, you are only accountable to yourself, so it may not work too well for highly addictive behavior like smoking or overeating.

Complaining is not just a matter of what you actually say. You can still gripe and resent quite loudly with eye-rolls, conspicuous silences, passive-aggressive remarks and cold shoulders. While it’s definitely a habit worth addressing, verbal complaining is only one form of complaining, and complaining is only one of many forms of negativity.

The bracelet method works extremely well for dismantling the habit of constant external griping, and I would recommend it to pretty much anyone, but the internal dialogue does not follow suit as readily as the book says it does.

There are some changes that happen inside — you may notice yourself assuming responsibility for fixing undesirable situations rather than blaming others, for example, and it is well worth doing this experiment to see what does change. But I think this complaint-free movement is trying to fix a deep and ancient problem by manipulating only a superficial part of it.

The way I now see it, complaints themselves are just one of the visible symptoms of humanity’s greatest problem: chronic dissatisfaction. The voiced complaint is only the proverbial one-tenth of the iceberg that protrudes from the surface. Treating a symptom may be helpful, but it leaves the source of the problem intact. The 21-day challenge can quite effectively kill the impulse to express non-acceptance verbally, but that is not the same as developing the skill of acceptance. Meditation is better for that. Non-complaining is not so much inner work as outer.

Again, I must reiterate that it is still totally worthwhile. The world would indeed change dramatically if everyone did it. Particularly if you are a chronic complainer, it can change your life. It will certainly make a big difference to the quality of the interactions you have with others.

Aftermath

I do not feel dramatically different. As I mentioned I’d been working on acceptance and non-complaining for quite a while before I started. I have not been in the habit of chronic complaining for a long time, and was never that big on it, so maybe that’s why.

Since the experiment ended a few days ago, I’ve been free to complain whenever I want without much consequence. I’ve indulged in it a few times but it doesn’t really do much for me any more. It is definitely less gratifying than it was before, perhaps because I’m more aware of what I’m doing.

A red flag now goes off in my head before I make a critical or negative comment. This gives me the chance to ask myself if I really want to say it. Sometimes I go ahead and say it, and usually I don’t.

I do have a lingering feeling of disappointment in this experiment. I am proud of myself, and I know I have conquered something, but it is a much smaller victory than I thought. Negativity is so much deeper than speech alone, and maybe I didn’t realize that. So I guess this experiment made it discouragingly clear how much more work is left to do.

The book claims that this inner transformation just happens automatically while you learn to control what comes out of your mouth. It seemed believable enough before the experiment but I now think it’s a lazy cop-out.

Of course you can control what you say with a little practice. But you still complain and criticize in your head. You still get frustrated. You still get angry. You still resent and you still judge. The 21-day complaint-free challenge doesn’t cure your displeasure: it only makes you realize how absurd it is to be talking about it all the time.

R

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{ 37 Comments }

John April 5, 2010 at 7:56 am

Complaining has been a real problem for me in the past. I don’t know why I did it, because it always made me feel worse. But really, what did I expect? Being a “victim” of the world around you is never fun.

I found it really interesting how the negativity manifested in other ways besides your speech. Obviously, there was much deeper problem than the author was willing to address. However, I think I already knew that changing your speech doesn’t instantly change how you feel. It’s the same way as when people say they’re going to achieve certain goals. They may agree to it verbally, but mentally, they maybe stuck in a routine of not following through.

Change the mind (harder than it sounds, I’m sure) and the body will follow.
.-= John´s last blog ..Why “Just Doing It” Won’t Conquer Your Fears =-.

David April 5, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Yeah, the behavior is really only the end product of a whole chain of beliefs and thoughts. Just working on changing what comes out doesn’t really affect the process that creates it.

Tim April 5, 2010 at 10:09 am

I have some friends who often have very negative, critical senses of humor. They make a joke and I can’t help but laugh my ass off sometimes, but they do realize how negative they are; sometimes even getting tired of it and wanting it changed. I love ‘em.

Do you think Mr. Bowen could’ve been relying on the fact that actions are so powerful? Rather than just trying to fix with thoughts, fix with exactly the opposite?

David April 5, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Actions are powerful, and the 21-day challenge does create a powerful result (depending on your habits to begin with) but I doubt it is the best method for addressing the negative thought patterns that create the negative remarks.

Burak March 14, 2013 at 5:58 am

I guess as you pointed out, it only helps remove the symptom -not the disease/virus itself. And IMHO, the root cause of all negativity (and also all other kinds of moods) is the perspective* and the intention one has towards everything & towards every happening.

Furthermore, maybe even without practicing a diet on -let’s say- complaining-self, you start removing all the complaining and other types of negativity by just changing your perspective and intention (of course, I don’t mean at all that action-oriented cure do not play an important role in it).

* I don’t know if perspective is the right word to use here but it is the most suitable word that I know among English words. By perspective, I literally mean ‘how one sees the world’. For instance, if you feel sick, and go to hospital, and see a lot of sick people around, your perspective starts shaping the world for you as if the sickness is a main theme of it.

Kat April 5, 2010 at 10:23 am

I’m happy you’ve realized what you did, but what I don’t get is how you didn’t see the value in venting before. Surely you didn’t think someone could get through a particularly tough period with all of those negative thoughts just bottled up inside. While it may be possible to get rid of or prevent these thoughts, doing so would, in my opinion, be avoiding a natural, healthy part of the human condition. I applaud those who are able to let go of negativity, but at the same time I can’t imagine ever forming a social bond with that kind of person. If this is what it took for you to realize that not all negative thoughts or expressions should be immediately banished, you have read way too many self-help books or listened to too many motivational speakers. Sometimes, we must not only express our negative thoughts, but also -listen- to them, because occasionally, they may actually be the truth.

David April 5, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Well I still don’t see much value in venting. I think so much has been made of the myth that venting is necessarily healthy behavior, when really it’s just an excuse to be a jerk. The one time I did vent, it was one of the most difficult weeks I’ve had in years, and it only was helpful because it created a catharsis — I realized a certain course of action wasn’t working. I am still not so sure it was the complaint itself that did it, or the heart-to-heart conversation in which it happened.

I still think venting is helpful only on rare occasions, and a lot of people use the “venting is healthy” pretense as an excuse for spreading their misery around.

I think you misunderstood the experiment. I never attempted to banish negative thoughts, only to refrain from aimless negative speech. I certainly do not ignore my negative thoughts, nor recommend that to anyone. But that does not mean it is often helpful to complain.

Tatiana April 5, 2010 at 11:44 am

I think it’s funny how you understood that talking through a problem is often the best way to bring it out. I don’t want to generalize, but I find that women especially, learn a great deal by simply verbalizing our thoughts. It’s why we sometimes talk more than men, cause you learn by talking. I’ve often stumbled on a profound insight not by meditating but by venting. I guess I’m agreeing with the fact that not complaining might seem like a great thing to do, but is a bandaid approach in the long term.
.-= Tatiana´s last blog ..The passage of time =-.

David April 5, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Hi Tatiana. Talking does not have to include complaining. There is nothing wrong with verbalizing thoughts. This is experiment was meant to banish the habit of senseless verbal negativity, and it did. My only beef is with the book’s assertion that internal complaints will cease too.

DiscoveredJoys April 6, 2010 at 5:12 am

Hi! An interesting post.

I’ve known people who lived terribly miserable and lonely lives because of their negativity (“It always happens to me”, “I never have good luck”, “Whatever I try will go wrong”, “No-one appreciates me”) – so the post struck home.

I do wonder if the ‘inner negativity’ might have become lessened if you had kept going with the experiment? Although there is a lot of rubbish talked about the time needed to set up new habits and reduce old ones, most people generally agree that a new habit takes around 21 days to form (ta da!), but takes another 40 – 50 days to become relatively unshakable and old habits die. Perhaps if you had continued for longer (without significant relapse) your internal complaints would have eased too? Perhaps that could be experiment 5a?

In any event, well done.

David April 6, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Thanks DJ.

You may be right, but I should point out that the experiment was a lot longer than 21 days. It was a strict habit for 55 days, and before that I did it “off the record” for four months. I am not so sure that more time doing the same thing for longer would have a much better effect. In any case, there are more efficient ways to tend to negative thinking patterns than this experiment, IMHO.

I should also clarify something: there isn’t a lot of negativity going on in my head anyway, but I did happen to have a difficult week during the experiment.

I am glad I did it but I won’t do this experiment again. I have a general policy of not complaining anyway, so essentially I am continuing, just without counting streaks and without strict definitions.

Joy April 6, 2010 at 9:14 am

Wow.
I agree that if you wish to transform your inner words, thoughts, energy then methods such as meditation are most helpful. Just because you don’t externally express them, or you learn to control your external expression, doesn’t mean the base of it is not there.
As far as complaining, in general most complaints are derogatory in some fashion, and negative energy spreads even if it’s just a quick little jab that takes a few seconds. That can richochet throughout an entire group throughout the entire day. Much like a well placed smile can spread infectious joy, a jab can spread discontent. Having said that, I do know others can choose not to accept discontent, but then if everyone around you is discontented that force is a bit harder to deflect.
I smile at the the bracelet method. While reading this, I realize I have a habit that annoys me that I’d like to break so I’m going to try this method.
.-= Joy´s last blog ..Raw and tender…. =-.

David April 6, 2010 at 3:38 pm

The bracelet method is a good one and I’ll also be using it to tackle other mildly compulsive behavior.

Andrea Owen April 6, 2010 at 9:47 am

David- this is so interesting. I’ve heard of the bracelet method; a girl I met was doing it regarding gossip and complaining.
My first thought was, “I want to do this!” My second thought was, “Yeah, right. I have a 2 year old and a 6 month old. There is no way on EARTH I can do this. The task would take me 18 years, not 6 months”.
Who knows….great post though.
.-= Andrea Owen´s last blog ..The Easter Bunny meets Cesarean Awareness =-.

David April 6, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Hehe… the 18 years will go by anyway :)

Drew Tkac April 6, 2010 at 7:32 pm

I think venting your complaints is allot like farting, everyone needs to do it or they will explode, just don’t do it around other people. Excuse my gross reference but I thought it would be funny.

I often get caught up in circles of dissatisfied thoughts that echo around in my brain, for long periods of time. The thoughts never get formulated and consequently stay in an embryonic form, forever, and the dissatisfaction remains.

I think a more constructive method is to write your complaints down. Form them into lucid, complete thoughts. When the same dissatisfied thoughts happen again, write them down again. Eventually you will get tired of trying to find different ways of expressing the same old problem.

For complaints that are more complicated and have a much deeper, and unapparent root, writing each manifestation will assist in finding the base of the problem, whereas keeping the thought unformulated in your head, will not.

In either case keeping a complaint journal, for your eyes only, is essential in identifying, analyzing and subsequently purging the unhappy thoughts. Eventually the source of the complaints may go away and you can get on living.

I have worked through many problem by writing songs about my complaints and internal conflicts. I think Bob Dylan said that the world has plenty of songs right now to last forever, except for songs about internal conflicts of the heart.

I am a big believer that nothing should be kept pent up inside, just be careful to vent it properly, just like farts.

David April 6, 2010 at 9:17 pm

I agree.

The nature of most of the internal complaints I experienced were not of the “standing grievance with the world” sort, but just very short-term, reactive kind, like “Why does this guy have to walk so slowly in front of me?” So there was nothing pent-up really. That reactivity, IMO, is best worked on at the internal level, by practicing acceptance through meditation. Once the mind reacts, the emotions have already been jarred and the suffering (however slight) has already occurred. Choosing not to vocalize that suffering is just mitigating one of the side-effects of reactivity. Totally worthwhile, but it only solves a fraction of the problem, as I see it.

Drew Tkac April 6, 2010 at 10:33 pm

One could make a case that even the “little” annoyances in life represent some deeper issue. Some people are not annoyed the least from slow walkers while others get agitated. What is beneath the surface of those that get chronically annoyed by slow walkers and is that worth exploring?

I would think that only when “small” irritations are regarded as a problem, and that a change is desired, should further exploration be undertaken. Otherwise just shut up about it!

Tom K April 7, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Try this experiment: complain intentionally, but insincerely, i.e., pretend to complain; make outward show/expression but without an authentic internal negative emotion, no internal dissatisfaction with the apparent circumstance whined about. If you do it right, nobody but you knows you’re doing it and you’ll make some interesting discoveries…

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) April 8, 2010 at 7:24 am

Tom K~ then I’m watching others, not myself and I am violating their trust. I’d be a player.
.-= Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor)´s last blog ..Invest in Ethics for your Research Proposal =-.

David April 9, 2010 at 1:35 am

That idea really intrigues me…

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) April 8, 2010 at 7:22 am

I think what you said about intention is very important~

are you complaining to vent? (which is healthy and as you said gets stuff out there where it can be fully realised and then worked through);
to passively-aggressively target another?;
doing it unconsciously because your unhappy about something else and life in its entirety becomes a drudge?;
to fit in? (there is a game people play called let’s all complain about a certain issue/person and if you don’t play you are so not on the same wavelength and can piss the others off)
etc

Methink you sometimes underestimate the hairline shifts in psych~ the slightest fissure only is needed to make room for a wedge. A certain journal makes a great chisel ~:-)
.-= Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor)´s last blog ..Invest in Ethics for your Research Proposal =-.

David April 9, 2010 at 1:42 am

Well I seldom do complain. When I complained during my experiment, it was only to express frustration — to convince myself and hopefully somebody else that external forces are responsible for my unpleasant state of mind.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) April 9, 2010 at 5:42 am

Hi David~ actually, I was using the rhetorical you; perhaps we would have better said what I wanted to say.

I complain because I’m frustrated that I’ve let myself think external forces are responsible ~:-)

randooom April 8, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Hi, interesting post and nice experiment!

What is experiment nr. 6?

I would like to see a 40 days vegan trial, because that is something I want to start for myself.

Anyway, nice website and many greetings from germany :)

David April 9, 2010 at 1:45 am

Hi randoom.

I’m not sure what experiment 6 will be, but it will be coming up soon. I have a couple of ideas.

I will eventually do a vegan experiment but that one will take a lot of legwork. I’d have to learn enough vegan recipes to keep myself fed, and at the moment I’m living in a hostel with very little money.

I might do a vegetarian experiment, but that might not be enough of a leap. I rarely eat meat as it is. There are a lot of different diet-related experiments to try though.

Brenda (betaphi) April 8, 2010 at 3:49 pm

I’d wondered what became of your experiment. I love that you don’t just write off the top of your head but from visceral experience as well. I know a woman who vents constantly. After she’s totally ruined your good mood, she’ll say, “I don’t believe in holding everything in like you do.” I’d like to dump her for constantly dumping on me, but I can’t. She’s my mother, and she’s taught me how to choose the gripe fast over the gripe fest.
.-= Brenda (betaphi)´s last blog ..The Easter Flower =-.

David April 9, 2010 at 1:55 am

Hi Brenda.

Good on you for evolving past the previous generation ;)

What was your mother’s mother like?

Brenda (betaphi) April 9, 2010 at 5:55 pm

grouchy! :) Are we gossiping here?
.-= Brenda (betaphi)´s last blog ..Little Black Boy =-.

Dr. G April 10, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Respect, David!
You have set yourself a true challenge and gained some valuable insights. I have not read Will Bowen’s book (not yet!), but immediately I felt reminded of Don Miguel Ruiz’s “The Four Agreements”, which I just read. The first agreement is “Be impeccable with your word.” As a consequence, Ruiz says “gossip is black magic at its very worst because it is pure poison.”
Well, it sounds a bit esoteric if you see this sentence in isolation (so I really recommend reading the book), but anyway we can agree that avoiding gossip will make this world a little better…

David April 10, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Hi Dr. G,

I have read The Four Agreements and I think “Be impeccable with your word” is a better directive than “don’t complain.” It is a positive intention, rather than a negative one. I had forgotten about that line but I’ll keep it in mind today.

Dr. G April 10, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Looks like your bookshelf is quite complete then ;-)
Hmmm… I feel inspired to write 4 blog posts about the four agreements now…!
Have a great day,
Gerrit

Cheers March 20, 2013 at 4:47 pm

http://www.quotesandpoem.com/quotes/showquotes/tv/cheers/158769

Woody: I don’t know, Dr. Crane. Haven’t you ever thought that it’s kind of tough on them – doing all that counseling stuff? I mean I was raised to believe that if you have a problem, you lock it away in a secret place. You keep it bottled up good and tight. And if it gets full in there, you just keep forcing the pain down and clamping it in.

Frasier: Good advice, Woody. Tick… tick… tick

skyfish October 17, 2013 at 6:42 am

I have been trying to combat internal and external negativity for a while now. Maybe half a year. I think I got it from a TED talk, I can’t remember. Maybe earlier. At one point I realized that cynicism (in others) were making me cynical, and I didn’t want a negative view of life, when I had always been an optimist before. I cut off contact with overly cynical/complaining people as much as possible. The damage has already been done, I am more cynical now, but I can block it by avoidance. I find the internal to change gradually to become less complaining/negative. When I find my thoughts forming dark clouds, I do what I can to force my thought pattern on to something more positive. For example, I am on the subway. I am being bothered by the other people on the subway. I am angry that a lady is chewing gum loudly, or a parent is not treating a child in a way I deem acceptable. Maybe I am juding people on their looks (something I really wish to not do). When I notice these thoughts, it is easy to simply listen to music, play a game, write or read, to force my thought pattern to focus on a more constructive problem rather than waste time being pessimistic. I download talks and infromation to my phone so I can learn new things offline. Simply erradicating the possible time spaces where my thoughts go dark, eliminates them completely. I can’t stop the thoughts from forming in such situations, but I can do something constructive in that time and improve myself in some way instead of dwelling and reinforcing it.

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