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.
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.
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.
Photo by David Boyle