Experiment Log No. 5 – The End of Negativity
This experiment is an exercise in ceasing to express negativity, such as complaining, pointless criticism, and gossip. These bad habits detract from quality of life and reinforce blame, self-pity and resentment. [Read the original post.]
Here is the method:
1) Wear a silicone bracelet on either wrist.
2) If I did not complain at all yesterday, I go on to the next day. After day zero is day one, then day two, and so on.
3) Whenever I catch myself complaining, criticizing, or gossiping, I will switch the bracelet to the other wrist and begin again at day zero.
4) When I’ve completed my 21st day, I can stop using the bracelet and the experiment is over.
As you can see, that means there is no set time limit for this experiment. It may take months, but I will get there. If you would like to do the experiment with me, feel free to update us with your progress in the comments.
The goals are:
- To eliminate the habit of negativity and griping
- To see if the bracelet method works well as a habit-change device
The Experiment Log
This experiment commenced on schedule Monday, February 8, 2010.
Tuesday, February 9
Well yesterday went by and I didn’t complain! There were a few close calls, and it is possible I overlooked a minor gripe, but I really don’t think so. Have to hop on the train now, more later.
Wednesday, February 11
I am about to end day 3 (it’s 8pm) and I have not yet complained. There have been quite a few instances when I’ve gotten a bit uptight but it has not yet precipitated an outright verbal complaint. I have been riding the line a bit, so naturally I’ve had to make some judgment calls.
Sometimes I find I am a bit annoyed at something and I make a remark that an astute observer would identify as a sign of annoyance, but still could not really describe it as a complaint or a disdainful remark. So as of yet I’m nearly three whole days in without incident but it has been close, or at least close to close, a few times.
I’ve been working on quelling the complaint reflex for quite some time now, long before this experiment, and it’s been paying off so far.
Instead of a bracelet, I have a stone I keep in my left pocket. I’ll switch it to the right when I complain (and vice-versa.) I bought it in Hokitika, New Zealand:
Sunday, February 14
Well it’s Sunday morning here in New Zealand, and I haven’t cracked yet. Six days down.
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 haven’t counted these reactions, because they serve more as clues for me to notice my own reactive state, rather than to communicate my negativity to someone else.
I’m learning that negativity is alive and well inside me, even if I don’t let it ‘leak.’ I have been unusually cranky this last week, primarily because I will have to stop traveling and (gulp) work for a while. Job searching has always been a sore spot with me; I associate it with some of the worst times in my life.
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 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.
My main criterion for defining a complaint is still “Is this the kind of behavior I’m trying to stop?” So my kiwi stone remains in the left pocket, where it started.
Tuesday, February 16
Had my first explicit complaint today.
I was taking pictures at the botanical gardens here in Hamilton. I couldn’t get my little Canon’s autofocus to co-operate, and I got frustrated. “God!” I muttered, just as a woman was walking past me. It was an absurd little complaint — railing against my momentary inability to get a nice closeup of a flower — but it counts. The remainder of today will be day zero and day one starts again tomorrow.
Eight full days was a nice streak to start with, and for a while I thought I may have already conquered my habit. But we’re back to square one.
Friday, February 19
Well I cracked again the next day. On Wednesday we had a difficult morning getting to our motel, and it was really humid, and I was really cranky. I made a snippy remark to someone and had to move my kiwi stone. Yesterday was clean, and now it’s Friday morning. So it’s day two again.
Sunday, February 21
I messed up again last night. It was fairly innocent, but definitely against the rules. I related an anecdote for the sole purpose of sharing a laugh about something (I heard) someone else did. That’s textbook gossip and today is Day One again.
Tuesday, February 23
Halfway through Day Three. I find I’m not really inclined to complain externally, mainly because I have nobody to complain to. Whining abound inside my head though this past 24 hours. Homesickness hit for the first time since I left home, and my head was abuzz with what I didn’t like about my current situation. I had a super-negative 24 hours, though a casual observer would never guess.
Seems to be a minor bump though; I’m fine today and my outlook has done a 180.
It is interesting though. I was at my most complainyest on a day where I didn’t record a single explicit complaint. It’s made me think a lot about how dramatic the differences can be between the appearance of a person’s internal world and external world. More on this phenomenon later.
Friday, February 26
These last few days have been easy because I’m not having a whole lot of interactions with people. I’m holed up in a small hostel, getting adjusted to Auckland and my job search campaign.
On Wednesday I did go out and did chat with people, and I did engage in speech that (in hindsight) could have been construed as criticism. I won’t get into specifics, but a group of people I was talking to were all in agreement about the common troubles a particular archetype of backpacker. I happened to agree with their assessment (though it was a negative one.) I was asked outright for my opinion, and gave it, but I suppose I could have weaseled out of doing so with some vague response, but it just didn’t seem right. It was technically a criticism, but it was made in the interest of rapport, so I wouldn’t call it needless. In any case, I’m not counting it because I don’t think it was particularly harmful and is not an example of behavior I’m trying to stop.
So it’s Day Six today.
Tuesday, March 2
Well I continue to cruise along. I haven’t been talking to many people these days, seeing as how I’m living in a city where I don’t really know anybody, so I haven’t even felt an urge to criticize or complain for a long while.
A recurring theme is that negativity can easily continue unabated internally even when it is not expressed with words. As I’ve mentioned (I think) I am in a job-searching phase, which has brought with it a lot of emotional volatility. Despite my complaintless status, I have had some really dark moods and thoughts in the last ten days.
I do feel like most of that is behind me though, as I’ve reached a few mini-epiphanies regarding outlook and expectations. My situation is still a bit shaky, but I’m not. At the moment :)
Friday, March 5
Today is Day Thirteen. I realize this last while has been rather easy for me, because I haven’t been speaking to many people. I don’t really know anyone here in this city, so all of my conversations are the short, polite kind you have with people you meet in hostels. I don’t have any relationships developed to the point where it’s appropriate to bring up complaints :)
I no longer complain aloud when I’m by myself, though I don’ t remember if I ever did that much.
I do feel like the explicit complaining impulse in me has really quieted down though. And it’s not that I’m instantly okay with everything, it’s just that I know complaining never really did any good. It just isn’t an attractive thing for me to do any more. Like I’ve mentioned, this is something I’ve been working on for months though, long before this experiment.
Monday, March 8
Day Sixteen. I could be at the end in five days.
Something about it remains unsatisfying though. I think most of it has to do with the fact that I’ve been practicing non-complaining for a while. I’d already broken the habit down quite a bit before I began, so there hasn’t been a dramatic difference in my behavior. Somebody who started this experiment in the midst of a full-fledged complaint habit would probably see much more profound changes in their behavior and thinking.
The other part is that 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.
Suffice it to say, complaining and criticizing is not my primary problem in life. My problem has a lot more to do with low expectations of myself, which is not something that is always spoken.
When I do reach Day 21, and I think it will be soon, I’ll get to work on an experiment that targets my biggest issues. Not that it hasn’t been worthwhile — it’s nice to discover that I had come a long way with non-complaining before even starting this experiment.
Wednesday, March 10
If you’re doing this experiment too, keep your guard up.
Friday, March 12
Yesterday was Day Zero again, and today is Day One. On Wednesday I had a conversation in which I expressed some of my current frustrations revolving around my job-search conundrum. Quite a few actually. I haven’t been having many conversations with people I really know recently, and I guess I really wanted an opportunity to say these things.
Without realizing what I was doing, a repressed part of me leaped on this chance when it arrived. I unloaded all my current grievances on the person who was kind enough to listen to me, without much in the way of positive spins or problem-solving ideas. It was Day Eighteen. I didn’t realize what I’d done until afterward.
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.
So this isn’t nearly over. Today is Day One.
Sunday, March 21
Whoops, it’s been a busy week and I haven’t left an update in a while.
I’ve been cruising through the last while. My awful job-search stagnation is over and I’m doing physical labour out in the kiwi orchards. Spirits are high.
Whether to engage in gossip or make a critical remark always comes down to a choice, and I have been able to see the choice in front of me before I open my mouth. In other words, it doesn’t happen automatically anymore, but I often still consider it, and probably would go ahead and say something if I wasn’t doing this experiment.
I will write up a major update on the blog soon, but for now I’ll say that 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 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.
Today is Day Nine.
Sunday, March 28
And now it’s Day Sixteen. Not much has changed. I still have an easy time not complaining, but I don’t feel like I’m doing anything incredible. I’ve been in high spirits these days, but negativity certainly still exists in me in all it’s wonderful forms: internal complaints, lamentations, mild contempt. I believe now that the book’s assertion that the inner dialogue follows suit so you don’t have to worry about it is a cop-out and the problems of reactivity and discontent are much deeper than just controlling what comes out of your mouth. Not to say this 21-day program is useless, not at all, but it isn’t a cure-all. I hope to be done in five days so I can be normal again. Not that I will complain a lot, but at this point it just feels a bit arbitrary to have a zero tolerance for external expressions of negativity when the internal ones are allowed to do what they like.
Tuesday, March 30
The end creeps closer. I haven’t been tempted to complain at all recently. Life is good, and even when it’s not I find the habit of explicit complaining is pretty much dead in me. I have other ways of venting frustration and drawing attention to my woes if I feel I need to.
I have a lot to say about this experiment, but I’ll save it for my final report, which — if I don’t make a horrific mistake — will be posted Monday, April 5.
Today is Day Eighteen.
Thursday, April 1
Day Twenty. The beat goes on.
Trying not to count my chickens.
Saturday, April 3
And it’s all over…
Another item off The List.
I learned a lot during this one, some of it quite unexpected. Final report coming next week.
Photo by frotzed