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A complaint free attempt

December 28, 2009

I have so much work on my to-do list. And I’m tired. Bored. Cold. Annoyed.

A complaint rolls off my tongue like a Freudian slip. I don’t mean to, it just comes out. My life is good: I’m healthy and happy and optimistic. So why do I gripe?

I’m not alone. The average person complains about 15 to 30 times per day, at least according to Rev. Will Bowen. In his book turned non-profit organization “A Complaint Free World” Bowen encourages people to go 21 days without complaining – that’s how long it takes to form a new habit. Like smoking or biting your nails, complaining is a habit a lot of people have, including me.

Some situations warrant complaint, defined the expression of pain, grief or discontent, such as a pet dying or breaking an arm – but these do not occur daily. Bowen says that by complaining, people focus on what they do not want in their life, thereby attracting more discontent.  I’m not a constant complainer by any means. I’m an average, only-human complainer. But if the goal is to stop completely, then even my petty whines and grumbles are too much.

And so, one week ago I publically challenged myself to stop complaining. My sisters, roommates and friends laughed, gasped and shook their heads. “Why would I?” responded a co-worker when I invited him to join in. “I’m happier when I complain.”

I disagreed. I hypothesized this “Complaint Free World” far superior to its predecessor. It’s not a surprising claim; I’ve always known that complaints aren’t the healthiest or most rewarding coping mechanisms for anything. Like many an ambition though, it’s easier said than done.

Bowen tells his readers to wear a bracelet and to switch it from arm to arm after each complaint. The switch physically reminds people to start over in the 21-day goal.  Instead of the bracelet, I decided to write my complaints down in a notebook.

My first day, last Sunday, I complained seven times. Three occurred during a phone conversation with my serial-complainer friend from home. She complained about her boyfriend, the weather, her annoying roommate, her lack of a job. I shot back with how awful the thunderstorm here had been, how my roommate always left the kitchen a mess. After, I hung up the phone, looked at my notebook and I realized that this would be harder than I originally thought.

On Monday I complained about being hungry, the temperature in my room, a computer freezing. I only complained once on Tuesday, probably because I spent the whole day working in class. On Wednesday I regressed. In a lengthy tangent I moaned about how I should go work out, then made excuses that I was too tired, hadn’t slept enough the night before.

While monitoring my own dialogue, I began to notice how others in my life expressed negativity. I hear complaints breed in conversations of small talk, boredom and gossip. At the same time I understand that, especially in those moments, the less I complain the happier I feel. When I don’t acknowledge minor discomforts and negative observations, they don’t matter as much to me, and go away faster.

By the end of the week, I started phrasing my requests differently. Instead of complaining about my roommate slurping her tea, I politely asked her to stop. I learned to quiet down and just solve my problems. When cold, I grabbed a sweatshirt. When hungry, I opened the refrigerator.

Several times I started to complain, but caught myself, stifled my voice or altered my language just so that I didn’t have to rifle through my bag for my complaints notebook and a pen.

A week has passed, and I have yet to go an entire day without grumbling. I see definite improvement, but in moments of passion, anger or disgust I still instinctively react through complaint. On his website Bowen says that it takes the average person four to 10 months to go the 21 consecutive complaint free days.

I know that if I really want to go all the way, it’ll take time. It’s worth it.

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