I left the phone store yesterday and almost burst into tears. (Really, Katie? There are wars, famine, global warming and you almost cried from not being able to get your phone fixed?!) Perhaps you recognize the scene – it was the third time I’d gone in for a quickie little thing and there was a 30 minute wait and none of the phone-holster toting cowboys wanted to help me just take care of one problem that was keeping me from getting my work done. And it was like the 18th thing like it that day. But basically, I was upset because I was at the mercy of things outside my control.
Well, it appears that it all comes back to the Control Freak issue, I am sad to announce… Damn it. Got me again.
I spent the last 2 weeks trying to go cold-turkey on complaining, and I have surmised it’s all about wanting things to be different from they are – which leads to suffering, as any good Buddhist will tell you. Or, your spouse might tell you, if you’re lucky enough to have someone who recognizes your issues faster than you do. Lucky me. Actually, joking aside, I do mean that: lucky me. And, actually, a dose of “lucky me” gratitude is just what the self-help doctor usually orders to combat complaining. But affirmations and gratitude lists don’t always work, do they? So, when we need something more, what does work?
I am reading a wonderful book called The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living, by Dr. Russ Harris, M.D., right now and the premise is that we don’t need to actually change anything or do endless positive reframe, but rather we need to learn to sit with the way things are and make enough space around them to see what’s really going on without immediately jumping to change them. Annoyed by the long line? Kids being disrespectful? World falling to pieces? It’s our STORY about how things are that needs to be examined and perhaps altered, not necessary the things themselves. (Change the stories: long line allows me to slow down. Disrespectful kids, come to think of it, might be fabulously self-confident kids who are going to grow up to change the status quo. World falling to pieces… Is it? What does that even mean?) That isn’t to say don’t try to change the world for the better, of course. Quite the contrary. And one way to do that is to become someone who calmly glides through the world with a nice big wide perspective while being mindful of your stories. Now no one has ever accused me of calmly gliding around. Big enthusiastic waves of passion and energy? Yes. But gliding? I could use more.
So, my son and I decided to do the no-complaining/no-whining practice together… for a day at least. But being 8 he needed an incentive. Why do something for free when you can weasel some x-box time out of it, we always say. Well, we really sucked at not complaining. I spent most of the last week with a heightened mindful awareness of how I can’t get him to do what I want him to do and he, of course, picking up on that, complained even more. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that once you start a mindfulness practice, things start to shift.
The main thing I discovered is that complaining is an expression of feeling powerless. When we feel powerful or know what to do to remedy a situation, we don’t complain, or not in the same way. Maybe we say, “Yes, I really need to step it up at work and get that damn grant written,” but when we feel powerless we say, “This grant application is too long and they didn’t give us enough time!” We complain and blame. So how do we take back power? First, we have to take responsibility for our situation, even if it truly isn’t our fault and by that I meant take responsibility for how we feel about it and how we handle the challenge. So that is what we’re going to work on this week in my little household.
I received some interesting emails about this. I’d love to respond to the one from “Kerrycharacters,” who by the way is a good writer and you can check out her blog here. Kerry wrote to me about using mindful behavior modification techniques like snapping a rubber band on your wrist each time you complain. Go ahead and try it to see how it feels and works for you – but snap lightly please! We don’t want to make this another self-hating activity where we get to beat ourselves up like the Ego wants us to do! I was too wimpy for the snap so instead I switch the wrist that the hair band is on, as suggested by Will Bowen in Complaint-Free Relationships. Switching wrists constantly is a pain in the butt and makes me pay more attention. So here is a summary of the bits and pieces I’m practicing this week and would love to hear what you all notice from these practices. Have fun!
o Notice what your story is about the way things are.
o Notice when you feel powerless to change things.
o Does complaining help or harm?
o When you do take action to bring about positive change in the world, are you effective? Could you be more effective coming at it a different way?
o Take a look also at Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, another good book on the subject, by a Zen Buddhist psychoanalyst, Barry Magrid.
o Try a practice that helps you mind fully and kindly notice when you are complaining, blaming, believing your stories – such as the wristband/watch/hair tie switching practice.
o Write in and tell us what you’ve noticed and learned!