Complaining: How to Break the Habit

When complaining takes the form of “venting in search of a solution,” it can be a good thing. So can occasionally venting to get a problem or frustration out into the open and off our chest – especially to someone who knows and cares about us. It becomes an opening, a segue to exploring solutions and practical next steps. But often, complaining becomes a habit of mind and mouth, our “Debbie Downer” autopilot response to far too many things.  Or it might take the form of a “Competitive Cathy” can-you top-this storytelling. These types of complaining wear us down and, over time, turn people off.

It’s little wonder researchers found that happy people complain less; and when they do, they are strategicabout it. Their complaining is intended to serve a specific goal. I am all for following the wise lead of the happy people! But being human, we need more than awareness and effort; we need a few strategies. Consider these:

Manage your world – limit the time you spend with toxic complainers. This may sound harsh but remember that their negative energy can bring you down. If this person is a family member or a co-worker, you may need to invoke an alternative strategy: do your best to first empathize with their frustration, and then redirect the conversation elsewhere.

Catch yourself – start to pay attention to what triggers your “complain response” and if you go down that road, redirect yourself by pausing and regrouping. This is about making peace with the way things are in that particular moment, and yes, it’s a skill!  The better you get at it, the sooner you will catch yourself – ideally, even before the first words of complaint leave your lips. Then consider the next strategy.

Learn to “chill” and look for the good – when you find yourself in a situation that is likely to trigger your complaining, challenge yourself to look for something positive. If you are in line waiting for your turn at the service desk, use the opportunity to people-watch, to check your messages, to say something friendly to the person behind you. If the coffee place is out of your signature drink, instead of complaining –  which will change nothing – see it as an opportunity to try something new.

Choose to complain responsibly – I had a recent service “challenge” that stretched out over three months, filled with people and process issues galore. I tried hard to temper my emotional response and to focus on what I wanted and needed, instead of blaming and pointing fingers. By doing so, I was able to gain the cooperation of a couple of people on the vendor’s end, and together, we were able to eventually resolve the matter.

Always choose the type of person you want to be – When I find myself down that rabbit hole of complainer thinking or complainer speaking, I can be very hard on myself. I am trying to reel that back, accept that I am working on this, and remind myself to do better next time. Why? Because until my last breath, I am choosing and creating the human I want to be. That is inspiration enough!


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