How to Stop Complaining: An Action Plan to Happiness

Have you ever had a friend or co-worker fill the air with complaints? Do you catch yourself complaining too much? Or has negative thinking become a bad habit?

Life can feel like we're scrambling to escape an avalanche of demands and a series of endless to-do lists. And when we're stressed, it's easy to find fault or pinpoint what's wrong, but if we get in the habit of complaining, it starts to create a dark cloud around us and our lives. And did you know that complaints wire our brains to favor negativity and negative self-talk, which then increases the likelihood of more of the same?

A complaining brain creates negativityOne of the most common ways we handle stress or release our feelings of overwhelm and discouragement is through complaining. We've all given into it at one time or another. However, have you ever known it to help anything? Nope. It usually makes you feel worse, doesn't it?

The more we complain, the easier it becomes. Why? Because the brain loves efficiency and whatever we practice consistently, the brain has plasticity and will build new neural pathways to increase efficiency. So the more we collect negative things to complain about, the better the brain gets at spotting them. Then, the better we are at identifying things that go wrong, the more we gravitate to complaining about them. Hmm. The good news is that we can direct our thoughts more positively through self-awareness and self-management.

Why not utilize the plasticity of the brain to create healthy habits?

Science shows that the brain wires itself according to where we put our attention and how consistently and intensely. Dr. Daniel Siegel even refers to attention "as the scalpel that helps us remold neural pathways" in his book on interpersonal neurobiology. Imagine if our attention is continually finding what's negative or wrong how that might lead to more negativity.

Most of us don't like to think of ourselves as complainers. We may look at our complaints as a necessary way to blow off steam. However, often there is an underground kettle of colliding, conflicting feelings inside us that we're avoiding. If we can't take a breather or we feel bogged down by life's demands, is it any wonder that we find comfort or at least relief through complaining?

Don't Just Stop Complaining—Leverage Your Complaints!

Identifying the underlying emotions we're avoiding is important, but that's only a partial step to remedy complaining. The goal is not to just stop complaining. A more powerful intention is to leverage our complaints so that we harvest our "inner gold"!

The term "inner gold" was coined by Robert Johnson in an insightful little book by that name. I'll let him explain in his own words:

When we awaken to a new possibility in our lives, we often see it first in another person. A part of us that has been hidden is about to emerge, but it doesn't go in a straight line from our unconscious to becoming conscious. We project our gold onto someone. When we observe the things we attribute to the other person, we see our own depth and meaning.

Complaining can be a way to harvest our gold if we listen for the clues hidden in our complaints. When we are unhappy with a situation or person, our unhappiness can clue us into what is hidden but not yet claimed.

For a step-by-step process to convert complaints to closeness in a relationship, read "Relationship Rescue: Turn Complaints to Closeness."

A young woman complaining to her husband

Mirror, mirror on the wall:  "What are my complaints mirroring back to me?"

For instance, we may hear ourselves complaining about being too busy; that may be a clue that we need more time to relax and rejuvenate. Or maybe we complain about a co-worker or spouse because they're "fanatic about working out at the gym" or go on regular weekend adventures. Hmm… could it be that we need to schedule some exercise or adventure for ourselves?

Another example: we nag our teenager about being "lazy" when we simply want and need more help or rest ourselves. Or that rebellious teenager triggers us and is reflecting for us our hidden gold—that we need to stop being a people pleaser!

Ever complain about your spouse not spending enough time with you. Bingo! Is it possible that it could be a sign that you need a more active, independent social life, or that you might need to learn to enjoy alone time, or you're missing that special date night that used to be regular before the kids came along. What is your mirror telling you?

To increase self-awareness and learn tools for a happier life, see our online courses.

Yes, teach me emotional intelligence!

Are You Avoiding Happiness?

Complaining gives us the illusion that we are taking action to meet our needs and desires by talking. However, when we're too busy grumbling, we can miss an opportunity to grow. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are handling our problems by venting or speaking what's on our mind. But complaining is a venting ritual, and many times it becomes an inverted form of blaming others without ever claiming the gold within our complaint.

When we convert complaining to blaming, it most often means that we're not taking responsibility for our feelings, needs, goals, and values. We're not taking enough action (or BEing time) to be happy—we're just spinning our wheels by rehearsing a complaint that rarely bears fruit, other than momentary relief. Instead of listening to what we need to do to regain our center or move forward in an effective way, we use complaining to blow off steam without ever changing, solving a problem or meeting our need. We may feel better temporarily, but we end up right back where we started. Unhappy. Discontented. Unfulfilled.

Listen to the Wisdom Driving Your Behavior

On the path of growth and transformation, one of the most powerful keys is not to try to stop doing anything but rather to listen to the wisdom driving our behavior. Complaining can be a fantastic cue to us, a signal that it's time to be an advocate on our own behalf.

Once we stop deceiving ourselves that complaining helps, we can raise self-awareness and catch ourselves red-handed in a complaint.  Then we can use our criticism or discontent as a springboard to renew ourselves and up-level our feelings and our happiness. From this perspective, complaining aids us on our journey rather than being something we try to eliminate. And when we make what's important to us a daily habit, there will be no need to complain.

A happy customer service agent

An Action Plan to Change Complaining to Mindfulness

This new mindfulness and commitment to listen becomes a great tool to awaken you to your desires and needs. When you harvest the gold of your complaints, you will become happier and more resilient in your life and relationships. Once you realize just how powerful a new mindset or perception is, you can change almost anything. So, the next time you hear yourself complain about something—big or small—pause and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a feeling I am avoiding?
  • Is there a conflict I need to resolve?
  • What do I want and need right now?
  • What action(s) do I need to take to feel better (happier, empowered, fulfilled, etc.)?

By asking these simple questions, you can easily transform your grumbles into greater meaning and fulfillment. When we stop for a minute and get curious about what is fueling our complaints, we are empowered to take action that truly leads to a more authentic life.

If you would like to explore emotional awareness more thoroughly, learn some skills to transform unproductive thoughts and emotions, and cash in your inner gold for a lot more ease and happiness, explore our online store for self-awareness tools.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer’s passion is to help people create thriving relationships first with themselves and then with each other. She teaches emotional intelligence skills and a step-by-step process that removes the obstacles to growth, loving connection, and communication. Her popular One Year Makeover and Return to Serenity programs provide a personalized approach to transformation. Her understanding of brain science strategically reshapes a person’s pain into power while restoring inner peace and well-being through a fun and remarkable learning experience. She also works with companies helping to promote organizational transformation of culture, leadership, and relationships. Jennifer is happily married to her beloved husband of 40 years and is the mother of three grown children.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence & Fitness