Still you are indignant and complain, and you don’t understand that in all the evils to which you refer, there is really only one – that you are indignant and complain.Seneca, Epistles 96.1
There is so much to complain about.
Even aside from big issues like pandemics, lockdowns, injustices, and inequality, there are the everyday things; bills, traffic, weather, customer service, queues, slow wi-fi, work, a rude person, an annoying person, and some days, any person.
All it takes is one complaint to upset our peace of mind. We become disturbed. One complaint in the morning becomes two, two becomes three, and before we know it we have a day filled with many problems and few solutions.
Every external at some point can be seen as a source of complaint. The wording here is key: can be seen. The implication being that we have a choice. And we do.
As Seneca pointed out in his essay, On Anger, our choice to complain can be fickle:
These same eyes of yours – which at home won’t even tolerate marble unless it is varied and recently polished . . . which don’t want limestone on the floor unless the tiles are more precious than gold – once outside, those same eyes look calmly at the rough and muddy pathways and the filthy people they mostly meet, and at the walls of the tenement houses that are crumbled, cracked, and crooked. What is it, then, that doesn’t offend your eyes in public but upsets them at home – other than your opinion, which in the one place is easygoing and tolerant, but at home is critical and always complaining?
We have power over our opinion. It might feel like instinct, but we make a conscious choice when we complain. It might feel cathartic, but really it’s reinforcing negativity.
Epictetus put it in stark terms. Those complaining about externals, he said, are slaves. As a former slave himself, he was in a good position to judge, and he was dismayed that people would voluntarily allow themselves to be beholden to externals.
As bad as it gets, we always have the choice.
So, what can we do to help us exercise that choice? How can we fight the emotional impulse to complain? How can we process events in a more constructive way?
This exercise takes the form of a challenge, but it’s worth getting into the right frame of mind first with some useful preparation. Here are three steps to consider when the impulse to complain strikes:
“Don’t be overheard complaining. Not even to yourself.” – Marcus Aurelius
Stop what you’re doing. Pause and create space. Space between the event and your response. Breathe. Give yourself time to consider what you do next.
- Assess the event for what it is
“How good these perceptions are at getting to the heart of the real thing and penetrating through it, so you can see it for what it is!” – Marcus Aurelius
Remove all drama from the event. Remove the story you tell yourself about it, remove your judgment. Look at it through the objective lens of reality. See it for what is – neither good nor bad without your judgment telling you so.
- Reframe your response in a more constructive way
“Be assured that good men should act likewise; they should not shrink from hardships and difficulties, nor complain against fate; we should make the best of whatever happens and turn it to good.” – Seneca the Younger
After pausing, after assessing the event in the most objective way, you can now apply an appropriate response. The negative option is to complain. The neutral option is not to respond at all; not everything requires our opinion Marcus Aurelius wrote. The positive option is to be constructive – rather than simply complain, instead describe the problem and then offer ideas on how to solve it.
With the preparation complete, we can move on to the challenge.
The challenge is borrowed from Will Bowen’s Complaint Free® challenge.
It involves wearing a bracelet (you don’t have to buy one, you could use a rubber band) and trying to go without complaining for 21 days.
Here is the full set of instructions:
- Put your bracelet on either wrist – you are now on Day 1 of your 21 Day journey
- When you complain, move the bracelet to the other wrist. You’re now starting over; you’re back on Day 1.
- The average person takes 4 – 8 months to complete the 21-Day challenge. But stick with it! Just remember, you can’t complain your way to health, happiness, and success.
It’s a straightforward but effective challenge. The key to breaking a habit is noticing when it’s happening, and moving the bracelet will help with that.
You can also set up some reminders for yourself:
If you try this challenge, feel free to share your thoughts about it on social media:
Think often about how quickly everything that exists, and that is coming into being, is carried away and disappears. For substance is like a river that constantly flows on: the action is constantly changing, and the causes of it operate in endless variations; almost nothing is fixed. And next to us is the boundless abyss of what has passed by and what is about to be, into which all things are lost. How then is he not a fool, who gets worked up and carried away over these things, complaining as if they were enduring and troublesome?Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.23