Why To Stop Complaining

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This blog posts contains excerpts from my new book, Own Your Self, now available for pre-order.

What happens when you get the thing you wanted?

We all know the answer…your attention moves, like a roving lighthouse, to find the next thing as of yet unattained. Rinse and repeat.

When I made a major move in my life in a grand effort to consciously construct my adult identity in the aftermath of a decimating spiritual awakening, I was given an important opportunity…an opportunity to look at the fact that there’s no amount of fixing the outside that makes the inside ok. Turns out it wasn’t New York City that was making me a neurotically driven workaholic productivity addict. That was all an inside job.

Somehow, in the wake of my relocation, I spent the first three months focusing on what still wasn’t quite right in the grand scheme of my life despite the glaciers and boulders I had moved (and watched move) to get to this place. I focused on what cords were still hanging on. Who needed to still move. What needed to fit in place that wasn’t quite there. It was a list I perseverated on like the CEO of an unprofitable company.

Had enough of your own negativity yet?

And then, I’d had enough. Enough of my scarcity mentality. My negativity. And, honestly, enough of not being able to feel all that was right. And the perfection of all things I’d come to appreciate through my incredibly intricate and impossible to foresee process of dissolution and rebuilding.

From one perspective, problem-solving is a masculine energy. Receiving and feeling is a feminine energy. When one is dominant, the other is quiet. When you are in your head, you’re not in your heart. There’s a time for each.

I wanted to feel, so I knew I had to reign in my mind.

I committed to one month of no complaining.

By complaining, I meant, focusing on perceived problems (what could go wrong, what went wrong, and what is wrong) and what still needed to change in order for me to feel ok. Focusing on lack. On what’s not to my liking. What I’m trying to make happen still. I meant, all of the ways I was experiencing myself as being victimized by people, circumstances, and life. Basically, my first world problems…I’d committed to not telling my Victim Stories to anyone.

What came up with this commitment was interesting:

First, I thought that I would become less interesting to others. Truly. I thought, no one wants to hear “everything is abundant and magical” in response to “What’s up?”. And I was able to look at how I might have been using complaining as a social currency.

Second, I further realized that the particular social currency I was employing was that of smalling myself in order to make others feel unthreatened and comfortable. I noted that when I was speaking to someone new I had just met, it wasn’t five minutes before I was weaving in the tragicommedy of a house I’ve had on the market for 5 years without sale. I was communicating to him, unconsciously, I have problems so don’t be put off by the impression that I am too amazing.

Which lead me, thirdly, to see that we all do this. We commiserate – we suffer together – because it makes us feel more connected. Why do we do this? We do this because we don’t otherwise feel connected. We don’t wake up to 40 sets of eyes every morning in a tribal bath of unconditional love and support. We don’t know who our people are. We are desperate to connect, feel seen, feel loved (queue social media!).

Fourthly, we don’t feel worthy. All of us, in our early years, were messaged on a major or minor occasion, that we are inadequate. Our entire sense of self, all of the habits, patterns, and programs of our personalities are in response to this primal wound. So we need a lot of help learning how to simply receive. How to allow what is wonderful and fulfilling to actually penetrate us.

I use the 17 second rule: anytime something exciting happens, I close my eyes for 17 seconds and set off emotional fireworks to program my attention around the fact that it actually happened without moving onto the next thing that hasn’t yet happened. And I also try to say thank you when someone compliments me (instead of oh, this? I got it on the sale rack at Rainbow!).

But why are we this negative?

One theory is that we focus on problems because of a neuroplastic phenomenon called negativity bias wherein our brain’s level of activity increases asymmetrically – more with negative information than positive.1 Some researchers have found that this skewing is apparent before we are even a year old.2 And others, that there is a particular kind of negativity that reinforces the habit of negativity, and that it is a particular kind of brooding (versus self-reflective) rumination.3

While the most common explanation for this tendency towards negativity is Darwinian in its suggestion that a focus on badness has helped us, evolutionarily, to avoid further badness, I believe that we are moving beyond the survivalist lens of interpreting the human experience. I think that one of the drivers behind negativity bias is our uniquely Western discomfort with discomfort. If you have traveled to India or Africa where the people have little to be objectively pleased about, you may be shocked to find a surplus of everyday joy, generosity, and gratitude.

Related to eudaimonism, these people may experience the fulfillment of meaning and purpose in their community-based lives versus the positive emotional experience of hedonism or self-gratification. Research has even suggested that, relative to getting what you want, eudamonic happiness is associated with anti-inflammatory gene expression.4

Could our negativity reflect a desire to feel whole?

We first worlders are feeling the pain of what is missing…in fact, one of the etymological roots of complain is grieve. We feel, even if unconsciously, that communitya connection to the earth, and intergenerational wisdom are undergoing extinction. We have gaping wounds that we are stuffing with secondary satisfactions. It’s like starving and eating cheetos. It feels good for a minute but doesn’t solve the problem of malnutrition.

So we are wanting for more all the time, thinking that what we get – house, job, lover, money – will still the whirring ache within, only to find that it doesn’t. So, it makes sense that we would be striving, ever striving to fix the problem which requires focusing on the problem.

So, how to stop this cycle? How to simply be? How to feel what is rather than what isn’t?

Surprisingly, I believe it has something to do with expanding our comfort zone to include challenging emotions like sadness, grief, and anguish. It has to do with being ok with all that isn’t ok, so that it is stripped of its negative power, neutralized into a complex landscape made of many hues of emotional valence. According to one compelling study,5 we find happiness when we have the capacity to feel what we deem is “right” to feel rather than what is good. It’s as if we know we are meant to feel it all, and want to actually have that experience rather than feeling suppressed or contracted when all is fundamentally well, or numb when we feeling sad would make the most emotional sense.

Increase your negative capability

This expanded experience of comfort with discomfort…with confusion…with disorientation…with not knowing, is not a new concept. Called negative capability, the poet John Keats coined this term in 1817, writing “I mean Negative Capability, that is when Man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.”6

What this artist perceived, hundreds of years ago, is that true vision requires embracing paradox and uncertainty. I would suggest that felt happiness and fulfillment requires that we stop seeking the magic pill and final quick fix, but instead embrace nuance and meaning – what could be the message behind that fender bender that’s going to set you back $1200? Is there a reason that every apartment rental deal is falling through?

I derive profound solace from the exploration of right timing and purposeful design in this human experience. If we can translate our mess into meaning, then we can better liberate ourselves to actually feel the mess rather than simply bypass or fix it. This is not the same as being happy about things your mind is telling you are wrong. It’s not a whitewashing. It’s allowing the bass tones to coexist in the symphony of treble notes. In this way, we can better embrace seeming negative emotions as part of a larger process. In fact, a 1300 person study7 revealed that accepting negative emotions rather than suppressing, fighting, or otherwise papering over them lead to the experience of fewer negative emotions!

In sum, if we make more room for feeling bad, we will think less bad because feeling bad will be less of a problem that grabs our roving lighthouse lantern!

In order to honor the complex and nuanced feelings beneath my complaints and problem-focus, I have taken from my month of complaint fasting, a commitment to consciously mine my complaints for the feeling beneath the grievance and to work to connect and express that rather than the gripe itself. I suspect that when we stop fighting what we are feeling – scared, alone, abandoned, angry – we will spend less time focusing on what’s wrong in our lives that needs fixing. Only through this portal of acceptance will we have the opportunity to finally drop into the vast ok-ness of it all.

Interested in more insights and tools to help you Own Your Self?

My brand new book, Own Your Self, helps you discover the meaning behind your symptoms and your struggle as a way to reclaim your health and your Self. Click below to claim your copy and an exclusive bonus!

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More