Saturday, June 4, 2011

Complaint Free Challenge

“Oh man, I am sick of this rain.” “I didn’t sleep at all last night.” “I ate too much.” “What is wrong with my team?” “I can’t believe I have to work late again.” “That movie was a waste of money.”

One of the most common ways we judge is by complaining. Several times this week, I caught myself complaining when someone asked me how I was, or how my week was going. Why did I do that? Like many people, I often complain as a way of connecting with someone. For example, a common complaint in my area during this cool, rainy spring, is about the weather. Why do we often try to connect with each other by sharing our annoyances rather than by sharing our joys?

Complaining is a habit. It keeps us from our happy place by focusing on negatives. It invites others to join us in this negative place. We can change this habit. Will Bowen started a program called A Complaint Free World. Based on studies showing that it takes about 21 days to form a new habit, he encouraged his church congregation to replace the habit of complaining with the habit of being positive. Everyone wore a purple plastic bracelet as a visual reminder. Each time a person caught herself complaining, she would switch the bracelet to the other wrist. The goal was to go 21 days without complaining. (I would be happy to go 21 minutes!)

To change a habit, we must first be aware of it. Try to notice your complaint habits and their effect. When do you tend to complain? To whom? About what? How do you feel when you’re complaining? How do other people respond?

Once we become aware of our complaint habits, we need to substitute a more desirable habit. If you want a toddler to hand over some inappropriate but coveted object, what is the best approach? Yank it from his hand? Or offer him something more attractive? Our minds work the same way. If you simply try to stop the bad habit, it will flow back in to fill the void. Give your brain something better to do. Create a new habit.

When you catch yourself complaining, substitute a positive thought or comment. With practice, you will catch yourself just before you complain, and you can connect with others through positive comments instead. You will feel happier yourself, and you will lift up those around you. Misery might love company, but joy creates company. Good company. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired millions by describing his dream rather than by describing his pain. You can practice by thinking of common complaints and substituting positive comments. For example, instead of complaining about the rain, I could focus on the lush, green vegetation and the rainbow of flowers it produces. Or you can use a generic positive thought, like “Life is good.”

I took the complaint free challenge a couple of years ago, and I enjoyed the positive effects. I admit I never made it to 21 days, but I did significantly reduce my complaining ways, and developed a habit of positive thinking and interaction with others. Unfortunately, I have relapsed, perhaps not back to chronic complaining, but at least to more frequent complaining.

So I’m ready to take the challenge again. If you want to try it with me, find a visual reminder, something you can switch easily from wrist to wrist. When you catch yourself complaining, substitute a positive thought or comment, and move your visual reminder to the other wrist. You will not catch all your complaints, at least not at the beginning. And, if you are like most people, you’ll be switching your visual reminder frequently, at least for awhile.

This is not an invitation to find fault with yourself. If you catch yourself complaining and then criticize yourself for the lapse, that is two complaints! Give yourself a thumbs up for every complaint free period you have, however brief it is. When a nun complained to Father Keating that during her time of contemplative prayer, she had to refocus her wandering thoughts a thousand times, he opened his arms wide and exclaimed, “That’s wonderful! That is a thousand times you were connected to God!” Likewise, every complaint free period is a time spent being happier.

Maybe you can try it with your whole family, or with a group of friends. Relax and have fun. Remember – fun is good!


  1. So true, instead of complaining, we can focus on the good things happening in our lives. Complaning is certainly not a good way to connect to people or be remembered by anyone. I will keep this in mind and join you in this challenge, we can do it! :)

  2. I try very hard not to complain. Don't really have all that much to complain about these days except for a headache that won't go away. But complaining about it isn't going to help and will likely only exacerbate the situation. So instead, I trudge forward and try to ignore it.

  3. Thanks Galen! I am definitely accepting this challenge. I don't know if I'll make it to 21 days, but even trying will make me think about what you've said in your post.

    Have a superb Sunday!

  4. Hi know..I never associated complaining with judging...but there certainly is a connection. I do believe that "gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues...but the parent of all others". I'm going to try to live in that spot more often.

    thanks for this,


  5. Your are so right that we try to bond with others by complaining instead of praising. That may be human nature but is still just a habit.

    21 days? I'll try it.

  6. Toyin--I appreciate your positive attitude! Let's continue to encourage each other!

    M&M--It is hard not to complain. It's is such an ingrained habit for many of us. I hope your headache is better by now.

    Alexia--I am guessing not many people make it the entire 21 days, although we can try! When I did this before, I found that I was able to break the habit of complaining even if I had an occasional slip.

    Jo--A habit of gratitude (step 9) can take care of a lot of other things, just as you say. It is a great way to flip complaining around.

    Bob--Maybe it is human nature. I wonder why that is. Do you have any thoughts on this? (Or does anyone else?)

  7. Galen: I'm not sure I understand. What is a complaint?

  8. Hi Galen,

    I used to complain a lot when I was younger. As you say, it is one way that we connect with others, but for me it was more because of my negative thinking. Over the years, I have come to model my character on stoic types who handle great odds without complains. A prerequisite for many of my heroes is this quality to endure great burdens with composure. Nowadays I very rarely complain about anything. I just focus on the solutions to whatever problems I face and go about doing what I have to do. Nourishing ourselves to gain the right attitude is also important when it comes to dealing with the urge to complain. With this added reinforcement, I believe it will be easier to break the complain habit.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

  9. JJ--Good question. Here is the description of complaining from the website for A Complaint Free World.

    "To 'Complain' is defined as 'to express pain, grief, or discontent.' Surely, it makes sense to express pain, grief or discontent occasionally but most people do so constantly. In so doing, they are talking and thinking about what they do not want in their life and, thereby, attracting more pain, grief and discontent. Instead, think and talk about what you are grateful for. Talk about what you DO want and not what you DON'T want."

    Personally, I prefer Websters definition--to express displeasure or to find fault.

    I suggest that we use whatever definition or guidelines we find most helpful. Does anyone else have any thoughts about what a complaint is?

    Irving--I think you have touched on something very important by making the connection between nourishing ourselves and breaking the habit of complaining. That ties in nicely with what you wrote about loving ourselves.

  10. I'm on the wagon as of today ...Monday June 6, 2011....June 27, 2011...and then the rest of my life. At church they have encouraged us to stop with all of our scorning and see how much better we would feel, and think if we would change our scorning into I am on.....I Thess 5:18 " In every thing give thanks".....

  11. Oh you do so have a way with words.
    I do another thing most right now I find myself trying to decide if the plants need watering or if it will really rain tomorrow and everything will be okay without spending money and time on the yard...

    Kind of second guessing - not truly complaining but trying to put a judgement call into a judgement activity - very stress ful

    It is a hard challenge/exercise and it does make a difference

    How is retirement going?

  12. Rhon--I appreciate your positive attitude! Please let me know how it's going. I had to switch my bracelet to the other wrist today when I caught myself complaining about the poor signage in Portland (after I missed a turn). Starting again....

    Patricia--I'm making the same decision today! Do I need to water or will it rain tomorrow? What did you decide??

  13. Patricia--Oh yes, I forgot to add that retirement is going very well. My daughters threw me a surprise retirement party and invited lots of wonderful people, including my sister and a cousin who both traveled from other cities to be here. Very nice.

  14. Though I'm not really going to try not complaining, because I think complaining has a positive purpose, I am going to try and make more of my complaints entertaining and substantive.

    Infants complain, but what they complain about does need correcting, and we need their alarm to know about it ("WAAAA!", meaning "I'm wet" or "I'm hungry.")

    I still complain if I'm hungry or tired, but I have learned to be more amusing about it.

    How wonderful to be entering retirement! Yay!

  15. I have complained much less ever since I started on my inner journey. I learned to take responsibility rather than pushing blame or pointing fingers at others. Still I have got to admit that I am not complaint-free.

    Interestingly, I also shared about the Complaint Free Challenge on my latest post. I may just take up your challenge but first I must find a visual reminder.

  16. Mikey--You bring up an interesting point. Is there a difference between stating a need or desire, as when a baby cries, and complaining? Or between making an observation about something that needs improving (our health care system) and complaining? It seems to me that there is a difference, but I am having a hard time right now articulating it. Any further thoughts?

    Evelyn--I just read your wonderful bucket list post. It gave me a lot to think about! Interesting that we were both thinking about complaining. The physical/visual reminder isn't crucial, but it really helps. I have yet to go a full day, but I'm sure I have reduced my complaining already. Thanks for commenting.


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