We do it all the time. Most of the time, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We may have no idea that there’s any reason not to do it. We say, “I need to get something off my chest,” or call it “personal sharing.” Sometimes it’s a one off; sometimes we repeat our stories again and again — sometimes to the same person, sometimes to different people. We tell our stories to people we don’t even know. We even tell other people’s stories.
We tell the details of experiences that have not met with our satisfaction — that frustrate us, thwart us, disappoint us, rob us, humiliate us or cause us regret, anger, sadness or some kind of stress. These stories are about our experiences with colleagues, bosses and jobs. They include our neighbors; the agencies meant to serve us; friends and lovers; wives and husbands; our parents; the schools our children attend; the weather and traffic. Time after time, over time we do this. Sound familiar?!
We think that relaying these stories to ourselves and others make us feel better. If others care about our stories, value the details as we do, see our point of view, agree with us, we are heard; we can be known and appreciated for what it takes to be us, we can be validated and sometimes even vindicated. On occasion, this does happen. But this redemption happens far, far less than we realize and need.
Yet, we keep at it.
We’re here to tell you: Stop it. Really. Stop it.
Why? Because human beings and organizations wither and collapse in negative environments. And when we talk about ourselves and our views, to ourselves and to others, in so many of the most common and familiar ways we do, what comes out of our mouths is absolutely negative. We are haters in that moment.
There are costs to complaining. There IS something to downloading our experience and there IS something juicy about sharing your human experience with another human who can appreciate it. It can even feel like it brings you closer to someone. Yet complaining is ultimately a cheap take-out meal, on a late work night, when you should have been in bed an hour ago but it’s what you crave and it tastes SO good. Soon, you don’t feel well at all. Though we often don’t notice, complaining doesn’t nourish us in any sustainable way. We may have a feeling of deep justification or power as we tell our stories, but it’s a false and fleeting power, and it undermines our real experience of feeling alive.
Like a mantra, we continue to hear our negative circumstances play over and over. The more we verbalize our point of view, the more real it becomes. Fewer opportunities for interpretation or other points of view have room to emerge. So we see what happened in one way, only in that way and, probably, always in that way. This is especially potent because, as the victim in our stories, we only reiterate the data relevant to affirm our point of view, validating to ourselves that this is as good as it’s going to get for us. This thing is stuck, and our complaining keeps it exactly so. This judgment we listen to again and again costs us joy, our sense of freedom and our power over our choices and future.
Complaining about what happened five minutes ago or yesterday or 20 years ago also robs us of the presence of being either with ourselves or another person, in this moment. We lose this moment in time and it’s gone forever. Many, many moments get used this way, though. How many times have your conversations been more than just a few moments?
The next time you are faced with the chance to tell a story of this kind, see if you can take a moment before you do. This will cut down on the automaticity that can come along with it. Let what you see in that extra moment inform what you do next. Do you need to say what you are about to? Will it support you? Will it make a difference for the person to whom you are about to tell it? Will it forward anything truly meaningful?
- LOOSEN YOUR GRIP ON YOUR VERSION OF REALITY
See if you can focus on and let yourself relate to the facts about what happened vs. the spin or interpretation you’ve applied. We know there are many valid points of view about any set of facts. Your point of view is valid but if it’s not one that empowers you or the people around you, if it keeps you stuck, lighten up about that point of view or shift it to a more empowering one. Because the meanings we give our stories actually come to dictate our thoughts and actions, simply starting with the understanding that you have a point of view can give you some power.
Here is an example of what we mean: Your brother-in-law emails the family that he can’t make it to your house for the holidays, but leaves you off the email. Instead of repeating to yourself, your family allies and your friends that your brother-in-law is going behind your back to undermine and diminish you in the family, take a moment to notice the difference between the facts and your story.
Facts: Your brother-in-law Greg emailed some family members about not being able to spend the holidays at your house and didn’t include you in the email.
Your story: Greg is sneaky and jealous of you (or some version of this).
Once you can see this set of facts merely as facts, you can choose a way of viewing them that is more flexible. In this case, it might mean considering Greg left you off the email by accident or that he was looking for feedback and reached out to your family first. Maybe he felt terrible and couldn’t bring himself to tell you. It’s the stories we make up, and get other people to agree with, that keep us stuck. When you are willing to give up being right about your complaints, and see the chance for a new view, you have freedom.
- UNDERSTAND: YOUR EXPERIENCE, NOT THE STORY, IS MOST IMPORTANT
See if you can discover how you actually feel. Instead of relaying your story, try to get to the feeling you felt. In the case of Greg, you might say to yourself, “I can’t believe Greg sent an email and didn’t include me. I feel hurt and threatened.” This is how you get in touch with what’s really driving your upset. This is a valuable place. Here, you can choose to be hurt and threatened (vs. blaming) or choose to let it go. Here, you can take action. For example, you could call Greg and let him know how hurt you felt. When you can contact your felt experience, should you then decide to share your story, you have a much greater chance to be heard and validated than when you merely download to a receptacle.
These recommendations are not about positive thinking a negative circumstance, though you may start feeling less negatively, as a result. What we are suggesting is being more purposeful about where you apply your attention and energy. We think this gets rid of the bad take-out feeling. When you do, you better connect with yourself and your needs vs. requiring someone else to handle them, have a greater chance to arise from difficult feelings and truly negotiate life far better.
This post is co-authored by Dr. Amalea Seelig, Psy.D and Meredith Haberfeld, CEO of ThinkHuman.