If I could go back in time to any one moment, I would kill Hitler because that is the time travel rule. But if I could go back to any two moments, after I killed Hitler I would visit myself last Sunday morning, just as Past Me’s head was getting stuck in a sweatshirt.
I would step quickly and quietly up behind myself and press my ray gun into Past Me’s side.
“Don’t say a word, Stephanie,” I would say coldly. “This is the ray gun that killed Hitler and it’s here to stop another atrocity before it begins.” Past Me would probably gulp, head still in the sweatshirt. “Now that I have your attention,” I would say, “I need you to calmly push your head through this hole right here. No, that’s an arm hole. This hole. Good. I’m going back to the future now, but you must swear to me that you will not complain about this sweatshirt situation. Do you hear me? Do not say anything about it.” Then I would disappear with a woosh.
Alas, time travel has not been invented and since I wasn’t there to stop myself, a bad thing happened: I was forced to move a rubber band from my right wrist to my left.
Maybe I should back up.
Last Friday, I read (skimmed) an article (blog post) about the 21-day No-Complaint Experiment.
1. Stick a bracelet on your wrist.
2. Now go 21 days without complaining. Not even once. Because as soon as you do, you have to switch the bracelet to your other wrist and start the 21 days all over again.
3. Recognize that a statement of displeasure is not a complaint. The blog writer defines complaining as “describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem.” So you can still acknowledge something is unpleasant, as long as you have a plan for it. For example, “Man, my Future Self keeps time-traveling from next week to threaten me with a ray gun.” is not ok, but a statement with a solution (“Man, Winston keeps biting my face in the night. I’ll have to invent a complex booby trap that startles him away every time he goes in for the kill.”) is alright.
Apparently there’s a whole book based on this challenge, but you know me. Always jumping into radical life experiments after half-reading one thing once. This one was attractive to me for a couple reasons.
Things that Are Wrong with Me
1) I’d noticed myself complaining kind of a lot recently. Even in a whiny voice. Even to complete strangers.
2) One of the reasons I’m so anxious all the time is that my brain is really good at Automatic Negative Thinking, which means it comes up with horrible, mean little thoughts about everything all the time forever. Stopping those thoughts helps me feel brave enough to leave the house without trying to viciously bite everyone who approaches me.
I couldn’t wait to start. I guess the book comes with a fancy bracelet, but I didn’t have time to wait for that. I dug around in a drawer until I scrounged up a green rubber band. Then I left for dinner, feeling optimistic about the new leaf I was about to turn.
Within the hour, I had switched wrists four times. Before bed, I switched it three more times.
By Saturday afternoon, I was doing better. My brain was hyper aware of complaints and fixated on winning this challenge. I was on a roll right up until Sunday morning. “My heeeeaaaaaddd is stuuuuuuuuuuuck in this sweeeaaaatshiiiiiiirt,” I whined through the fabric, then realized what I’d done. “Nooooooooo!” I screamed, and moved the bracelet to my left wrist.
Where, I’m happy to report, it still is. Day three feels pretty freakin’ great. I’ve already learned a few things about myself.
1) I use complaints as a conversational crutch when I run out of small talk.
2) I complain more around some people than others, and there’s a chance I’m going to need to re-evaluate these relationships to make sure they’re not completely rooted in negativity.
3) Everything I complain about is super dumb. There are a lot of people with legitimate things to complain about (ebola, living in North Korea, math class) and I’m upset because for three weeks I don’t get to whine about getting my head stuck in a pretty basic article of clothing.
4) Avoiding complaints doesn’t turn you into some creepy, boring Pollyanna. You’re still allowed to have a personality. It does make you more fun to be around.
5) The trick is getting past the first day, especially when you have to start over. If you’ve just complained and you’re back at square one anyway, what’s to stop you from complaining again? You have to find a way to get past that anyway.
6) I used to have a boss who would say, “Don’t bring me a dead cat unless you bring me a shovel.” I thought he was perhaps running a pet cemetery as a side business, but now I see that this whole time he was telling us not to complain unless we have a solution. Now that I’m bringing solutions to the table, I feel like I’m actually making contributions to my conversations instead of just bumming everyone out. That’s a good feeling.
I’ll tell you what, though. In about 19 days, I’m going to have some things to say.