Complaining is an admission of defeat

Complaining is a popular pastime but, it turns out, a deadly one.

Constant complaining encourages your neurons to lay down express tracks to Bummerville, so that every time you think of work, for example, you also instantly think about the SOB who does whatever, all the time, to your intense irritation… and you’re off, roaring down the track of your favourite mental rant. Then those same neurons, which might otherwise be gainfully employed in some creative or world-saving pathway building, don’t get the opportunity because they’re devoted to their Bummerville route.

Imagine: constant complaining could actually make your brain less effective.

And because we don’t like going it alone, we infect others through the stealthy mechanism of neural mirroring, so those around us can get on the Bummerville train, too. Even without us knowing it, our brain says to their brain, hey bestie, I love you – let’s get miserable together.

You also get stressed. The rant releases the nasty hormone cortisol, which in turns makes your body vulnerable to all kinds of stuff that kills you. Which is obviously even worse than getting stupider or making our friends and loved ones miserable.

When I read all this it occurred to me, maybe I need to stop complaining. And to do that I’d have to figure out why we do it in the first place.

I realized that every time I complain, I’m telling myself (and anyone who’s been forced to listen) that I’ve ceded control over a situation. Stuck in traffic, my government being idiotic, some perceived rudeness or slight, my precious time being wasted, my precious ego being stomped on. When I complain, I effectively capitulate to the problem. It’s a passive aggressive reaction, like that’s OK, crappy situation, you can rain down on me and I’ll just sit here and rant ineffectually in response.

Not a good route to happiness!

There are, as with most things, some antidotes to feeling like you have no control, even when it’s true and you really don’t.   

The first is the old gratitude trick, which is not just a woo-woo thing but a scientific fact: active gratitude reduces stress and re-forms neural pathways into more positive routings. It can physically deconstruct the express track to Bummerville. So, when you’re seething about how your rant-subject always does ‘x’ that makes you nuts, think about how that person also does ‘y’, which is very helpful.

Come on, there must be something. You get the idea.

The second antidote is to reframe the situation to modify your initial goal. For example, the idea of being stuck in traffic every friggin’ day, it’s so much worse than it ever was before, blah, blah, blah. Yes, it is. You can’t control that, but you can control how you deal with it. If your initial goal was ‘get there in 30 minutes’, the fact that it now takes 45 is irritating because you feel it’s wasting your time. Reframing solution: accept that it now takes 45 and find a way to make that time feel more productive. Listen to a book on tape or a podcast, travel with a friend. Or just take that extra 15 minutes to let your mind wander, which is a more fruitful activity than we tend to give it credit for.

The third antidote is to actually do something about the situation. Talk to the SOB. Change what time you drive. Start a political movement. Start a social movement. Quit.

By complaining we allow ourselves to be apathetic about action. We feel as though we’re doing something by making our disgruntled voices heard. We’re not; we’re just making ourselves stupid and sick.

Ironically, before sitting down to write this today I was in mega complaint-mode because my day wasn’t going at all as planned. It felt downright karmic to open my ‘blog ideas’ file and find complaining right at the top of the list. The universe often has a wicked sense of humour.

And having written it, I feel better already…dismantling those tracks to Bummerville.

When Comfort Zones Turn Ugly

Say ahhhh…

Who doesn’t love the warm familiarity of their comfort zone? It’s the equivalent of a cozy chair, favourite slippers and cuddly blanket, right there in our psyches. Always available for us to retreat into when we’ve had enough of slaying dragons, pitching business, testing our creativity, or just coping with what’s in our Facebook feed.

The problem is, like many lovely things in life, comfort zones have an evil side. They can get so – well, comfy – that we lose the ability to get outta that damned chair and test our mettle again. A comfort zone that might have started out as quite a big place in our younger years, can get smaller and smaller with trial and error. Especially the error part. We stop doing the things we’ve discovered can have potentially unpleasant consequences.

Before we know it, we’re prisoners of our own experiences.

We start to exist only within the confines of our comfort zones, when they’re supposed to be places we go to for refueling, not places we live in 24/7.

Honey, I shrunk my life

As kids we’re filled with possibilities. We sing because it feels good until we realize we’re not in tune. We tear-ass down hills our bikes, screaming with the thrill of it, until we start to worry about breaking a bone. We wear bright pink until we catch a glimpse of ourselves and are reminded, unfortunately and coincidentally, of a wad of Bazooka gum. We paint with abandon, until we come to understand our talent is, ahem, limited.

Although none of these consequences actually matters in the great scheme of life, we teach ourselves to suck back from opportunity and play it safe. In our working lives, our creative expression, our personal style. Our relationships. We avoid risk because pain and humiliation and failure suck.

But the Slipper Zone can suck, too.

Making a break for it

Physics was my worst subject but I do understand the law of inertia. When an object is at rest – say, for instance, in the evil bowels of the comfort zone – it stays at rest until some new force acts on it. Such as a kick in the butt, from yourself or some other helpful person.

The thing most people don’t get about inertia is that movement is also subject to it’s rule: an object in motion stays in motion. Which means every small step you take out of that comfy chair creates the momentum necessary to do whatever your heart desires.

Example: Really want to learn to dance but are terrified others will laugh at you? Here’s a baby steps approach to getting the magic of inertia to work on your terms: start in your own living room. Take your glasses off, if you wear them, so you don’t get too much clarity on how you look (honestly, this is how I got to belly dancing classes, and I kept them off there, too). Then take classes someplace where you don’t know anybody because really, what do you care what strangers think? Once you discover that it’s actually all about the fun and not about whether you’re good enough to crew for Beyonce, you might even find yourself talking your besties into taking lessons with you. Locally.

The same approach works for changing your clothing style (one sweater at a time) or your hair style (one inch at a time), improving your position at work (one unsolicited opinion at a time), or exploring your artistic aspirations (one small doodle at a time). Each step takes you a tiny bit outside your comfort zone. It shows you what’s possible. It gives you a proof point that you can do more than you thought.

Each step creates inertia in the positive, forward-moving sense.

Whenever I try this, I also discover that the pain, humiliation, and failure I was trying so hard to avoid aren’t actually so terrible. They’re just speed bumps on the way to the exciting world that’s waiting just outside the comfort zone.

Go ahead. Take a step.








Life plans falling apart? Try this.

I thought childbirth was really paying off when my eldest was first able to be the designated driver at a family event (I recall margaritas being involved). Now my kids have reached a stage where they’re full of brilliant ideas, too. Nice bonus.

The latest inspiration I’ve got from them has to do with life planning, a discipline which is so not my thing. I’m great at planning projects but I hate committing to set directions in life. Give me options, please. And some unanticipated twists and turns to keep life exciting.

Centuries of great minds have understood that planning is an often futile exercise in hope versus reality. In his epic poem To a Mouse, Robert Burns famously states: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.

Which in modern parlance means shit happens and our careful plans amount to zilch when it does.

However, there’s no denying that good planning does make stuff happen, even for those of use who have a bit of an allergy to it. So imagine my joy when my eldest daughter told me about a way of doing it that doesn’t feel so restrictive:

Life sketches instead of life plans. What a salvation for the commitment-challenged.

You still need a vision, an intention, and an outline of what you want life to look like. But the edges can be kinda fuzzy. All the lines and dots don’t need to perfectly connect. And white space is your friend.


Let’s say you want travel in your life.

A plan-lover’s action list might be:

  • Determine your next desired travel destination
  • Research where you’d like to stay, what you want to visit, etc.
  • Determine a cost and how much time you’ll need
  • Start saving money and squirreling away vacation time
  • Set a date based on the current availability of those two things

Whereas the sketch approach might look more like this:

  • Come up with five places you’d like to go.
  • Unearth possible ways of making any of them happen – say, as an ESL instructor, a volunteer, a student coop, a working stay, a barter deal, a house swap.
  • Based on that, pick the places that seem to offer the best possibility of making them happen soon, and start working that potential by making connections and asking others how they’ve managed to pull it off.
  • One of the possibilities you’ve unearthed will eventually bob to the surface – grab that sucker and work everything else around it.

Sketching involves more willingness to go with the flow. If you’re the kind of person who requires absolute control it might feel too wishy-washy. But it ultimately yields more opportunities because it gives you more than one way to get to your goal. You gotta love that.

And you don’t even have to be good at drawing.

I’m Not That Kind of Girl

Is it possible for a corporate cynic to respect crystals and woo-woo? Not in an I could make money off these products kind of way. Duh, yes, where there’s money there’s corporate respect. But in a these things might have power kind of way.

Apparently so, because I’ve been creeping in that direction, unwittingly, for ages, despite my science degree and my early adult training hauling my way up the corporate ladder in the very non-woo-woo world of high tech companies such as IBM. Not only did I not dabble in woo-woo, I actively disbelieved in it.

My innocent progress along the crystal brick road started with my quest for new Gumption Guides tools. Little did I know it would lead me to participate in all kinds of weird stuff. Willingly.

The cynic is, of course, not quite dead given that ‘weird’ is the word that popped into my head in that last sentence. I admit to still getting giddy with laughter over one ‘I’m game to try everything’ moment when I stood in convoluted poses while chanting my desired outcomes. So I’m not exactly a personal convert to all forms of woo-woo.

But I did notice that other people felt better for doing some of these things I found, well, ridiculous. I started thinking: if it moves you forward, that’s cool. Fortunate you.

And the very fact of opening myself up to trying whatever has been illuminating in another way:

I’ve come to understand I’m full of contradictions.

I don’t think I’m alone. It can’t just be because I’m a Gemini.

Contradictions make it challenging to categorize yourself, which is both liberating and discombobulating (damn, another contradiction). Liberating because you no longer have to be restricted by your so-called self-image. Discombobulating because there are times when it’s comforting to crawl into your nicely defined tribal box and not worry about what you do and don’t believe.

Besides the crystal-embracing corporate cynic contradiction, I’m also a God-loving agnostic. I’m not religious in any traditional sense. But I am into the possibility of a power higher than my puny self. My favourite poem, the only one I’ve bothered to memorize besides the irresistible Jabberwocky, is E.E. Cummings’ I Thank You God for This Most Amazing Day. It comes to me every time I witness the natural world in some act of breathtaking splendiforousness. Cuz it’s a friggin’ miracle.

The there’s the gregarious introvert contradiction. I’m all over jumping into a crowded room, meeting new people, telling stories at parties, public speaking and other acts of social daring-do. Then, suddenly, even when I’m having a grand time, a switch flips and I hit my Limit of Sociability. Smack. I urgently need to be alone to refuel. Just like that.

Other contradictions: My desire for belonging, despite being a freedom zealot. My pleasure in eating meat despite being revolted by the killing of animals (so much so that my house became home to 20 mice before I decided I really had to get over that revulsion, but that’s another story). The list goes on and on.

So I guess I shouldn’t find it all that surprising that I’m finding value in woo-woo. At least some of it. I even own a couple of crystals. I bought them years ago and my cynic self was about say ‘in a moment of weakness’ as a kind of snipe. But wait, isn’t that the point? These things are there to help us through our moments of weakness. Whatever works, is good by me.

I thinking these contradictions might be the very things that keep life interesting. Maybe I am ‘that’ kind of girl, whatever that is. The idea is giving me a great sense of possibilities.

What are your favourite personal contradictions? I’d love to know.