No Complaining?! A Challenging Week 2 Of "Mental Muscle" Boot Camp

04/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Part four in a series.

During a visit to Boston in the mid-1990s, a television crew doing a "man on the street" piece approached me and a friend. Their question was "what irritates you most about people?" My response, which eventually aired, was "I can't stand people who complain."

Flash forward nearly 15 years later. James Mellon's directive for the second week of "Mental Muscle" Boot Camp is "no complaining."

I figured I had this in the bag. If I do complain, it's rarely out loud.

Then James threw down the gauntlet, saying, "Complaining also happens quietly in your mind and that counts."

I should have known he was going to say that. The anxiety I referred to in part one rears its ugliness even if I complain silently to myself. I call it "The Anxiety Monster" because it feels like I am possessed by a completely different and very unpleasant, unfriendly person until my true self returns to cast the monster out.

If I do any complaining, it's at work. So, I approached a co-worker and asked her to let me know if she caught me complaining. I may not see myself as a complainer, but that doesn't mean the outside world might think the opposite.

Within an hour, my co-worker complained to me about something. I had to wonder if showing any empathy or agreement with her would make me a "co-complainer."

When I shared this with James and the Boot Campers, James pointed out something I completely missed. He said, "Your job this week is [also] to not let people complain around you."

I questioned that when he said it. It didn't feel right to hold those around me responsible for a journey they're not taking. Upon reflection, the real issue was whether I would have had the courage to say, "It's no complaining week and I really can't listen to you." I also wondered why I have designed my world to be one where I allow complaining as 'a norm.'

James indicated that if someone feels comfortable complaining to you, it can mean you're sending out energy that says 'complaining is welcome here!'

Whammo! The mirror turned back on me. Being faced with the possibility that I make it easy for people to complain because I accept the energy or draw it to me was not pleasant.

The Anxiety Monster truly took over on Wednesday. I pushed very hard to get a tremendous amount of work done in a tight window of time, and it affected my mood. Additionally, something I wanted to happen wasn't happening on my timeline, and the need to pay attention to my job kept me from doing something fun.

I said nothing out loud, but the stressful energy coming from me had to be apparent. The complainer in my head was off the charts. I took note of which people steered clear and who fed off my energy to create their own spiral of complaint. In either case, I held myself accountable.

By the end of the day, I knew I had to regroup. There was no question I'd failed the 'no complaining' challenge. I went to an archive of one of the Boot Camp sessions to re-listen to James. He said, "Complaining is something we do when we are actively avoiding a situation. It's a choice."

Why was I choosing to complain?

I complain when I have no control, or think I have no control. In moments where I am so busy with work and would prefer to be doing something else, I forget that I have made a choice to be there.

I've always been interested in more artistic endeavors: acting, singing, and of course, writing. I've chosen to take "day jobs that pay my bills until I can afford to go do what I really want." It's been 20 years; that day hasn't come.

I have not been willing to take a riskier path. If I am not willing to make a different choice, what right do I have to complain?

This is not necessarily a fresh revelation, but rather a reminder of what I forget when I stop paying attention to a spiritual practice. "No complaining" week made it clear I am never fully at peace with my choices and that certain issues keep reappearing in my life as a result. As long as I have not come to peace, the internal complaining and blame game will keep resurfacing.

In relation to that, James said, "The energy we put into complaining creates the illusion that we are doing something constructive, but if you're complaining you're not resolving anything."

James also shared his own experience from this week. He was on the phone with someone and telling a story with a degree of "heat" and emotion. When he finished the story, there was no response from the other end. His cell had lost signal; the call was disconnected.

He called the person back. "What did you hear?" he asked.

The response was, "You said, 'I have a story to tell you. I didn't hear anything after that.'"

James was giddy. "The universe is conspiring to my highest good! AT&T cut me off as soon as I started complaining." He now wants to develop an app. for the iPhone. "As soon as you start complaining to someone, [your phone] shuts off."