08/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Complaining About Complaining

First let's define complaint in the context I intend it today: it's neither good nor bad. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, 'There's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so'.

Complaining, for our purposes today, is voicing a negative opinion about a situation either as a 'what's so', which can be a commonly accepted fact like 'the present economy sucks' or 'there's too much unemployment' or as a loaded, disgusted, emotion ally charged statement of frustration like: 'those darn politicians have ruined our country' or 'the fat cats are always taking advantage of the little guys'.

What makes complaint 'bad' is when you add your judgment and prejudice as in those latter examples.

Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth puts it this way: "Complaining is not to be confused with informing someone of a mistake or deficiency so that it can be put right. And to refrain from complaining doesn't necessarily mean putting up with bad quality or behavior. There is no ego in telling the waiter your soup is cold and needs to be heated up -- if you stick to the facts, which are always neutral. 'How dare you serve me cold soup...?' That's complaining."

The venerable Mr. Tolle disagrees with me on the fine point of complaining not being good or bad, but that's okat, I've got no complaint about that, it's just that I want more room to be human because I'm someone who will, gasp, on occasion complain.

However, to keep my integrity intact, and in keeping with Tolle's 'cold soup' example, I've developed a rule about complaining to guide me and those I coach: don't complain unless you're willing to do something about it.

But the other day I got 'caught' when I found myself in the act being prejudiced, not doing anything about it but getting ticked off and, on top of all of that, I was being right about it.

While walking with friends I mentioned that I was on the cultural arts commission for the city in which we all live and that I attended a meeting about downtown redevelopment and bringing a green, eco-friendly aspect to the planning. The response of one of these friends was a tirade against our city and the fact that they were finally doing something with all of the property tax money they've been charging him. He complained about some potholes, corners needing stoplights, and a laundry list of people who were paying high taxes.

I was amazed that anyone could complain so strongly against a charming, boutique type, north shore Chicago area suburb and still live there. I found myself 'plugged in' and in the personal struggle of responding versus reacting, defending and all but pouncing on the speaker. As the speaker was a guest in my house for dinner that night I caught myself, changed the topic as best as I could and, after a minimally awkward silence, moved on to other topics. Dinner was pleasant and we had a good time of it but, in the back of my mind, I was harboring a complaint against this person who I had labeled a complainer. Sick, eh?

Later that night I was describing the incident to my wife and adding my opinion of how this person was 'always complaining about something or other, isn't he?' when I fully realized what I was doing. My wife didn't even have to point out the irony of the situation to me -- it raised its own hand and asked for my attention. I was caught in a pet peeve and pulled into a maze in which there is 'no cheese' for me.

I shifted as quickly as I could and thought of ways that I could do something positive about the situation, including setting up a meeting between my friend and some city officials to talk about taxes, what they are used for and trying to answer some of his concerns.

I did a little more work on my 'triggering' on this topic and started looking for some outside help. That's when I found this site: A Complaint Free World.

Simply put, their model starts with providing a purple bracelet for which they charge a whole buck. If you find yourself complaining, gossiping or criticizing, you switch the bracelet to the other wrist and start again. They have realized, like I do, that everyone does it and heck, we're human, so just get aware, shift and move on. The reinforcement of the bracelet just gives you a subtle reminder that you can, with practice, change your behaviors. Genius. Congratulations to them!

My bracelet is on the way but I hope the Post Office doesn't take too long to deliver it -- did you notice that the price of stamps just went up? And they're talking about ending Saturday delivery! Are you kidding?! Those guys at the Post Office . . .

Breathe. Take a deeper breath; hold and release. Again. Ok, I'm better now. Phew.

I wonder if they have next day delivery on those purple bracelets!?

Please pass on their message and their goals; they look like a valuable initiative with a clear message and a simple agenda. If you have any comments (or complaints) to share with me or the other readers please feel free to add them here or email me at