Jack Welch (Former Chairman and CEO; General Electric)
“Anyone who has a continuous smile on his face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening.”
Greta Garbo (Academy Award Winner and Actress; Camille)
“We have not journeyed all this way because we are made of sugar candy.”
Winston Churchill (Former Prime Minister; United Kingdom)
Complaining sabotages your self esteem and performance.
Everything went black for a few seconds and then the referee pulled me up by my wrist and told me I had a minute and a half to figure out if I wanted to continue the match. I was in the middle of my first high school wrestling tournament. It was a Junior Varsity tournament. I was a freshman and I had no idea what I was doing. But I did know that I was just knocked unconscious for a few seconds. The guy I was wrestling against, a Senior, had thrown me on my head. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to wrestle anymore. I wanted to sit in the stands and tell my girlfriend how much my head hurt. I wanted to eat cookies and drink Gatorade and complain about how unfair it was to have to wrestle a Senior anyways. Then, my coach came over. He smacked my headgear and said, “You’re wrestling great.” He slapped my shoulders and triceps and told me to “get back out there and don’t get thrown around this time.” I went back out and finished the match.
My last year of Graduate school I was so stressed about publishing a paper and finishing my thesis that I started having kidney problems. The first doctor I went to told me that I had to be put on massive doses of medication and may eventually need dialysis. After hearing this, I spent the next several weeks feeling sorry for myself and acting helpless. I talked to my friends and family members about my problems. I whined and complained about how unfair everything was; how I didn’t deserve any of this. They were all very supportive. They said it wasn’t my fault. They said I had a right to vent and feel cheated. They were all there for me. But somehow, their reassurances made me feel more helpless and uncertain. Somehow, their support lowered my self esteem. Then, one day, I took a trip to visit an old college friend. The day I arrived, he picked me up from the airport and, when I got into his car, he punched me in the arm and said, “Well, crybaby, I guess you’re going to have to do this without kidneys.” Instantly, my perspective changed. I felt better. I felt empowered. Why?
The Crybaby Cure
Complaining empowers your problems. Your problems in life are proportional to the amount of time you spend complaining about your problems in life. The less you complain, the less problems you will have. This is because complaining about your problems keeps your attention on your problems. And attention generates force. Complaining also negatively affects your brain function and overall health. One study found that teenagers who vented to each other about their problems for long periods of time were more likely to develop depression and anxiety. A second study showed that being exposed to complaining for 30 minutes or more peels away neurons in your hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for problems solving. The real problem is that, more and more, people are being encouraged to talk obsessively about their problems. Most people believe that venting is healthy. They believe complaining a sign of emotional intelligence. The truth is, complaining will keep people from liking you and it will keep you from liking yourself.
Success shuns a crybaby. Understand that complaining is not emotional intelligence, it’s emotional stupidity. If you want to attract failure, talk about your problems. If you want to attract success, talk about what makes you happy. A study published in Psychological Science examined how people responded to positive versus negative Facebook status updates. The researchers ranked random college students as having high or low self esteem and collected a set of 10 status updates from each student. Then, the researchers asked strangers to read the updates and rate how much they liked the student who wrote each set. An example of a positive status update was “[I am] looking forward to a great day tomorrow.” An example of a negative update was “[I am] upset b/c my phone got stolen.”
The study found that students with high self esteem were more likely to post positive status updates on Facebook than students with low self esteem. The study also found that strangers liked students who posted positive status updates more than they liked students who posted negative updates. Interestingly, students who posted positive updates, whether or not they had high or low self esteem, were more likely to get responses from their actual Facebook friends. I’m looking at my Facebook newsfeed right now and 2 of the 5 most recent status updates from my friends are negative. One of the updates reads, “Sometimes life isn’t fair, I just spent over $1,000 on a new TV and now it’s broken.” I’m pretty sure I’m going to delete this person from my account (mostly because he spent 1K on a TV).
Focus On The Bottom Line
Separate yourself from your problems. When you fail, take responsibility, but see your shortcomings and mistakes as temporary setbacks, not permanent disabilities. An experiment in the Netherlands tested 313 children for self esteem and then had them play a fixed computer game that forced the children to win or lose and gave both the winners and losers either praise for their efforts, praise for themselves, or no praise (control). In the group where the children were praised for their personal qualities, the webmaster wrote, “Wow, you’re great!”, whereas the children who were praised for their efforts were told, “Wow, you did a great job!” After either winning or losing the game, the children were told to complete a survey about their feelings of shame. Compared to all of the other groups, children who lost the game experienced significantly higher levels of shame if they had been praised for their personal qualities (especially if they had low self esteem). The researchers concluded that focusing on results over personal qualities keeps people from associating their self-worth with failure or success.
Keep your eye on the bottom line. Focusing on the end results of your efforts will help you see failure as a temporary setback rather than as a flaw in your character. Since your self-worth is not tied up in your viewpoint, you will be less likely to make excuses, complain, or get stuck. This viewpoint will also help you see success as a stepping stone for more success, rather than as an endpoint (or laurel) to rest on. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take your work seriously. It means you should stay as light on your feet as possible after either a success or failure so you can continue to grow as quickly as possible.
Complaining is a side effect of uncertainty. People with low self esteem are uncertain about who they are and what they are capable of. The secret to high self esteem is to increase your certainty. The problem is that it’s hard to create certainty in yourself or your abilities when you’re getting negative results. When most people get negative feedback, they lose their certainty, complain about their problems, and stop moving forward. A better approach is to take full responsibility for the negative feedback you receive, change your perspective, get certain in yourself, and take action in a new direction. The key is to manufacture your own certainty. Instead of wasting your energy complaining, use it to create a sense of certainty. Bulking up the certainty you have in yourself and in your abilities will keep you focused on solutions and opportunities, rather than on problems and limitations.
According to legend, for thousands of years people tried to run a mile in under 4 minutes. Some cultures reportedly released angry bulls behind runners to increase their incentive to run a sub 4-minute mile. More recently, medical experts said that the human body was incapable of running a mile in under 4 minutes. A sub 4-minute mile was labeled as both dangerous and impossible. In the 1940’s, the one mile record stood at exactly 4:01 for over nine years. The entire world was certain that the medical experts were right – it was impossible for the human body to run a sub 4-minute mile. Then, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier, running a mile in 3:59.4. Two months later, two additional runners broke the 4-minute barrier. For thousands of years, no one could run a sub 4-minute mile, now, in only the last 70 years, thousands of people have run a sub 4-minute mile. Today, even strong high school athletes can run sub 4-minute miles.
The interesting part of the 4-minute mile story is that Bannister, as part of his training, relentlessly visualized running a mile in less than 4 minutes in order to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body that it was possible. Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier because he had high self esteem. He was so certain in his mission that his mind and body rejected anything short of victory. Visualization, specifically, focusing on solutions and what you want to happen in the future engages your reticular activating system, the part of your brain that filters relevant versus irrelevant information. The more you focus on what you want, the more your reticular activating system will seek out ways to achieve it and the more certainty you will manufacture in your pursuit.
Punch Yourself In The Arm
Feeling sorry for yourself is not a solution. Talking about your problems does not fix them. Whining and sharing your past failures without a purpose is pointless (and embarrassing). It sounds harsh, but thinking and talking about the negative things that happen to you will do nothing but lower yourself esteem and keep you from feeling confident. Of course, you want to acknowledge and learn from your mistakes. But you don’t want to dwell on them – you don’t want to be a crybaby. There are several things you can do to keep yourself from being a crybaby. First, avoid activities that have been linked to people with low self esteem, including obesity, watching more than 4 hours of Television a week, and refusing to participate in sports and sporting events.
Second, build yourself a confidence toolkit. In the book Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success, author and Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, Ph.D., writes that a well-chosen array of objects can help you have high self esteem The key is to keep these object hidden except in times of need. Objects to include in your toolkit include proof that you can be bold (like a napkin with a hot girl’s phone number on it), a photo of family and friends (or anything that reminds you that you are loved), a token of growth (like a first place medal or most improved player award), an article or picture of someone successful who inspires you, and a thank you card that someone sent you (feeling a sense of contribution is critical to increasing confidence and self-esteem). Below is a picture of a confidence toolkit I’ve been adding to since high school.
Third, cowboy up by reappraising your situation. The two most common ways for people to regulate their emotions are reappraisal (changing the way you think about an emotional event) and suppression (changing the way you respond behaviorally to an emotional event). Both methods are better than complaining and both methods involve change. However, numerous studies show that reappraisal has more short-term and long-term benefits than suppression. People who reappraise emotional situations make better decisions moving forward, function better socially, and have a better sense of their overall wellbeing. These people also have better emotional profiles later in life. The best way to reappraise a negative situation is to see yourself as the master of your problems rather than as the victim of your problems. After all, your problems are at your disposal. You can think about them, learn from them, and respond to them in any way you choose.
Own your mistakes, but don’t own them forever. When something bad happens to you, change the way you think about it. Instead of complaining or feeling sorry for yourself, focus on the result (not yourself) and find a way to learn from it as quickly as possible. Avoid permanent and personal thinking. Then, use your confidence toolkit to get confident. Or, have someone else build up your confidence, not by listening to your complaints, but by telling you to quit being a crybaby. See yourself as bigger, better, and more powerful than the problem. It’s better to despise a negative result, even with a little bit of arrogance, than it is to sink into the pits of despair. Finally, generate certainty in yourself and in the result you want by visualizing success and taking action to achieve it.