A Stoic Response to Complaining

“Don’t be overheard complaining…Not even to yourself.”  

— Marcus Aurelius, 8.9

Complaining is easy. It’s as natural to us as breathing. Complaining is describing something—an event, an experience, a person—negatively without any indication of next steps or plans to fix the problem. It requires little thinking and zero action. Whether it be damning God, the government, the universe, faulty technology, slow Wi-Fi, the authorities, or traffic, anyone can find something to complain about.

But what good has complaining ever done anyone in the long run? Sure, shaking your fist at the sky and venting your frustrations can feel liberating in the moment, but has it ever changed your circumstances for the better, solved your problems or made you happier? We’re willing to bet the answer is no.

So how should we respond to the events and the people tempting us to express our frustrations? Here is what the Stoics say on the matter.

It’s Either Endurable Or It Isn’t

If you look at Webster’s Dictionary, one of its definitions of a Stoic is “a person who accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion.” That’s an extreme simplification, obviously, but the Stoics did write a great deal about complaining because to them it was an exceptionally futile and useless gesture. But why? And how are we supposed to deal with that?

Epictetus advised focusing on what we can influence rather than worrying about what lies outside our control. A seminal Stoic concept. “There is only one way to happiness,” he said, “and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

 

Arrian, a student of his, recorded and packaged Epictetus’s teachings into a number of extracts. These extracts would prove to have a major influence on the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who received copies of Arrian’s works on Epictetus from his teacher Rusticus. Commenting on complaining, Aurelius recorded in Meditations:

“Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable… then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature.”

Either you can handle whatever obstacle life throws your way…or you can’t. If you can, for your own sake, don’t make the challenge at hand more difficult by brooding about it! Complaining only makes a bad situation worse. It only lets the annoying behavior of someone else linger amongst you longer. And something so severe that it’s unendurable means your own destruction.

Focus On Yourself

Marcus Aurelius gave himself this advice:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly… None of them can hurt me. Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people… It will keep you from doing anything useful. Why do you complain rather than act?”

When Confucius heard that a fellow philosopher was complaining about one of their peers, he replied, “What a worthy man that Zigong must be! As for me, I hardly have time for this.”

Both Eastern and Western philosophy share the same belief—our focus should be on our own behavior, not on the behavior of others. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius speaks to this idea over and over and over again: Look inward, not outward. Don’t complain. Don’t meddle in the affairs of others. Remember when you have acted like that, he says, when you see someone acting objectionably.

The Stoic does not have time to complain about others because they have too much to improve on at home. When we make the distinction between what’s in our control and outside our control, we see very quickly that it is only our own decisions and actions and words and thoughts that are worthy of our attention. Everything else is the business of everyone else. Marcus Aurelius gave himself this advice:

“You can hold your breath until you’re blue in the face,” Marcus Aurelius said, “and they’re going to keep on doing it.”

Destroy The Negative Bias

The word Epictetus uses for gratitudeeucharistos—means “seeing” what is actually occurring in each moment. He said, “It is easy to praise Providence for anything that may happen if you have two qualities: a complete view of what has actually happened in each instance, and a sense of gratitude.” Complaining is a mistake of narrow-mindedness, it’s failing to get a complete view, and it’s the opposite of gratitude.

In our interview with A.J. Jacobs—the author, journalist, and human guinea pig—he talked about the innate human trait that psychologists call negative bias. One of the things he learned in writing his latest book Thanks A Thousand is how powerful gratitude is in squashing that negative bias.

“We are very good at noticing what is wrong. If you hear a hundred compliments and a single insult, and what do you remember? The insult…It makes life exceedingly unpleasant. For me, the key is to really pay attention to the hundreds of things that go right every day instead of the three or four that go wrong. I find it helpful to spend a couple of minutes counting up all the things that are going right at a particular moment.”

In practice, when you feel like complaining, take a step back. Get a complete view. Don’t focus on the negative, make a list of all the things worthy of feeling grateful. Don’t complain about someone’s frustrating behavior, be thankful that you don’t act that way. Don’t damn the situation for being unfair, try what Marcus said: “Here is a rule to remember in the future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not ‘This is misfortune,’ but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune.’”

Actions Not Words

On one Instagram post a few months ago, we raised this point about the pointlessness of complaining and people brought up the Civil Rights Movement as a counterexample. Talk about missing the point. Organizing an effective protest is not complaining. That’s called action!

Author, entrepreneur and Stoic champion Tim Ferriss talked about what he learned and the changes he noticed from a 21 days without complaining experiment. Author and minister Will Bowen developed the challenge. Bowen provided his congregation with purple bracelets. With every spoken complaint, participants had to switch their bracelets to the other wrist and start over. The elegance and simplicity of that tracking and accountability system appealed to Tim, and he took up the challenge: 21 days, no bellyaching. Here’s what Tim noticed:

My lazier thinking evolved from counterproductive commiserating to reflexive systems thinking. Each description of a problem forced me to ask and answer: What policy can I create to avoid this in the future?

[…]

People want to be around action-oriented problem solvers. Training yourself to offer solutions on-the-spot attracts people and resources.

Today, more than 11 million people in 106 countries have taken Will Bowen’s challenge and have seen dramatic improvements in their lives. It’s a habit that Maya Angelou believed in as she joined Oprah and others, speaking so beautifully in supporting Bowen’s movement:

“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”  ― Maya Angelou

Stoicism is a philosophy defined by action, not words. Solving our problems, not complaining about others.


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