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This line is too long, traffic is out of hand, my daughter spends too much money, my mother-in-law needs to get out of our personal business, and the IRS keeps making it more difficult for accountants to do their job.  Does any of this sound familiar?

I’m sure you could come up with a whole lot more to complain about, especially as an accountant and a mom.   As far as daily professional and personal challenges go, you’re dealing with more than the average person.

Interestingly, with so much on your plate, you might also find it draining to be around constant complainers.  Whether it’s a coworker, boss, family member, or a friend, you may have people in your life that seem to never see the glass half full, often bringing you down along with them.

Ironically though, if your boss goes on a rant every year during tax season, or your mother makes a comment about your hair, I bet you probably wind up talking about their bad attitude or negativity to others.  In effect, it can seem like you can’t help but complain about the complainers in your life.

While we all complain about various circumstances in our lives from time to time, or get frustrated with the constant complainers in our lives, you should also know that complaining is actually affecting your intelligence, which can affect your accounting career.  The reason complaining affects your intelligence is because it affects the most important asset you have – your brain.

Professor Robert Sapolsky’s research with Stanford University has shown that complaining actually shrinks the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain that’s critical to problem-solving and intelligent thought.  For accountants, this can become a big problem since our intelligence and problem-solving skills are what makes it possible for us to do what we do.

It’s important to know that the research has also shown that hanging out with negative people is as bad as hanging out with your own negative thoughts because when you see someone experiencing a negative emotion like anger or frustration, your brain in essence “tries out” that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through.  

Basically your brain attempts to create a mirror image of someone else’s emotion that you’re observing so that you can relate to that person.  So not only does your own complaining affect the area of your brain that’s so important for the analytical work that you do as an accountant, but the complaining of the people you surround yourself with does as well.

Complaining not only hurts your intelligence, but they have also found that complainers are less satisfied during their workday, they bring their bad mood home to their families, and they usually carry it over to the next day.  When this happens, it can seem like you’re living in a rinse and repeat cycle, where you can’t stop complaining and your brain just keeps looking for more things to complain about.

I honestly believe that this is so important for accountants to understand because studies have shown that complaining and venting floods your bloodstream with the stress hormone, cortisol.  And if there’s one thing that accountants moms could use less of, it’s stress.

The good news though, is that once you understand why you complain and learn a simple way to stop or learn how to complain with purpose, you can then use your brain optimally for your accounting work, as well as bring that better mood home to your family.  

This week I’m going to discuss why we complain, why it’s such a problem, and how to stop or at least become more purposeful when you do complain. 

Why we complain

Have you ever done one of those weekly challenges where you attempted to stop a behavior?  I have, and it’s pretty shocking once you pay attention to how often you do something that you’d like to stop doing.

John Gordon, author of “The No Complaining Rule”, launched a 7-Day Challenge where he asked people to go a week without complaining.  Most people who took the challenge couldn’t last 10 minutes (no joke) without seeing something or someone in a negative light. 

The reason it’s difficult to stop, is because complaining is a sneaky habit to catch.  Most of the time you think you are just stating the facts, like a news reporter reporting the daily news.

You believe that you’re going about your life seeing, thinking and saying things that are true for you.  For example, you believe you’re just stating the fact, not complaining, when you say things like, “There’s a ton of work to do” and “The weather is pretty crappy”. 

What you probably don’t realize is that your unmanaged, human brain is a natural complainer.  It’s constantly scanning your world, looking for what’s wrong or what could potentially be a threat, in order to keep you safe. 

This natural tendency to complain is so common that research has shown that most people complain approximately once a minute during a typical conversation, especially during work conversations.  So what happens is that your negative-biased brain interprets more things wrong than right, and then wants to share these observations as a “public service”.

What makes it even more prevalent at work and why it’s even harder to catch the habit of complaining in work environments is because it can become a form of bonding.  Complaining and gossip often go hand in hand, sometimes forming the basis of relationships, especially in challenging work situations. 

Since your primitive brain is motivated to avoid pain, seek pleasure and be efficient, the practice of complaining can easily become a hard-wired habit.  In essence, until you change the wiring, your brain will continue to do what it does – complain.

So just know that when complaining becomes your unconscious default, it can hurt your intelligence and become a problem for you and your accounting career. 

Why it’s a problem

As an accountant, you need to be at your best cognitively and analytically.  Your accountant’s brain needs to be performing at the highest level, especially when it comes to problem solving.

The reason complaining is an issue is because, as I explained before, research has shown that complaining shrinks your hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for problem solving and memory.  This is an important part of your accountant’s brain; it’s where all those accounting facts, tips and analytical processes are stored.

Besides affecting your brain, complaining also affects your whole body due to the release of the stress hormone, cortisol.  This is particularly dangerous for women, putting you at risk for increased blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and other health concerns.

So if complaining is so bad, then why does it often feel so good?  The answer is found in how you feel prior to complaining.

Just before you complain about something or someone, there’s usually a strong negative feeling, like frustration, judgment or stress.  The opportunity to complain then seems like a welcomed relief from those negative feelings you’re experiencing, especially when others join in.

For a lot of women, it can feel like you’re a dam about to burst, believing that complaining allows you to release some of the pressure built up.  The issue is that your brain is like a sponge, picking up everything you “spill”, and constantly rewiring to include the spillage.

So as you rinse and repeat, your brain makes stronger connections, making it easier and easier to complain.  When this happens, over time, complaining can become as natural as breathing, but as damaging as smoking.

The damage not only comes in the way you perceive the world, but in how others perceive you as well.  Let’s be honest – as much as it can be draining for you to be around constant complainers, it’s also draining for others to be around your complaining.

While it might not seem like a big deal, it’s not helpful to you, your intelligence, or your accounting career to let complaining go unaddressed.

How to stop or become more purposeful

Just because complaining is natural, doesn’t mean it can’t be managed.  You don’t need to be at the mercy of your negative-biased brain.

Since your brain processes approximately 60,000 thoughts a day, it’s impossible and impractical to try to stop negative thoughts from happening.  However, you do have control over what you choose to focus on.

To learn how to stop complaining, I recommend the process I call “Pass the Hors Devours”.  In this simple process, you will imagine yourself at a cocktail party, with never-ending hors devours being passed around on silver platters by waiters and waitresses.  Here’s how this process goes:

  • Imagine that each silver platter has a thought your brain is offering you like an hors devours
  • There’s nothing wrong with anything being offered
  • The key with this process is that you get to decide on purpose whether you want the thought on the platter, or not
  • Before you pick it up, ask yourself “Is this thought useful?  Does this thought serve me? Will it ‘taste’ good?”
  • You only need to spend a second or two to decide and if it’s useful, pick it up
  • If it’s not useful, just let the waitress simply pass by without judgement
  • Simply choose what’s useful and leave the rest for others to choose from  

What I love about this process is that it has an elegant simplicity to it.  Instead of resisting the negative, complaining thoughts that naturally happen in your brain, you instead make conscious choices about which thoughts are useful; which ones you’d like to take from the platters.  

The reason this process is powerful is because over time it will show you how optional your thoughts truly are.  The thoughts about the circumstances in your life, like the hors devours on the silver platters, can be chosen or passed on – it’s always within your power. 

Whether it’s a situation that you’re faced with like traffic and tax deadlines, or it’s someone else that’s complaining about a situation that they’re faced with, you get to choose on purpose, what you want to think about it all.  You get to let some hors devours pass by and some be picked up by you.

The key is becoming aware of what you’re thinking about the situations in your life and what you’re thinking when other people are complaining about their situations.  Instead of letting the default part of your brain keep thinking and complaining the way it’s always done, you also have the option to decide whether you want to complain with purpose.

Complaining with purpose is a powerful concept that means having a specific goal in mind where your frustration can be addressed and solved.  It means communicating without blame, with the goal of coming up with a viable solution.

Instead of the knee-jerk reaction to complain about something or someone, you pause to make sure  that it will lead to a constructive conversation, and that you like your reason for complaining.  When you take ownership and your complaining can then create a positive momentum, as opposed to just a dumping ground, that’s when complaining on purpose can actually be useful.

By choosing what’s worth complaining about, because you want to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, you then give your brain and your intelligence a chance to switch into problem-solving mode instead of being depleted by complaining mode.  When you complain with a purpose, you also make it easier for other people to join in the solution and  it helps calm emotions.

For example, calling customer service to complain about an issue with something you purchased is fine, but it will be much more beneficial to your brain and your intelligence, if you also know what you want and how they might be able to resolve the situation.  Complaining with purpose helps to lower your cortisol, in turn lowering your stress, but it also helps you to learn how to communicate better as well.

A few years ago I had a negative experience at a favorite restaurant in NYC and at first I was reluctant to complain, just deciding that, although it was really disappointing, we just wouldn’t go back any longer.  But then a friend helped me to see that I wasn’t complaining just to vent, but that I really cared about the success of the restaurant and didn’t want them to not know about something that they might be able to improve upon.

I reached out to them, told them about what happened, and told them why I was complaining.  They contacted me to apologize and offer me a free lunch, but I explained that I wasn’t complaining in order to get something from them, but to give something to them.  I cared about what they cared about,  customer satisfaction, so it wound up being a win/win. 

Of course we all need to vent every once in awhile but hopefully you’ll be able to recognize when you’re complaining is optional.  So for the sake of your intelligence, your health, how you feel about your life, and for the people you surround yourself with, start taking a look at how often you complain and make a decision to be more mindful of its effects. 

Summary  

  • While we all complain about circumstances in our lives from time to time, or get frustrated with the constant complainers in our lives, you should also know that complaining is hurting your intelligence. 
  • Complaining not only hurts your intelligence, but they have also found that complainers are less satisfied during their workday, bring their bad mood home to their families, and usually carry it over to the next day.
  • Until you change the wiring, your brain will continue to do what it does – complain.
  • When complaining becomes your unconscious default, that’s when it can become a problem for you and your accounting career. 
  • By choosing what’s worth complaining about because you want to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, you then give your brain a chance to switch into problem-solving mode instead of being depleted by complaining mode.

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