These venters thought their chronic complaining was "powerful civil disobedience." Actually, it was disempowering uncivil obedience. By allowing emotional pressure to dissipate without action, these people were able to sit indefinitely in predicaments that pushed them to an emotional boiling point. Now, in situations you don't want to change, this can be a good idea. I was a better mother to my toddlers after a session of recreational complaining with other moms. Having vented about our sleep deprivation, boredom, and longing for adult company, we'd return to the field of battle—er, motherhood—able to focus on the sweeter aspects of parenting. In Minnie's case, venting helped ease the anguish of losing loved ones. Without it, she might not have survived her grief. But even she reached the point where venting felt excessive, like an illness rather than a cure. Then it was time for Option 3: creating a steam-driven life.
Option 3: Harnessing the Power of Frustration
"It is not that I do not get angry," said Gandhi. "I do not give vent to anger." On another occasion he wrote, "As heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world." Gandhi was describing the power of a mind that refuses to vent frustration, channeling it into productive action the way an engine harnesses steam heat.
If you want to know how much change this can cause, consider the millennia that humans spent watching vapor rise from their cook pots before a 17th-century genius thought, "Hey, I think all that steam could drive a piston." Et voilà: the Industrial Revolution. A mere 200 years later, people were walking on the moon. This is the level of transformation that can occur when we stop complaining about our circumstances and begin channeling our emotional pressure into positive action. Look how Gandhi changed the world. He was one of the great peacemakers in all history! Right up until someone shot him!
Oh, yeah. That.
Make no mistake, a venting fast is risky. Without the option of complaining, you'll have only two choices for dealing with emotional buildup: explosion or positive action. The first will damage you, your relationships, your life. The second will fundamentally alter the status quo, and the status quo, by definition, resists change. If you follow the venting-fast rules above, you're almost certain to break implicit or explicit social rules that now govern your life. Prepare to find this terrifying.
When Regina stopped complaining about her in-laws, her emotional steam pressure quickly rendered her unable to tolerate their company. One day, when her father-in-law made a racist comment, Regina stood up and took a cab home. "I was terrified," she told me later. "But I had to do something." The ensuing argument between Regina's husband and his parents was the beginning of overdue but impressive change. Faced with the choice of being respectful or losing their son, the bigots began showing respect.
Mike's story was simpler. When he stopped complaining at the office, he became so sick of his boss and bored with his co-workers' venting that he sought, and found, a job he liked better. The end.
Dinah stopped joining in college vent-fests, but her political discontent continued. She'd always been a mediocre student, but the energy she'd been pouring into complaint now drove her to study political science. Diligently. Dinah is now in law school, thinking up ways to create a just society, rather than simply criticizing the people in power. When she runs for office, I'm voting for her.
We Hear You!