At 63, Minnie is one of the youngest people I've ever met. She sparkles, and not just because she's dressed in a fabulous buttercup-yellow tank top bedecked with rhinestones and sequins. Everything about Minnie, from her laughter to the successful businesses she's created, seems to shine.
This radiance didn't come easily. Minnie was once a young widow, grieving the death of her husband and one of her two children. When I ask how she rose from this desolation to her success as a mother and a professional, Minnie thinks for a minute, then says, "I just got tired of hearing myself whine. I harnessed my complaining energy and used it to create a really good life."
This isn't the first time I've heard such a story. While many people spend whole lifetimes complaining, most of the high achievers I know divert the energy of frustration away from complaint and into success. I've tried both paths. I can enjoy a good whine the way connoisseurs enjoy a good wine, but eventually, like Minnie, I get sick of my own petulance. Then I embark on something you might want to try: a "venting fast." It's not for the fainthearted, but it's a powerful way to create a better life.
What's a venting fast?
On the surface, it's a simple thing. Here are the instructions:
For a period of time, say a week or a month, stop complaining aloud about anything, to anybody.
When the urge to fuss arises, vent on paper. Start with the words "I'm upset about." Then describe whatever's bothering you.
Think of at least one thing you can do to actually change the frustrating situation. Write it down.
If you can't think of any positive action steps, simply continue to resist venting out loud. Eventually, your frustration will increase until you think, "I'm so upset I just want to..." Write down what you want to do.
Do it. Divorce the guy, cuss in front of your fundamentalist sister, put off lunching with the passive-aggressive "friend" until the end of time.
If you think that a venting fast requires willpower, you're half right. After a few whine-free days, you'll find that it also requires courage—possibly more than you've ever used. To understand why anyone would put themselves through a venting fast, it helps to know a little about the psychological dynamics of complaint.
Complaining is as useful for people's minds as a whistle vent is for a teakettle. We use the phrase "let off steam" because frustration affects our behavior the way heat affects liquid in a container. As the level of negative emotion rises, we feel mounting pressure. We can handle this pressure in the same three ways we can handle steam:
Option 1: Explosion
Many people try to deal with the hot vapor of irritation by simply choking it back. This leads to behavioral explosions, as you can learn from anyone who's ever tried to be the perfect, unruffled mother, only to find herself locked in the bathroom punching towels and using language that would make pirates faint.
Or maybe that's just me.
So here's another example: The nursing staff at an inner-city hospital once told me that although treating drug addicts and gunshot victims was a scary proposition, the most terrifying thing they ever had to face (no offense—I'm just repeating what I was told) was a partially anesthetized nun. Dramatic things happened, the nurses averred, when a holy sister from the neighborhood convent was "going under," drugged just beyond inhibition but not yet to oblivion. The nurses told tales of physical violence, of naked escapes from the OR, of destructive rampages through other patients' rooms—all perpetrated by brave, godly women who in their right minds never vented about anything.
Apparently, even those of us with the awesome self-control of religious renunciants occasionally need to release psychological pressure. You wouldn't want to emerge from an appendectomy to discover that you've decked the entire surgical team with your own IV rack, would you? That's where a strategy of controlled release comes in.
Option 2: Venting
The effect of emotional venting is to sustain an unsatisfactory status quo. Most people think the opposite, that complaining is part of an effort to change an unsatisfying situation. Nope. Complaining lets off pressure so that we neither explode with frustration nor feel compelled to take the often risky steps of openly opposing a difficult person or situation. Keeping emotional pressure tolerably low doesn't change problematic circumstances but rather perpetuates them.
For instance, Regina is a Mexican-American whose white racist parents-in-law treated her abominably. She complained about this to her husband every day. When I asked why she talked to her husband, she said she was starting an information chain: She would force him to force his parents to change. How long had Regina been employing this strategy? Twenty years. And the effect to date? Nada.
Mike worked for a pompous boss who gave his subordinates little direction and less support. The underlings spent their work hours muttering angry stories and following the soap opera of office conflict. Mike came home exhausted, not from working but from venting. And things at work kept getting worse, not better.
College sophomore Dinah spent hours with her friends ranting about a certain high-ranking elected official, who shall remain nameless. This, Dinah told me, was activism. I said it looked more like passivism—neither activism nor pacifism but an excellent way of feeling intelligent and important without studying.
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.
If you try a venting fast and survive, you may find yourself heading in new, exciting directions. You may even decide to do what Minnie did: commit to an entire life without complaining. "I have a rule," says Minnie, smile and sequins flashing. "I'm not allowed to whine about anything I can change. And since I can always change my attitude, I don't expect to find a really hopeless situation in this lifetime."
I admire this position enormously, though I don't think I'm quite ready to emulate it. Recreational complaining, the sense of steam leaving those emotional vents, is still perversely enjoyable for me. Maybe someday I'll be like Minnie, who's more vibrant and successful in her seventh decade than most people are in their third. Maybe I'll go on a venting fast that lasts the rest of my life. Until then, my existence will fail to match its potential. But I'm not complaining.
At least that's a start.
Martha Beck is the author of The Four-Day Win (Rodale).