Who can relate to the following dialogue: someone says “Ugh, I’m miserable, I just sat in an hour of traffic”. You say, “Ugh, yesterday I sat in two!”. Someone says “I can’t do anything, I’m so stressed, I have no money”. You say “I’ll be in debt until I’m 112”.
We think of bad habits as things like biting our nails, smoking, picking at our skin, drunk texting. But bad habits don’t stop at ticks or things we can see negative effects from as we do them. How we think about ourselves, how we think about our world, how we treat ourselves, the words and conversations we choose to engage in, these are all “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up”…or, a habit.
Therefore thoughts, words, conversations that are negative and/or disempowering are just that: bad habits. Ones that are in fact, especially hard to give up.
Why do we do this? Why is it that when someone is complaining and lamenting, we feel compelled to jump in?
As a life coach, this was the most profound lesson I learned in training: our negative behaviors have a positive intent. The process of seeking and setting that intention and engaging in the bad habit is occurring predominantly in our subconscious, meaning we don’t know it’s happening. So if you’re thinking, “I don’t believe I’m getting anything out of it, it just kind of happens”, you’re absolutely right.
Our subconscious is smart, really smart. It’s always working for us to fulfill our needs. There are two types of needs in particular that every single human has and that I believe are the root causes of all this “let’s see who has it worse” and “if you’re complaining, I’ll complain too”: the need for connection and the need for significance.
Let’s start with connection. In our current human experience, most of us believe that it is faster and easier to make a friend bonding over the person or thing you mutually dislike, instead of finding something positive and empowering you agree upon. You may have heard the expression that there’s two ways to build the tallest building in the town, one is finding a location, getting the permits, finding an architect, building a team, getting funding, gathering materials, and so on…and the other is to knock down all of the other buildings. The second option is faster and far easier.
All this is to say that we connect easily over negativity. I’m sure there are many theories as to why this is. The two that stand out to me are first, humans have a negativity bias. We developed this so we would sense danger and be able to act to get out of the way of danger and survive. In addition, as tribal creatures, we would bond over seeking out negativity, as in when a threat came upon us, we would need to bond together to escape or fight in order to eliminate the threat. Which brings me to the second, which is that humans bond over mutually experienced trauma.
Maybe this is the first you’re hearing of these concepts, or maybe you’re familiar with these concepts. My purpose of briefly explaining them are to show you that our subconscious brains believe if you engage in negativity, if you engage in co-complaining, you will be rewarded. You are rewarded with a core need: human connection.
There is another core need that every human shares (though some of you may argue): significance. We all have a core need to feel special, to feel different, to feel noteworthy. This need can seem complex as there are many ways we can meet this need. For the purposes of our conversation today, MANY of us meet this need for significance by having the biggest problems.
This is the cringe-worthy and difficult-to-admit reason why when someone says they sat in one hour of traffic, you want to tell them about the time you sat in 5. Why when someone has their tonsils taken out, you want to tell them about the time you had your appendix and left kidney removed. When you look from this seat, it’s really an ugly habit, but we all do it, myself unfortunately included.
The good news about habits is that by definition, you can change them; though they may be hard to give up, there are a lot of hard things that you do on a daily basis. In fact you may even be able to think about a habit (or maybe a person) that you gave up that in the moment felt really good and like nothing you want to give up ever. What’s great about the habit of co-complaining and competition-complaining is that we know for a fact that these things are not good for us.
Endless studies have reported the effects of negative thoughts and beliefs on our brains and bodies and how they translate to our declined financial success, declined success in relationships, and lack of ability to feel fulfilled. Negative thoughts and beliefs also release toxic chemicals throughout the body, weakening your immune system and causing you physical stress and dis-ease (disease).
If the science doesn’t appeal to you, I will present my case to the ego. Call to mind a person you know who is always complaining, always negative. What thoughts come up when you think about this person? What emotions do you feel? Are they thoughts of “I just love them so much, I cannot wait to go spend time with them, they make me feel so happy and good about myself”? Probably not. This is not to create judgment; in fact, I hope it helps dispel it. There is a reason we all have these bad habits, some more than others, and perfectly valid ones at that. So we can and need to have compassion for those are stuck in these vicious cycles, including ourselves.
Then we can also choose to rise above them. We can choose to not engage. When negative thoughts and feelings come up, we don’t judge them or ourselves, we simply choose to be uninterested in them. The same goes for when you find yourself in a conversation where people are complaining and competing over who has it worse. Rather than joining in or one-upping, you can offer something like “I’m sorry that happened” and gracefully change the subject or end the conversation.
The last point I want to leave you with is choosing to rise above negative thoughts/beliefs/conversations does not mean you are not experiencing something difficult. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consult with the people you love and trust that can support you. It’s perfectly healthy and recommended to discuss an issue you’re facing. However, there is nothing transformative or beneficial about lingering and ruminating on thoughts that aren’t empowering to you and others. This is the line where most our work will lie: when we aren’t conversing about a situation so that we can seek guidance or comfort, but instead we are just stuck in the habit of complaining and clinging to problems.
To navigate this, you can always come back to the question, “Is this serving me?” Only you can answer that, just make sure you’re doing it honestly. So the next time you find yourself about to engage in or share a negative thought or belief, ask this question and your answer will tell you what to do next. Follow this pattern and you are on your way to kicking a very bad habit.