How Can We Be Grateful When We Complain So Much?

Posted on April 11, 2017


“I know I have a good husband. He’s a good dad and provider, and my kids are all healthy. Really, I’m grateful for my life, but I can’t help but notice how work always comes first to my husband, next come the kids, and I’m last! He walks in the door, kisses the kids, then walks over to me. If he’s with the kids and the phone rings, he tries not to answer it or walks into another room, but when we are together, he answers his work calls and keeps talking, as if I’m not even there. I don’t get attention from him anymore, and I’m getting resentful about it,” said Becky, frowning, during a consultation session.

“Okay, close your eyes for a few minutes, and take two deep breaths. Now use your imagination, and tell me what would make you happy in that scenario. Describe the steps that you envision. Take your time. Think of different options, and tell me what would resonate with you most. What would make you really happy?”

Almost five minutes later, Becky opened her eyes and stared blankly at me as big tears rolled down her cheeks. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said. “This is perfect.” We both sat silently for a few minutes while she gathered herself together. “I first imagined him walking in the door, right past the kids,” she went on, “to give me a hug and kiss. That made me smile. Then I saw my eight-year-old’s sad face as he whispered to my six-year-old, ‘Dad never hugs us first.’ And my six-year-old added, ‘That’s because he loves Mommy more.’ That made me teary-eyed, and I even thought how dumb of my husband not to hug and kiss the kids first. I love that he doesn’t answer the phone when he’s with the kids. But now that I think about it, when we’re together, he only answers the phone when it’s important. And when he does, he’ll always share what’s going on and even ask my opinion. What is wrong with me, Roma? Why didn’t I see this on my own? I’m a really grateful person. Why do I do this to myself when I’m truly grateful for my life?”

We all have had conflicted moments like these—where our mind plays games with us, and we’re unable to see things clearly. On the one hand, we are grateful, and on the other, we complain and mope. Why?

Certainly, we are living in an age in which expressing gratitude is advocated with full force. All around us we hear: Be grateful, count your blessings, say thank you, know how lucky you are. Research tells us that gratitude changes our brain, our sleep patterns, and our well-being, and it benefits our health.

So yes, we are more conscious of expressing our gratitude, but we do it by looking at the larger context of our lives. For example, I have a faithful husband, my kids are healthy, and I get to stay home to be with my kids. I have a roof over my head, food on the table, and so on.

But here’s the catch: Research also tells us (and social media supports it) that we are complaining more than ever before. Just as gratitude rewires your brain positively, a recent study at Stanford suggests that complaining rewires your brain negatively!

And that is also affecting our kids, who mirror our behavior. If we complain, so will they.

So why this dichotomy? Why do we complain even if we’re grateful? In my opinion, it’s because we are not expressing gratitude for the day-to-day stuff. What we need to add to our lives is a focus on expressing gratitude specifically! So the question is how?

1. Catch yourself complaining. Complaining has a snowball effect. Once we start we cannot stop. Becoming aware of complaining is the very first step.

Pay attention to when you complain. Catch yourself. Close your eyes and revisit the situation. Then in your mind’s eye, create a new vision with the issue resolved. Ask yourself if the complaining is worth it or not. Dr. Guy Winch, the author of The Squeaky Wheel, says, “As a society, we complain too much, but more importantly we don’t complain effectively. We’ve lost a sense of what complaining is for; instead, we use it as an exercise for venting and that has consequences.” Next…

2. Start naming your blessings in this particular issue. Better yet, start writing them down. I’m talking about breaking your gratitude list down to the tiny gifts of life. Take a deep breath as you enumerate each one. Bring the feeling of gratitude into your heart space. Next…

3. Sit with this feeling and follow your breath. With your eyes closed or open, follow your breath, and deposit it into every cell of your body. Start putting it in your feet, then your legs, all the way up your spine, to the crown of your head. This is how we are able not only to rewire our brain but also uplift the quality of our own lives and those that we touch—most importantly, our children. It is through such grateful, graceful meditation that we can turn off negativity and become upstanding parents raising upstanding children.

PS: When you catch your kids complaining, take them through the very same exercise.