Complaining is easy. It is as natural as breathing. Complaining requires little thought and zero action. That’s why we don’t stop complaining about the government, the authorities, those toxic relationships that makes our lives impossible, the infernal traffic, the slow connection, the exhausting work, the destiny, the whole humanity…
There is no doubt that complaints allow us to let off steam, shake off frustrations and vent anger, which is liberating, at least momentarily. However, how good is complaining in the long term? Have those complaints improved your life, solved your problems or made you happier? Probably not.
Complaining is so comforting precisely because it prevents us from taking responsibility for our thoughts and actions. Complaining keeps us entertained, but it doesn’t lead us anywhere. That is why the Stoics proposed to abolish complaints from our lives.
The art of forgetting what we cannot control and focusing on what we can change
The Stoics were convinced that we can use philosophy and reason to reach a state of serenity, joy and mental strength. That is why they believed that regretting and worrying about things we cannot change is a kind of unhealthy self-sabotage.
Epictetus summed it up masterfully: “There is only one way to happiness: stop worrying about things that are beyond the power of our will.” This Stoic philosopher thought that worrying, complaining and investing emotional energy in those things that we cannot change or control is the fastest and most direct path to demoralization, depression and mental fatigue.
On the contrary, he encouraged us to focus on what we do have control over, such as our actions, habits, responses, words, thought patterns and emotions. Marco Aurelio shared his vision: “It’s ridiculous not to try to avoid your own evil, which is possible, and instead trying to avoid that of the others, which is impossible […] You always have the option of not having an opinion. You do not need to be nervous or disturb your soul for things you cannot control. These things are not asking you to judge them. Leave them alone.”
It is simply a change of focus: stop focusing on what we cannot control to direct our efforts and energy on what we can change.
Behind the radical acceptance promulgated by the Stoics is not a conformist, defeatist or passive stance, but rather the opposite. Focusing on what we can change leads to true empowerment, that which comes from the full awareness of our forces, from the maturity of recognizing its scope and limitations.
“Remember that everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, it is not the truth […] If you are afflicted by something external, that pain is not due to the event itself, but to the meaning you give it, and you have the power to eliminate it at any time […] ] You have power over your mind, not over events. Realize this and you will find strength”, wrote Marco Aurelio.
How did the Stoics deal with adversity without complaining?
Epictetus spent his childhood as a slave in Rome and lived a large part of his life with a completely disabled leg, but still celebrated his fate and became a great philosopher whose teachings crossed the barrier of time and space.
Seneca, another great exponent of Stoicism, faced his death sentence for political reasons serenely and it is said that he even scolded his disciples for mourning his destiny by asking them to resort to the Stoic teachings to cope with the loss.
1. Negative Visualization
The Stoics were convinced that we need to control our expectations and desires because they are the main source of frustrations, disappointments and complaints. If we feed unrealistic expectations and these are not met, we will feel dejected and have the tendency to find a culprit.
To avoid this, the Stoics proposed a kind of negative visualization that helps us prepare for the blows of life. “We should love all our loved ones, but always keeping in mind that we have no guarantee of keeping them forever; Moreover, we do not even have the guarantee that we will keep them for a long time”, said Seneca.
Marco Aurelio recommended a daily negative visualization exercise: “Begin every day by telling yourself: Today I will meet interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, bad will and selfishness.”
Perhaps in the hegemony of “positive thinking,” the words of the Stoics have a bitter taste, but in reality this type of exercise can take us away from depression and dejection to encourage us to celebrate all we have, here and now.
Negative visualization can help us prepare for the worst in the best way, so that nothing takes us by surprise and we don’t feel so overwhelmed or dejected when adversity knocks on our door – something that will happen sooner or later.
The secret? Apply this technique to its right extent, avoiding making it an excuse to feed catastrophic thinking. We must bear in mind that its main objectives are to lower our expectations to avoid disappointments and learn to take nothing for granted.
A constructive way to apply the negative visualization of the Stoics is to write every day three valuable things we have. Imagining how sad or disappointed we would feel without them, we can revalue them even more, experience gratitude and take care of them in the best possible way.
As if by magic, when we begin to focus on what we have, instead of what we don’t have, complaints disappear from our lives. “A wise man is one who does not cry for the things he does not have, but rejoices over the things he has”, said Epictetus.
2. Amor Fati
Amor fati is a Latin phrase that means “love your destiny”. It is a stoic idea that implies accepting everything that happens to us, including suffering and losses, as something positive or from which to obtain a teaching because it has allowed us to become the person we are today. According to the Stoics, that was the way to live more calmly and happily, far from banal complaints.
Epictetus summed up this idea: “Demand not that things happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do, and you will go on well.”
Amor fati means that we feel that everything that happens is part of a process, of a learning path that we must follow to grow as people. However, that destiny is not understood as inevitable, we do not assume a passive role, but we have the possibility to build, within the limits imposed by chance – understood as our society, culture, family…
Chance plays an important role, but we have the possibility of reacting in two ways: denying it and living as if life itself were a heavy burden, lamenting all that happens to us; or accept it and assume that in life sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. That is, if we accept the triumphs, we must also accept the defeats and if we accept the joy, we must accept the sadness because one would not exist without the other.
However, amor fati does not imply simply accepting reality, but embracing it. The goal is to move from “I don’t agree with what has happened to me” to “I assume what happened and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
There are many ways to apply amor fati. A simple exercise is to look back at the adverse situations we have faced, and try to understand how they have strengthened us or what teachings they have given us.
In this regard, Nietzsche, who in some aspects could be considered a Stoic philosopher, wrote: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less concealit—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it”.
We must remember that only when we embrace life, with its lights and shadows, with the joys and misfortunes, will we develop the appropriate attitude to take full advantage of it, until the last drop.