CBT and Retraining the Brain:
Whether you just want to be happier or you’re dealing with more serious issues like depression, PTSD, anxiety, substance abuse, or an eating disorder it’s worth looking into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to boost happiness and life satisfaction.
It begins with the acknowledgment that we choose our interpretation of what our life is like and what happens to us. It then has us consistently challenge the negatively distorted or self-destructive interpretations that we adopt and replace them with more positive and constructive ones. In short, it’s a means of retraining the brain to be more consistently happy.
I was first introduced to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy over a decade ago, in the midst of dealing with major depression and anxiety. While I could see the value in the written exercises, they seemed like an exhausting amount of work. I was too depressed, too anxious, and too busy with graduate school to keep up with them on a consistent basis. Others may not have the resources to have a qualified expert guide them through the process. If you’re in a similar situation, I present a simpler method to achieve a similar effect that is virtually free – the complaint bracelet. Think of it as “CBT-Lite”.
The Complaint Bracelet:
Based on a concept developed by Jessica Kennedy, my yoga instructors presented the complaint bracelet to me when I began teacher training. Each teacher trainee received a bracelet that was easy to take on and off. They asked us to wear it all day, every day during training and to simply switch it from one wrist to the other any time we caught ourselves complaining aloud.
Many of us were surprised at how often we had to keep moving the bracelet. With increased awareness of our own negative speaking habits, we began to change our verbal behavior. Once the out-loud complaints started to subside, the next phase was to move the bracelet each time we caught ourselves complaining silently inside our heads as well.
All of us found it to be an effective way to change our cognitive behavior. And the more we observed our own complaining, the clearer it became that complaining itself changes absolutely nothing for the better. It only drags you and those around you into negativity. It takes you farther away from either accepting a situation or taking action to change it.
It is important to note that stopping complaining does not mean suppressing feelings or avoiding speaking your mind about situations that need to be addressed. Margo Geller does a nice job explaining the difference between complaining and expressing feelings. Complaints are judgements about external conditions – for example statements like “this party is boring” or “this traffic sucks” or “my boss is a jerk”.
Expressing feelings, on the other hand, puts the focus back where you have the most control – on yourself. Instead of complaining, you might say things like “I’m feeling bored at this party” or “I’m getting really frustrated in this traffic” or “I’m feeling unappreciated or bullied by my boss”.
The difference may be subtle, but it makes a world of difference. When the focus is not on judging external conditions but on recognizing internal conditions, then the power is back in your hands. You may choose to reframe your state of mind to find some acceptance and contentment with the party, the traffic or the boss. Or you might take action to change those situations. You might decide to get out of those circumstances altogether. Whatever your approach, you are no longer the victim of an unhappy reality. You are instead the shaper and director of your experience. It’s what Harvard Researcher Shawn Achor calls “choosing your most valuable reality“.
So take a bracelet that you already own, or buy one like the beautiful pieces pictured here (courtesy of Cowboy’s Sweetheart Jewelry), and get ready to start switching! Each time you complain aloud, switch the bracelet to your other wrist. Once you master your verbal behavior and find yourself rarely switching the bracelet from wrist to wrist, it’s time for the next step. Start switching the bracelet when you find yourself complaining silently in your head. If you stick with it, you’ll like the changes you see in your moods and attitudes.
Complaining and Relationships:
The people around you will likely appreciate your increased positivity as well. Psychologists have been documenting for decades that humans have a “negativity bias“. People generally weight the negative in life more heavily than the positive. This is why we are more affected by our failures than our successes, by criticisms than by compliments, and by tragedies than by happy stories.
In the 1990s, Prof. John Gottman found in his research on marriage and divorce that negativity bias was alive and kicking in intimate relationships. His study showed that people in marriages with an equal number of positive and negative interactions evaluated their relationships overall negatively. After extensive study of what makes marriages succeed and fail, he concluded that it takes five or six positive interactions to equal one negative interaction.
Since Gottman’s studies, similar studies have reached similar conclusions. Though the suggested ratio of positive to negative varies, the principle has become a well-accepted truth: when it comes to interpersonal relations, the positive must outnumber the negative for the relationship to thrive.
Say your conversation with someone includes one negative statement and one positive statement. You may have been mathematically even-handed, but psychologically you were overwhelmingly negative. Repeated over time, that puts a strain on the relationship. It’s worth working on how much we complain not only for our personal happiness but for the health of our connections as well.
I want to emphasize that simplified methods like the complaint bracelet are not full replacements for regular meetings with a qualified counselor or a rigorous use of some of the formal techniques you might find in books like Dr. David Burns’s famous The Feeling Good Handbook. This is especially so if you are dealing with serious issues like PTSD, recurrent major depression, panic attacks etc. But the complaint bracelet is a technique for changing negative thought patterns that has worked for me and for others that I know.
If you want to start enjoying your days more and adding some positivity to your relationships, give it a shot. What do you have to lose other than a bad habit?
January 24, 2018 | Ryan Rynbrandt
P.S. If you like the idea of using your jewelry to give yourself positive affirmations, check out Cowboy’s Sweetheart Jewelry. As part of her extensive catalog of beautiful creations the artist created stackable rings, bracelets and more with messages like “I can and I will” and “with brave wings she flies” and “love without fear”. Follow Cowboy’s Sweetheart on Instagram here.
 Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc)