This morning Elizabeth Bernstein announced in the Wall Street Journal that we are “a nation of whiners.” So much so that therapists have set their minds to developing methods to deal with the problem.
Strictly speaking, we owe the phrase to former Senator Phil Gramm. I myself used it a month after Gramm did, in a post I wrote nearly four years on this blog.
Many years earlier I had a similar revelation while treating a patient. I wrote about it in a story that is available on my website. The story is called “That Night at Elaine’s.”
Of course, it is not news that therapists are trying to tackle the problem of chronic whining. The recent interest in “positive emotion” and “happiness studies” shows a clear awareness that therapy needs to address a problem that it and its attendant culture have been cultivating.
Therapists who work on positive emotion are very aware of the fact that therapy itself is largely responsible for making Americans into a bunch of whiners.
The problem developed over time as generations of therapists sat dumbfounded, allowing their patients to drone on, hour after hour, about everything that was wrong with their lives.
If a therapist just sits there passively while you are complaining about this, that, and your mother, you are likely to conclude that you are doing therapy as it should be done.
Freud bears considerable responsibility for this state of affairs. He was, after all, the master of negativity. He could find something negative in any form of human behavior.
And therapy encourages whining because it fashions itself a branch of medicine.
When you go to see your physician you tell him what’s wrong, not what’s right. In a physician’s office, good news means that pain or symptoms have gone away.
Mostly, you go to see the physician when you are feeling ill. If you are a good patient, you will offer as much information as possible about everything that does not feel right or that is going wrong.
In the physician’s office, you are not whining. You are helping the physician to do his job.
In the therapist’s office, the same behavior, the relentless focus on what is wrong, becomes counterproductive. It allows you to think that there is something positive about complaining. Once you master the skill of whining you are more likely to use it in your real live.
Bernstein defines the problem of whining this way:
Whining, as defined by experts—the therapists, spouses, co-workers and others who have to listen to it—is chronic complaining, a pattern of negative communication. It brings down the mood of everyone within earshot. It can hold whiners back at work and keep them stuck in a problem, rather than working to identify a solution. It can be toxic to relationships.
How do you get someone to stop the constant griping? The answer is simple, but not always easy: Don't listen to it.
For my part, I hope that she is using the term “experts” ironically in the first sentence.
Nowadays, these experts believe that whining can be cured by applying something that has become a pseudo-therapeutic cliché: tough love.
Moms, and bosses, are good at this. Some therapists are refusing to let clients complain endlessly, as well—offering up Tough Love in place of the nurturing gaze and the question "How does that make you feel?"
Clearly, therapists have been making us a nation of whiners. They have been nurturing and coddling their patients with idiot questions like: How does that make you feel?
In the world defined by the therapy culture whining passes for an authentic emotion. Patients have been led to believe that if they are not whining they are hiding something.
I take objection to the idea that whining is going to be cured by Tough Love. When last I heard about this idea, therapists were using it to tell parents that they could help their drug-addicted children by putting them out on the street. To palliate the guilt of parents who probably did not think that it was such a good idea, therapists invented the idea of tough love.
When therapists use the term in relation to whiners they are looking for a way to call a person out on his whining while not seeming to be mean.
If a patient becomes upset when his therapist tells him to stop whining, the therapist can assert that he is showing his love by refusing to listen to it.
How do you solve the problem of whining?
First, therapists should recognize that it is a bad habit, not meaningful behavior.
Unfortunately, some therapists have not yet figured this out.
A psychoanalyst interviewed by Bernstein suggested that it is meaningful behavior. Of course, psychoanalysts think that everything is meaningful behavior. Thus, if a whiner is looking for a professional enabler he should seek out a psychoanalyst.
Another therapist also offered to find some meaning behind the whining. She suggested that: “… whining masks a deeper, more vulnerable emotion.”
This compounds the problem by saying that the patient has reason to whine, but that he is not whining about the right thing.
Second, most therapists either forbid the whining or try to shame their patients out of it.
Shaming them out of it is preferable. When you try to make a person aware of how he sounds you are affording him the opportunity to correct himself. When you forbid certain kinds of verbal expressions you are forcing him to follow your rules. The two are not the same.
It’s OK to be tough, but tough can also be rude, and it is mostly going to be rude when you start telling people to shut up.
If a therapist is rude and a patient gets angry it is not, as a psychoanalyst suggests, a transference emotion. It is a normal human response to an analyst who has been trained not to take responsibility for his own actions.
Third, better therapists know that patients need to replace their whining with something else.
Therapist Fran Walship points us in the right direction. If her patients tell her that something is wrong, she asks them how they plan to go about fixing it.
This is vastly more effective than telling them to stop whining about the problem.
Happily, Walship, like many other therapists, has stopped telling her patients to get in touch with their feelings. Her approach is more coaching than therapy. It aims at improving performance, not treating an illness.
Walship believes that when patients whine they are telling their therapists to fix their problems. When therapists allow them to keep whining they are saying that the problem cannot be fixed or that someone else will fix it.
The therapists in Bernstein’s article all have special multi-point plans for helping people to stop whining.
Fine and good.
Strangely, no one mentions the most important point: therapists must learn how to engage their patients in the give-and-take, the back-and-forth of conversation.
Changing the way people speak within a conversation is far more effective than trying to break people of the habit of whining.
If people are going to stop whining they need to learn some more constructive conversational skills. Sometimes one wonders how many therapists really possess these skills. Too many therapists have been trained to listen, not to converse; to interrogate, not to share; to sit dumbfounded, not to interact.