Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Advice for Whinos

Where did anyone get the idea that complaining was a constructive activity? Where did anyone get the idea that whining about everything that was going wrong would enhance personal relationships, reduce stress and produce emotional serenity?

I’ll leave it to you to answer those difficult questions.

For now, we note that a number of chronic complainers have taken up the challenge to live their lives for a year without complaining. Or better, without complaining very much.

One suspects that complaining is an addiction. Chronic complainers are whinos. If so, then the solution is to go cold turkey. It's like any other addiction. The first step is to stop drinking, to stop taking drugs, to stop looking at porn.

One hastens to note that there is nothing wrong with drinking wine in moderation. A wino consumes too much wine too often, regardless of the consequences.

The same applies to whinos. They whine too much, too often, to too many people, regardless of the effect it has on their relationships.

It might not be a bad idea to have a recovery movement for whinos. If we did we would have to start by asking what there is about our culture that encourages people to vent, to express negative feelings… regardless.

If you want to stop complaining, the first step is to stop complaining. You should not ask yourself why you complain all the time. Stopping a bad habit cold turkey is the place to start.

That does not, of course, mean failing to notice anything negative in the world. Such would be folly. It does mean that when something goes wrong you should address it as a problem looking for a solution, not as a problem that will become more insoluble because you are complaining about it.

When you grant pride of place to your feelings about a problem you are telling yourself that the problem cannot be solved.

Some researchers have suggested that we complain all the time because it is the easiest way to forge a human connection. I disagree. One might say that two drunks in a bar can connect somewhat easily, but still, do you think that theirs is a real connection. One might say that porn and fetishes are the easiest path to sexual arousal, but easiest in that case seems to make human connections of the erotic variety more difficult.

If two people connect because they dislike the same brand of beer they are connecting by referring to the same object, not so much because they are sharing the same feeling.

When people connect because of a mutual dislike they sometimes decide that they must take action against the object of their disdain. They become partners in crime. Surely, this is not the primary form of human connection.

As it happens, there is now a no-more-complaining challenge. Jessica Hillinger writes about it in Fast Company:

But all of that whining comes with a cost. When we complain, our brains release stress hormones that harm neural connections in areas used for problem solving and other cognitive functions. This also happens when we listen to someone else moan and groan. "It’s as bad as secondhand smoke," Gordon says. "It’s secondhand complaining." Just as smoking is banned in most offices, Blake says he’s banned complaining among his team members. "I give them one chance, and if I catch them a second time, that’s it for them."

Secondhand complaining… hmm. Isn’t it an occupational hazard for therapists? Don’t patients use a considerable amount of session time sharing their complaints? Don’t therapists pride themselves on their ability to empathize with their patients’ pain?

What if the activity is bad for the mental health of both therapist and patient? Hmmm.

I am confident that most therapists would recoil at the possibility of banning their patients from complaining, but how about reframing the question, not in terms of how bad it feels, but in terms of what they can do to solve the problem that elicits the complaint.

As the directors of the no-complaining project suggest, one needs to find a mean between not complaining at all and complaining all the time.

But, isn’t the no-more-complaining project an invitation to repress your authentic feelings? Aren’t your complaints, your negative emotions who you really, really are? Doesn’t therapy prescribe expression as a cure for repression?

Surely, we should reconsider all of these received dogmas. When therapists tell the world that complaining is more authentic and that bottling up emotion will make you sick, they are fostering a bad habit, even an addiction. If the culture prescribes it and if everyone else does it, whinos are following a rule and are feeling like they are part of the crowd.

Hillinger’s  offers some constructive advice for whinos.

When you note that something bad has happened, you are not necessarily complaining.  Saying that it’s very cold outside is not complaining. When you add that you hate living in a northern state because you are tired of the cold… then you are complaining.

Addressing the problem involves looking into job opportunities in Florida or Texas.

Project leaders recommend that you choose your friends better, and thus that you separate yourself from whinos.

Again, one wonders what this will do to the average therapy practice.

Leah Shapiro, for one, began the project at the beginning of the year. She reports her experience:

At the end of February, Shapiro says the Complaint Restraint project was hard but worth it. "I slipped a lot," she says. "But I’ve had more examples this month of me being more positive and better things happening." She learned to deal with her negativity by going to hot yoga when she felt it rising inside her, and she kept a journal. She even saw improvements in productivity at work, finally tackling a project she’d been avoiding and whining about. "It was something I found so boring, and then I just cranked it out. And I just felt so good having accomplished it."

She’s going to try to see the project through the rest of the year, hoping that, with time, "complaints will kinda melt away and won’t be something I seek out for a security blanket."

Of course, she is applying principles that were developed in cognitive behavioral therapy.


sestamibi said...

"Saying that it’s very cold outside is not complaining. When you add that you hate living in a northern state because you are tired of the cold… then you are complaining.

Addressing the problem involves looking into job opportunities in Florida or Texas."

Yeah right. Then they'd complain about the heat instead.

Ares Olympus said...

re: When you note that something bad has happened, you are not necessarily complaining. Saying that it’s very cold outside is not complaining. When you add that you hate living in a northern state because you are tired of the cold… then you are complaining.

Yes, this is an important distinction, but not always so clear. And for moving south, a professor I worked for moved south after retiring, an agreement he has with his wife when they moved to Minnesota, but she had to stay 20 years. Hopefully she didn't complain to him too much while she waited. But perhaps she could make him feel guilty when she wanted something, if she reminded him of her sacrifice for him.

And I liked to say people don't have a right to complain about who gets elected unless they vote. But still, that's example where you can only complain by commiserating with others who agree with your unhappiness with the results. Of course if there's a recount, you can get excited for weeks, and speculate about voter fraud, etc, and plan for new voter ID laws to keep 90 year olds without IDs from voting.

The question of complaining reminds me of the "Awareness cycle", separating a sequence of (1) Observation (2) Evaluation (3) Feeling (4) Action.

So complaining would seem to be about the evaluation stage, and the evaluation stage is also about "belief" so assumptions you take to your thoughts affect how you interpret your observations.

Positive thinker Norman Vincent Peale certainly would agree complaining is counterproductive.

My dad went to a new age church in the 1970's and he learned the power of positive thinking, and that we all have the right to ignore anyone who can't reframe everything into a positive. It seems like a good idea, but the failure seems to be that you can hear "truth" as complaining, like if you break your word, and someone calls you out on it, you can say they are complaining, and not listen.

But again, I see that's were sticking to observations and avoiding evaluations is useful, so you can say "You promised to not work this weekend, and here you are going to work." So that might be complaining, while saying "You lied again." might be more of a complaint, and accusation, implying both an action, an intention (to deceive), and a pattern of behavior, none of which can be defended from or "fixed". Of course the husband can say "I'll quit my job, is that what you want?" And that'll shut the wife up, whether its a bluff or not.

So when someone is complaining its probably better also to repeat back the facts, and avoid "hearing" the judgements. So you can say "I understand you're disappointed I'm going into work today. I agree this is breaking my agreement, and its not what I wanted, but what I need to do to finish my project."

I'm sure the Jungian shadow is involved too, so when you hear complaint, you can try to separate observation from evaluation in the other person, and if you focus on the observations, maybe it would be as annoying to hear?

Ares Olympus said...

I'm curious if whining more of a feminine trait? Or more socially sanctioned at least?

There was a book out a few years ago, I just heard an interview, containing advice for older women interested in being more powerful in their lives, and is called "Crones don't whine".

It seemed good advice, like this article about the book.

Chapter 1
Crones Don’t Whine

TO BE A CRONE, you need to let go of what should have been, could have been, might have been. You need to silence the whining in your head that will come out of your mouth next. Whining makes you unable to live in the present, or be good company for anyone—even yourself. Whiners assume they were and are entitled to a different life from the one they have. Whiners do not see that everyone has had a share of the bad things that happen to people. Ungrateful for what they do have, whiners cannot enjoy the present.

Juicy Older Woman Rule #1.
Crones don’t whine.