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.