I can’t be certain, but I suspect that they all learned it in therapy. Or else, that they picked up this obnoxious habit by spending too many hours on the couch. If not on the couch, by having been indulged by a therapist who doles out the empathy and tells them that they have control issues.
The bad habit in question is: complaining. People go to therapy to complain. They go to therapy to learn how to complain. They are encouraged by their empathetic therapists to do nothing but complain. After all, their hearts and minds are brimming over with grievances, and they know that it’s best to share, even to overshare.
One day Melissa Dahl recognized that she and her friends were spending a good deal of their time complaining. They were complaining about their friends; they were complaining about their enemies; they were complaining about life; they were certainly complaining about men.
Count it as an epiphany. Dahl recounts it:
An old friend was in from out of town and a group of us got together to drink margaritas, eat burritos, and catch up. And then it started: I told a long, plotless “story” that was mostly just a character assassination of a mutual acquaintance of ours whom I’d never really liked. Someone else chimed in with a rant about his disorganized, clueless boss. This set another person off about the terrible new hours she’d just been given at work.
Today’s modern, liberated women have mastered the art of whining… about nearly everything. They must believe that being aggrieved represents a raised state of consciousness.
Besides, they learned from their therapists that venting, expressing their true feelings, would make them feel better. It would allow them to expel all of those toxic emotions and feel like they had just undergone the perfect cleanse.
But, Dahl starts to see that all the complaining is not really such a good thing:
But sometimes you wouldn’t know that by listening to me. I think I like to pretend that venting makes me feel better about things that are bothering me, and sometimes that’s true. But lately, it hasn’t been. When I left the restaurant that day, it was like all the negativity had morphed from an emotional feeling to a physical one — a queasy, heavy kind of feeling that had settled in my gut. (Though at least 50 percent of that could’ve been the burrito.)
Actually, it’s like the old therapist’s nostrum: get in touch with your feelings of anger and then express them, openly, honestly and shamelessly. Some therapists would have you beat on a pillow with a whiffle ball bat. It took years of advanced training to learn that technique.
More recently, therapists have discovered that expressing anger willy-nilly does not make you feel better. In the immediate it might provide a release, but, in time, once you start thinking about what you were doing, your sense of embarrassment will kick in and you will not be feeling very well.
Following a friend's example, Dahl decided to go on an abstinence program: a week without complaining. When she told her boyfriend he laughed at her. This told her that the problem was worse than she had imagined.
Since complaining is negative and since it makes you into a Debbie Downer, Dahl decided to try to fill her conversation with positive feelings. Don’t we live in the age of positive psychology? It’s a variant on your mother’s advice: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
The topic has not been extensively researched. I suspect that that is because so many therapists—bless their empty heads—think that complaining is therapeutic. They do not know much more than how to teach people the art of complaining, and do not want to put themselves out of business.
And yet, one research study into the topic has discovered, Dahl reports, that however much people like to complain they do not like to listen to other people complain. I trust that that does not come as a surprise.
Complaining makes you a perfect narcissist. You get yourself off emotionally while simultaneously offending another person. Thereby you obviate the risk of actually connecting with the person.
Parenthetically, complaining, even whining about everything that is wrong with one’s life seems endemic to the female gender. Have you noticed that men do not spend their time whining and complaining: it’s unmanly. It implies weakness and impotence.
Real men don’t complain.
But, how then does it happen that today’s liberated women, women who have more power, more wealth, more authority and more freedom than women have ever had seem to be addicted to a verbal habit that makes them look and sound WEAK? And that is boring and irritating.
Anyway, Dahl discovered that it is very, very difficult to avoid complaining. It’s a bad habit like another and replacing it with a good one takes time and effort and certainly a lot of stress. So, Dahl found herself slipping up, trying to cheat on her resolution, but finally learning how to offer up a positive take on experience.
Obviously, this prescription comes from cognitive therapy. In one of his first attempts to construct a cognitive treatment model, Aaron Beck recommended that people who were constantly having self-deprecating thoughts write them down and then to write down evidence that would tend either to prove or to disprove them. He was not saying that you should always have positive thoughts, but that you should seek to balance the positive with the negative.
About that no one can really object. Unfortunately, some therapists continue to believe that if people bottle up their emotions they will become neurotic and get cancer or heart disease:
And it’s not as if bottling up anger and annoyance is a better solution. In a 2002 paper, Kowalski wrote that people who don’t ever let their dissatisfaction out often end up brooding about an issue, which usually results in blowing whatever it is way out of proportion. She argues that the stress that comes from keeping those emotions inside can lead to mental health issues like depression, and even physical health woes like a weakened immune system or heart disease.
Since this reasoning was behind the chronically bad habit of complaining all the time, I am not impressed.
Apparently, the current compromise recommends that people become good at complaining. This sounds like yet another way to market therapy. It tells you not to think that complaining is such a bad thing. It’s a good thing if you do it correctly.
As it happens, this is wrong. It misses the point entirely. In the first place, if something is wrong, you do best to find a way to solve the problem. In the second and more important place, you should find something else to talk about.
How about talking about facts, experiences and reality? How about sharing information? Why this obsession with discussing feelings?
Again, therapy is at fault here. It has taught us, and especially women, that feelings are what really matter. Therapy has been promoting a tyranny of feelings. It tells us that what is most valuable is what is passing through our hearts or guts. It's a highly developed form of narcissism.
So, here’s a recommendation. How about discussing facts? How about discussing what happened or what is happening? And how about being well-enough informed about what is happening in the world that you have something else to discuss… beyond gossip. And beyond: "I hate candidate X."
If gossip is your stock in trade you will sound like someone who is disengaged from the world, a non- participant. If you gossip too much you will be betraying someone’s confidence. Doing so is not the royal road to good relationships. So, beyond getting over your habit of complaining all the time why not learn how to keep a secret? Didn’t Shakespeare say that “the better part of valor is discretion?”