Saturday, September 10, 2016

Can You Please Stop Complaining

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?”


AesopFan said...

I'm not going to cite chapters and verses, but it seems to me that a lot of the message of the Bible boils down to giving the same advice: God loveth a cheerful giver; Thou shalt not covet (complaining is sometimes a way of saying that there is something someone else has that you deserve); O be joyful in the Lord; etc.

Here's a quick pick from some web searches:
(this is the longest list:
(this is the middle-sized list)
Philippians 2:14 - Do all things without murmurings and disputings:

Ephesians 4:29 - Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.

James 5:9 - Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.

Numbers 11:1-4 - And [when] the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard [it]; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and consumed [them that were] in the uttermost parts of the camp. (Read More...)

1 Peter 4:9 - Use hospitality one to another without grudging.

1 Corinthians 10:10 - Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 - In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

Exodus 16:8 - And Moses said, [This shall be], when the LORD shall give you in the evening flesh to eat, and in the morning bread to the full; for that the LORD heareth your murmurings which ye murmur against him: and what [are] we? your murmurings [are] not against us, but against the LORD.

Philippians 4:11-12 - Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, [therewith] to be content. (Read More...)

Romans 12:2 - And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what [is] that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

Psalms 106:25 - But murmured in their tents, [and] hearkened not unto the voice of the LORD.

Philippians 2:12-16 - Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Read More...)

Isaiah 53:7 - He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

Numbers 21:4-6 - And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. (Read More...)

Philippians 2:14-16 - Do all things without murmurings and disputings: (Read More...)

Matthew 7:1-2 - Judge not, that ye be not judged.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Parenthetically, complaining, even whining about everything that is wrong with one’s life seems endemic to the female gender.

I recall an author Jean Shinoda Bolen wrote a book awhile ago, trying to reclaim an other negative term crone for an older woman, and titled her book "Crones don't whine."

I also recall my dad talking about my mom years after their divorce, saying one of my mom's female friends confiding to him that she thought my mom was a complainer, and that validation perhaps helped him stand up to her and refuse to listen to her when she was complaining about something that he didn't care about.

Myself, I'd prefer to attempt a more nuanced perspective, even if I think Norman Vincent Peale's "positive thinking" is a generally good idea, and somewhat counter-intuitive compared to the guilty pleasure of whining about what other people are doing wrong.

And right here, blogging itself, and punditry in general is often motivated by the guilty pleasure of opining what other people are doing wrong.

So the problem perhaps isn't "other people complaining" as much as "other people complaining about things I don't care about right now." So its a boundary issue in setting limits.

For me I'd characterize the flaw of complaining is passivity, or basically if you're willing to tell something only to people you trust will agree with you, but are not a part of the problem, then you're really being passive-aggressive. Or at best talking to others can enable a righteous point of view that too easily falls into aggression when you do confront someone directly, and it comes out as somewhat unfair, and makes the other person defensive, and then you have to double-down on your misrepresentation of reality, or back down, and walk away confused why something so obviously wrong can't be fixed by communication.

Myself, I've used journal writing perhaps as a form of complaining, and then I don't have to bother people directly unless I can clarify what I want and need from them, and can convince myself my requests are reasonable. However in practice, journal writing also encouraged me to try to see another person's point of view, and see my own responsibility for my own boundaries, and see how I can change my own behavior to meet my own needs, and then I never have to confront the other person about an issue.

So that approach might be considered anti-complaining, and it can see up situations where I can be on the receiving end of endless complaining, and feel good to be a good listener, and acknowledge their issues, while with the same person, I'd be SURE, if I brought up my issues, they would reject them as unfair or not their problem. So at least from that, I better understood my dad's predicament with my mom's complaining.

It also reminds me of the phase "The squeaky hinge gets the oil", so how do you distinguish between complaining and an honest fair request for some small change that would make life better for everyone? If you stuff your irritations, eventually you build up resentment. And if you have no filter on your complaints, you'll push people away, no matter how giving they are.

The answer has to exist somewhere in the middle, between activity and passivity, between assuming only others have to change, and assuming only you have to change to make things better.

And anyway, I'll support journal writing as an ideal way of working out a situation for myself, but others seem to be better able to work it out in conversation, and if that comes across as complaining, probably that's true, but not always. Sometimes it might be your problem, that you have a sensitivity that is hearing complaining when a person is merely trying to communicate clearly, but imperfectly.