ONE OF THE MOST COMMON complaints that men have about women is that we complain too much. Some men are pretty good at it, too. But no matter what your gender is, complaining can compromise other people’s inner peace as well as your own.
I once appeared on Oprah as the so-called expert on how people cope with life-threatening illness. It was a pleasure to be upstaged by a man with a debilitating neurological disease called ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Confined to a wheelchair, he’d lost almost all function. Since he could no longer breathe on his own, a respirator breathed for him. Unable to eat, he was fed through a tube. Unable to speak, he could just barely move his lips. No problem. His wife and nurse lip-read. With their help, unbelievably enough, he has become a motivational speaker.
The man was a stunning, if somewhat daunting, inspiration. Compared to his dire circumstances, my usual complaints about busyness, fat thighs, and rude drivers paled to narcissistic insignificance. He had every right to be depressed and angry, and I’m sure he had his moments. But according to his loved ones, he was really and truly a teacher of peace. When Oprah asked how he kept his spirits up, he replied that we all have the same choice. We can have a pity party or a peaceful heart. He made a practice of choosing peace.
Misery Loves Company
Every one of us is faced with the same choice, but those who choose whining over peace usually find allies in the process. Let’s say that you’re minding your own business, perhaps even feeling chipper. Then along comes someone trolling for sympathy, in person or on the phone. They want you to come to a pity party. The opening gambit might go something like this: “You look (or sound) so tired. You do so much for everyone. Are you okay?”
The expected response is for you to heave a great big sigh and then to list all the things that are exhausting you, all the people who need your help, all the ingrates who fail to appreciate your true worth, and all the things that you’d rather be doing. Then the other person tries to outdo you.
In no time at all, the two of you can work up a case of misery that would make a blues singer proud. Remember Linda Ronstadt’s funny and doleful song “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”? I like to play it when I’m in a funk because the parody is so evident that it jolts me into my right mind. The question is, why do perfectly sane people insist on making pity party a serious competitive sport? Obviously, the game can make you feel a little better in the short run because it provides support from other miserable people. And misery loves company. It’s a coping strategy.
Mutual complaining is a form of what psychologists call regressive coping.When you’re in the process of whining, you’re moving backward in time, acting like a helpless child rather than a self-actualizing adult. The other whiner is supporting you in your regression, rather than challenging you to achieve self-awareness and growth. Healthy social support spawns authentic coping that challenges you to find greater meaning and helps you develop new coping strategies while celebrating the ones that already work well.
Wacky wise woman and author Loretta LaRoche suggests that when you want to whine, you might find a friend and do it right. Each of you gets two minutes to complain to your hearts’ content without interruption. Hopefully you’ll get everything off your chest, creating a parody of the pity party without taking it seriously. If you have another few minutes, each of you can then take a turn, listing everything that you’re grateful for. That leaves you in a much better frame of mind.
“When you’re in the process of whining, you’re moving backward in time, acting like a helpless child rather than a self-actualizing adult.”
This week, watch out for regressive coping. You can easily turn down invitations to complain by mentioning the things that are going well. Being busy can be a blessing. Try focusing on the positive whenever the desire to complain comes up. If you need to let off steam, put your hands on your hips while standing in front of the mirror, and power whine for two minutes. Pretty funny, aren’t you?
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., is one of the leading experts on stress, spirituality, and the mind/body connection. She has a doctorate in medical sciences from Harvard Medical School and is a licensed clinical psychologist.