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Archive for March 2011

One Counselor’s “Take” on A Complaint-Free World

As a backlash to the emotional repression of the 1950’s, the new mantra for the next several decades became “Express yourself!”  “Let it all hang out!” And boy did we!  Much was accomplished as individuals and groups felt free to express themselves politically, socially and artistically.  As the pendulum swings back again, the new mandate is… Well, express yourself…as long as it’s positive. Don’t be negative. In fact, let’s never comment negatively again!  A Complaint-Free World!

 

We have returned full-circle to the repression of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  People judge themselves, their friends, co-workers and employees, as committing a major faux pas if they speak negatively about situations or people, no matter how legitimate the critique may be.  Complaining is the new “cootie” and no one wants to catch it.  As a mental health professional, I am concerned.

 

As human beings we have the capacity for discernment.  We not only notice what is positive, fun and delightful, but also what is horrible, unjust, unfair, annoying, disappointing and confusing—and everything in between. There are times when we need to talk about our perceptions and experiences–not for gossip or to be “negative” but to gain insight, understanding, support, perspective and resolution.  Unfortunately, there are very few safe places where we can be “real” in today’s climate.

 

If we are candid, open, and vulnerable we can put our employment and friendships at risk.  Yet if we stuff anything that could be perceived as a “negative” comment or perception, we cut ourselves off from our real perceptions and feelings.  We deny our authenticity and the results are not good.  Anxiety, anger for no known cause, depression that comes “out of nowhere,” panic attacks, forgetfulness, somatic complaints, a feeling of being cut-off from self and others, a sense of disintegration, —all can happen when we don’t honestly acknowledge, integrate and process all aspects of our lives, whether pleasant or challenging. There are many possible causes for the problems listed above but over-use of the defense mechanisms of denial, repression, suppression and projection has its consequences.

 

I am not advocating going around being a “Debbie Downer.”  There is a difference between having a negative personality style and speaking honestly about a situation.  When someone is in a negative state, she may receive flowers and say “I like flowers from this other shop better.” Her gratitude and joy meter is impaired. When we slip into being negative or petty we might critique something about another person that is none of our business, i.e. “Did you see that dress she was wearing?”

 

In contrast, a person in a generally healthy state who is trying to process a situation might legitimately wonder “Why did that person seem so rude to me?” and in an attempt to gain understanding, confide about the episode and/or her feelings to a friend.  The problem is we’ve become so indoctrinated against any hint of “negativity” that many of us can no longer tell the difference between what is just plain negative, catty or mean and what is normal and productive processing.  Feeling uncomfortable in the gray area, many of us have made the decision that negativity of any kind is unacceptable.  There is, however, a middle path. That proverbial path that seems to be the way to so many well-advised metaphorical destinations!

 

As with most things, seek balance. Express appreciation at least as much as critique. If most of your thoughts and comments are negative, then you might need to work on noticing and speaking about more positives in your life.  Developing an attitude of gratitude is definitely beneficial to mental well-being, not to mention relationships and employment, but if you find that everything you say is positive, or that you are overly sensitive to others’ “complaining,” you may ask yourself if you are denying, repressing, avoiding, or ignoring important issues in your own life. For the sake of mental health and authenticity, we need to acknowledge and appreciate the full range of emotional and cognitive experiences available to us as human beings and allow others to do the same. This takes courage, but I believe we are up to the task.  So, go ahead and complain! Just do so in moderation.