If you want to know what stage you’re at in the pandemic, check the complaint meter. In my house, everyone has been copacetic until now, but this past week the grumbling kicked in.
For example, after I said no to my teen daughter’s latest social distancing scheme (picking up a friend and having her ride in the back seat, not the front), I got an earful about how unfair I am, second only to the virus itself.
As much as I wanted to unleash a litany of my own complaints, I bit my tongue. The truth is, as I told her, I get it. I understand the urge to purge the emotional stew that’s at a boiling point, stoked by ongoing uncertainty.
While nobody loves a whiner, at times, complaining can be productive. Just know that there’s a fine line between venting and ranting.
The case for complaints
Ordinarily, complaining is seen as a time-wasting sign of ingratitude and entitlement. All of this is true, but this is no ordinary time.
As co-author of Grief and Grieving with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, David Kessler points out, “we are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” This leaves us continuously cycling through the classic five stages of coping with loss (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) and moving towards what Kessler says is the sixth stage: finding meaning.
In the meantime, airing some grievances doesn’t hurt and can help. Relationship expert Esther Perel says that complaining can be downright cathartic:
It’s a valve release. It's a way to still feel like you have a say over your life when you don't control squat.
This frames complaining the way it works best: in a quick burst. Lingering over negative opinions serves no purpose outside of strengthening the ego. Speaking out, on the other hand, helps you regain footing with a more constructive response, like gratitude.
Harboring grievances and thinking that you’ll feel better from letting ’em rip is like drinking poison and believing that will be an end to your enemy. You’ll end up alienating others unless you have some consciousness around your complaints.
Guy Winch, psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel, offers several tips for complaining effectively. These include knowing what response would feel satisfying, not letting anger distract from your message, and keeping it to one complaint at a time.
Perhaps most importantly, make sure you talk to someone who can actually help you do something about the issue or who is, at the very least, good at validating your feelings. As Perel points out, complaining is both a coping and a survival skill.
So complain wisely. Otherwise, everyone around you will want to kill you.
The Joy of Complaining (Esther Perel)