What are we missing by keeping our woes to ourselves?
I have a lot to complain about lately. I bet you do, too. I’ve been feeling sad and anxious. I’m tired. I worry about money on a near-daily basis. I miss my friends. I ache to travel freely, to hug people, to take a full day off. I lost my mind, and fear losing it again. I’m sorely lacking pants that fit. Some days, juggling work and motherhood feels impossible.
I keep the majority of these complaints to myself. Whenever I do talk to friends—which doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like—I either stick to happy updates (“The baby is rolling over now!”) or generic woes (“Yeah, this pandemic feels like it will never end, doesn’t it?”). I swallow my sadness, reminding myself that everyone else is struggling, too.
I’m a big proponent of talking about the tough stuff. I’m also a believer in not burdening people when they’re facing their own problems.
This puts me in a difficult spot. I’ve been reluctant to complain to friends lately, not wanting to add to their already-full plates. I avoid sharing my pandemic gripes because, well, we’re all experiencing it. And I hesitate to vent about anything else because we’re already so drained.
Last May, I wrote about the Ring Theory, which proposes that, in a crisis, there are people at the center who need the most support. Those people can vent to or lean on anyone else who is not as affected in that moment. The less affected people should avoid venting to or leaning on the more affected people; instead, they should seek support from someone even further out from the center of the crisis than they are.
In a pandemic, the Ring Theory doesn’t quite work. We’re all affected by the coronavirus crisis. And while some situations and certain days are undoubtedly easier than others, at this point—11 months into the pandemic—we’re all emotionally drained. It can be hard to shoulder other people’s burdens when you’re already exhausted from carrying your own.
The past year has worn on all of us. We’re tired of being inside our homes, or tired of being shamed for doing things outside our homes. We’re frustrated with all of the people who aren’t treating the pandemic like we are. We miss our old routines. We hate wearing masks and not being able to hug each other. We’re experiencing anxiety and depression. We’re not as motivated to do the things that are good for us.
But complaining about pandemic life seems trivial. If we’re all experiencing it—and if other people have it worse—then what’s the point of whining about it?
In our cheery-at-all-costs society, we’re conditioned to say things like, “I can’t complain!” when asked how we’re doing. Lately, it feels like that response carries a bleak subtext: I can’t complain, because there’s no room for it.
I feel safe griping about certain topics with certain people. I grouse about parenting problems with other parents and widow struggles with fellow widows, but I have no idea who to go to about my pandemic woes. I can’t possibly complain to my mother who lives alone, my buddy who’s deemed an essential worker, or my friend who’s struggling to help her children navigate virtual school. Everywhere I look, it seems like there’s someone who has it worse than I do.
So I wind up saving almost all of my complaints for my partner, Billy. I don’t recommend this!
I never considered the value of complaining until I missed it. Talking about our problems keeps us from bottling up stress. It provides a more realistic view of the world—a healthy antidote to the airbrushed version of life we see on social media. And venting is a powerful social tool. That’s maybe what I miss most. Without the bond of shared misery, friendships can feel stifled.
I also miss having the capacity to listen to friends’ complaints. I miss offering either validation or solutions, depending on the mood. I miss feeling like I can be someone people come to when things are hard. I miss when things were light enough for us to gripe freely and not feel self-conscious about it.
To be fair, there are plenty of downsides to complaining. Venting can easily become a bad habit. It can worsen the mood of the people around us—and result in us being in a worse mood than we were to begin with. Regular complainers risk falling into more serious patterns of rumination or resentment.
Still, I miss it.
I realize how meta this is: Complaining about not being able to complain. But that’s another benefit of complaining; when done mindfully, it spurs you to look for solutions. In an interview with The New York Times, Robin Kowalski, a professor of psychology at Clemson University, explained that, “Yes, it’s good to complain, yes, it’s bad to complain, and yes, there’s a right way to do it.”
I’m interested in the right way. Dr. Kowalski and other experts recommend paying attention to how often you complain, what you hope to get out of complaining, and who you do it with. (Sorry, Billy.) Taking a deep breath before calling a friend to vent can work wonders. Instead of mindlessly blowing off steam, you can talk about your issues with a clear purpose in mind. It’s also always a good idea to check in with that person first. Ask whether they have the emotional bandwidth to listen to your problems before you start to gripe. If they don’t, look for another outlet.
Turns out, I can complain. By this point in the pandemic, I’m tired of keeping my grievances to myself, dumping them exclusively on my partner, and censoring my conversations with friends. From now on, I’m going to give myself permission to vent—mindfully. Who knows? It might lead to a wonderfully liberating conversation. After all, misery loves company, and—let’s be honest—there’s plenty to be miserable about these days, and not enough company.
p.s. What do you need to complain about? Lay it on me! Reply to this email, leave a comment, or send me a message. I’ll feature a variety of responses in Friday’s newsletter—a judgment-free zone that’s available for paying subscribers.
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The wonderful Nisha Chittal linked to My Sweet Dumb Brain in her newsletter this Sunday. Thank you, Nisha, and hello new readers!
Speaking of sweet shoutouts, I’m still beaming from the kind words you all wrote when sharing why you read this newsletter. I compiled them in last week’s subscriber-only post. If you’re not (yet!) a paying subscriber, here’s a taste:
There are far too few voices talking gently, and openly, about the challenges of life in our era and how to participate in the world without losing your humanity. Maybe that sounds highfalutin—maybe it is!—but this email is a balm that soothes. Always reminds me that I'm not alone, and that all isn't lost, either.
Thank you, Leslie. And thanks to everyone else who chimed in.
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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, whose rheumatoid arthritis has been flaring lately, despite increasing and changing medications. Chronic pain is definitely worth complaining about. Photo by Nate Neelson on Unsplash.