There's Room for Everyone to Complain

Posted on Saturday, November 17, 2018 

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I hear it all the time. People starting to share that they're not feeling so great, that they're struggling, having a hard time. And then - boom - they switch gears.


"But other people have it much worse, so I shouldn't complain."


If it's a therapy client of mine saying this, I'll often say something like, "This is your therapy hour. You get to complain all you want!"


I encourage my clients to complain, especially those for whom sharing their struggles doesn't come easy. This tends to be people who tend towards caretaker roles, people who are used to pushing aside many of their own needs to take care of others.


Every complaint is an expression of an unmet need. If we close ourselves off to hearing the complaint, we miss the opportunity to connect with our needs.


I'm seeing this a lot as people respond to the Camp Fire in Butte County, which completely devastated the northern California town of Paradise. Last I read, 63 people were dead and 631 people were missing. Not to mention all the people who lost everything and are now trying to figure out how to carry on. And the domestic and wild animals affected. It is the most destructive wildfire in California history and it is horrific.


Here in the Bay Area we're dealing with the impact of all the smoke and the toxic air. The worst air quality ever recorded. People are breathing toxic air, and many of us are very worried about it. And we're so close to such intense devastation just north of us, it's terrifying and excruciatingly sad. Not to mention the panic and anger that arises when we link it to climate change.


This is a very difficult time, both physically and emotionally. You get to complain.


Many of us are staying indoors as much as possible. Things are getting canceled, including things many people rely on to maintain mental health: support groups, therapy, yoga, religious gatherings. Many go-to strategies for self-care are inaccessible: walks to release stress/anger/anxiety; time in nature to soothe the nervous system and nourish the soul; exercise like running, sailing, hiking. At the time when we most need our self-care strategies, many of them are out of reach.


But still I'm hearing local people say, "Well, I shouldn't complain because I'm alive and not displaced."


The second part is totally true: we are alive and not displaced. It could be so much worse, and it IS so much worse for so many of our neighbors to the north.


AND we still get to complain, because human beings can multi-feel: we can appreciate what we have, have empathy for those who don't have what we have, and also complain about what we don't have.


In fact, the more we express our complaints (i.e. express our unmet needs) to someone who can listen with an open heart and no judgment, the more we are freed up to appreciate what we do have and have empathy for those who have lost so much.


Alternatively, the more we judge ourselves or others for complaining (i.e. suppressing unmet needs), the more things get bottled up and this contributes to depression, isolation, loneliness, and anxiety.


My offering this afternoon is this: Complaining (to someone who can listen with an open heart) is good for your mental health. It is an expression of your feelings and needs, and your feelings and needs matter.


So, find a friend, a therapist, a family member, a chaplain, a teacher, a minister who cares about you, who will listen to you with an open heart, and complain away! I've been doing it all week!


© Ali Miller, MFT 2018

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