What Are You Complaining For?

Hi there – Happy Easter to all who celebrate it. I am up and walking around on a beautiful, chilly, early spring day, with bulbs poking their green noses out of the dirt (and a few, their bright flowers.) I am headache free for the first time in 5 days and enjoying a lovely family visit. I really don’t feel in the least like complaining. But I thought about it a lot while I lay in bed this past week with sinus Martians and Migraine beasts fighting for control of my head. (They both won.)

Some folks just don’t like to complain. That preference is generally seen as virtuous, stoical (for which read, a good thing) and considerate. Hazel Reese’s autobiography, a tale of a life with chronic illness, is entitled I Will not Complain. I don’t intend to take anything away from the non-complainers, they have my reluctant admiration. You may have guessed that I myself do not often rank among their numbers. I do think there are several ways to look at, and use, the practice of complaining, or not complaining.

What are you complaining for? I mean what is the point of complaining? Actually there can be several points. The complaining we don’t like, the kind we, well, complain about, is the complaining that has no purpose other than to make us feel sorry for the complainer. Whining. Whinging. We don’t want to go visit Aunt Sue or we’re hardly friends with Bill anymore because all she/he does is whine. Taking it down a level, what we’re really objecting to is an evasion of responsibility. If only you knew how bad it was for me, you wouldn’t expect so much of me. If only you understood, you would take all these burdens from my shoulders.

There are several other reasons to complain, though, which are perfectly responsible, even virtuous. We can complain to get it off our chests, what we coaches sometimes call clearing. When I sit down to a coaching session with a client we usually spend a few minutes noticing if anything is getting in the way of our ability to be fully focused in the present – and if something is, we name it so we can put it aside. “I’m feeling sad about…, I’m upset by…, I’ve been angry about…” Those emotions keep on operating in the background and color the way we think and what we see as possible, if we don’t give them voice, whether we write them down or share them with someone who will help us clear our minds.

And then there’s complaining to get results, to make change, to change history. Most of us have seen the bumper sticker “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Any social change worth mentioning has happened with a great deal of powerful committed complaining. Public opinion does not change without an awakening of empathy. You can awaken empathy by complaining, by making sure someone else really gets it, really understands your world. I’m thinking about the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), which took a great deal of powerful committed complaining. For those of us with invisible illness, with Migraine Disease and the other chronic icks that have people saying “but you don’t look sick…”, it might not be a bad idea to complain more. Not like Bill and Aunt Sue, like the ADA advocates.

Try these: “I don’t look sick, but I feel like there’s a squirrel with a chain-saw in my head” (thanks Migraine Chick!); “Oh yes, I’d be fine, if only they’d stop trying to remove my brain with a grapefruit spoon” (that was me for the last week). Or a more sincere heart to heart with the non-migraineur of your choice, asking him/her to support the AHDA (Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy) efforts to get a fair share of NIH funding for headache disorders!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

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