Letters From Esther #10 - The Joy of Complaining

Esther Perel

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Shall We Begin?

I’ve been talking a lot about grief lately and about suffering. So it’s time to talk about complaining. 

Grief expert David Kessler has explained how, right now, we’re all experiencing a “loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection,” and how “we are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” Kessler is famous for co-developing the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—and recently added a sixth: finding meaning. 

At this very moment, we all know people who seem to be stuck in one or another of these stages. Lockdown protesters in denial. Your daughter angry she can’t see her friends. Your partner bargaining over household duties they previously hadn’t felt responsible for. Your doctor friend combating depression while working on the front lines. As for the last two stages, it’s hard to find acceptance or meaning when we don’t have any idea when this era of prolonged uncertainty might end. 

On any given day, most of us cycle through the six stages of grief faster than we can hit “Leave Meeting” at the end of a work Zoom call. And yet so many of us are fighting our feelings. You can wake up and say “we’re going to reopen; we’re going to get back on track; we’re going to go back to normal.” This kind of effort optimism—chopping the problem into pieces, rolling up our sleeves, not asking too many questions, and getting to work on a solution—is a means of denying the complexity of this experience. And when that denial and bargaining subsides, we’ll have to accept that there may be no “going back.” We can retain optimism, however, that the new normal may bring some good changes—what Dr. Viktor Frankl termed “Tragic Optimism,” or “the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.” 

But don’t underestimate the catharsis of good old complaining. As a matter of fact, the six stages of grief would be well to add a seventh: kvetching. My Jewish ancestors mastered the art of suffering (and it is an art) as a means of maintaining a connection to our historical coping skills and to ensure, in a way, that the lessons learned from tragedy stay with us forever. 

Complaining is a mainstay of any culture: kvetching, lamenting, whining, fretting, nagging, fussing. So, when you complain to your partner…

  • “I’m bored.”
  • “I want to go to a restaurant. 
  • “I’m tired of walking around with disinfectant spray.” 
  • “Stop telling me to exercise.” 
  • “Stop watching what I eat.”

…only for them to respond: “you know, we have it really good,” guess what? You’re both right. You’re allowed to complain; it feels good sometimes! We can’t be grateful all the timeGratitude is deeply important and healing, but this is a time where we also have to make room for complaints. There’s a reason we have ten words for “complaining” in Yiddish. 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. I come from a tradition that emphasizes complaining but that, as Michael Wex wrote in his book “Book to Kvetch,” “also allows a considerable scope for complaining about the complaining of others,” and isn’t that what your partner’s doing to you? 

Your partner should give you perspective; that’s part of it. That said, saying you shouldn’t complain because you have it better than most, as if you don’t already know that, doesn’t help. It’s going to make you feel guilty about complaining…and then complain about feeling guilty. By the way, guilt means you have a conscience. Turn it into responsibility and it becomes useful. If you have money, time, hands, a platform, share it and use it. When you turn your guilt into action, it has social value, otherwise it remains mere self-absorption. So, contribute what you can in this time, then get back to complaining. 

Week by week, we’ve been going through phases. Mad hoarding and planning moved into high anxiety and stress, and now we’ve entered the stale phase. After weeks of watching delayed faces on Zoom, are we surprised we’re feeling stilted? Hasn’t it been refreshing to read all of these articles about how productivity in quarantine is overrated? How many of us made plans to take care of the never-ending project list? On the days we have managed to be productive, it has felt great. But, besides work—which I love—I struggle to self-motivate. And since I’m bored of hearing myself complain and feeling bad about complaining, I have shifted to full group accountability. It’s not everybody’s recipe, but I find it more motivating than anything I can do alone. 

I get up early for yoga five days a week because I know I have my friends waiting for me on Zoom. Even if I stayed up late and didn’t sleep well, I’m motivated to see my people who are waiting for me and who are themselves motivated knowing that I’m waiting for them. Yes, we do yoga, but we also catch up, share resources, and get a chance to complain outside of our own echo chambers. And, by the way, it’s okay to have some friends that you want to engage with a lot, others you want to engage with a little—and others that you just want to complain about. I don’t usually condone gossiping to relieve stress, but when a friend’s pandemic-related social media behavior is driving you insane, or maybe even making you a little jealous, a little gossip can have a homeopathic effect.

As my friend Guy Winch wrote in his book “The Squeaky Wheel,” there is actually a right way to complain that will get you results, improve your relationships, and enhance your self-esteem. I recommend you read his book if you want to develop the art of effective complaint. But my letter today is simpler: it’s just to give us all the permission for good old kvetching, or as some of our grandparents called it, “krechtsen.” 

We can be grateful and complain. We can be accountable and slack off. We can be peaceful and loving and we can talk shit and blow off steam. Kvetching is a survival tool. Use it wisely. It will help us cope during these scary times. Complaining is juicy. So make your complaints good. 

Let’s Turn the Lens on You

Complaining is better with others. 

  • Make space for other people to vent aloud. It often expresses their feelings of loss and longing. They know that they are powerless and they have to accept the situation; venting gives them the illusion that they have a say. It’s best to just let it pass and not try to reason with it. 
  • Have a little competition with whomever you’re quarantined or in touch with about your best complaints.
  • If you have kids, create a house chart of complaints where they can let out their own. Display it on the fridge for all to see. We can’t only have stars for good behavior.
  • If your complaints are more serious in nature, try Guy Winch’s tips for productive complaining, whether with a spouse, child, or friend. It’s not the same as venting. 
  • And be careful to avoid what Winch refers to as “the five mistakes we make when complaining.

Let's continue the conversation.

Watch the replay of the Letters From Esther Workshop: Complaining, Comparing, and Coping.

More From Esther

The Art of Us: Love, Loss, and Loneliness (with a pinch of humor!) Under Lockdown / My free workshop series This free four part workshop series covers how we engage with the new normal from a relational perspective and includes a resource list to help you during this time. 

What Is This Feeling? Anticipatory Grief and Other New Pandemic-Related Emotions / A recent blog 
The unprecedented crisis caused by the novel coronavirus has left us with a set of unfamiliar emotions. Read more to learn about these new emotions you may be experiencing and what to do about them.

A New Documentary Series In the midst of our changing world, I am working on a documentary series about sexuality and eroticism. I am interested in hearing where your imagination has been taking you lately, and what creative ways you have encountered to stay connected to the erotic. So wherever you are in the world, I invite you to leave me an audio or video message at estherperelproject.com.

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