The fine art of fruitful complaining

On a butoh retreat with many crazy artists in Italy, a Hungarian colleague remarked to me that I’m probably the most negative person he knows – I skilfully find something to complain about in any situation.

He said he’d spent time in Poland (my patriotic fatherland) at one point and noticed that Polish people in general excel at complaining.

That is certainly true; for example, complaining about the weather or the government or the healthcare system is a fully acceptable conversation starter in Poland (at least as far as an autistic can judge). The hairdresser did it – complaining about the government’s newest pupil indoctrination policies. 

Judging by my own family, within the Polish population, aspies may be one of the leading groups in terms of the sheer length (hours over years?) and logical sophistication of the complaints generated. (I guess sometimes you could call it social critique, sometimes not.)

I later had a Jewish friend, an avatar of Spinoza, with whom we ran complaining contests. I cannot say for sure whether he is on the spectrum, but his yeshiva education provided him with the right dialogical tools to compete. Resourced with a rich and varied pool of life problems as well as a natural inability to keep his mouth shut – certainly a worthy opponent.

(It was claimed that complaining is also a Jewish area of expertise, which I am unable to verify. Given the millennium of shared history, I wondered whether complaining could have been a Polish export to Israel; although my friend would presumably assert the reverse.)

Yet, back to the point. 

Conscious complaining

My emotion regulation bible, Karla McLaren’s “The Language of Emotions“, touts complaining as a major psychological stabiliser. By “telling it like it is” (in the right mind-frame and circumstances) one is to restore emotional authenticity and flow. One is to ground and come back to a clear view of things and a lighter mood and more readiness for taking up the work of living.

If complaining always had that effect, my friend and myself would have become the paragons of psychological stability and probably “authentic” personal development gurus years ago. (In fact, at one point that was the project.)

Poland would be an El Dorado of authenticity (in some ways it is, you’ll never miss it when the shop assistant or bank teller has a bad day), and Israel would have found a solution to all its questionable predicaments.

The above is a joke, but still what’s the difference between the complaining that leaves you relieved and ready and that which leaves you cycling into greater doom and despair?

My emotions bible wants the complaining to be “conscious”. The suggested method  is “ritualising” it, in a sense: a deliberate opening gesture, a complaining session (with a partner who volunteers to exchange complaints, or with e.g. a wall or a table) carried out whole-heartedly, driving things to the extreme (whether that’s comical, offensive or gruesome), after the climax, a closing gesture. Perhaps a little rest and regeneration afterwards. 

The point is (my reconstruction) to listen to your own honest complaints, hence to understand what really bothers you, what is wrong and unjust, etc. That leads you not only to blow off steam, but if you are paying attention also to understand intuitively what you care about, and what your honest view of (emotional, ethical) reality is. 

I believe that’s perhaps where the crucial point, for some people lies. 

Because I have certainly heard people complain (and engaged in the same procedure endless times) for hours, days, or years – still somehow managing to manoeuvre around any felt, gut-level acknowledgment of their own emotional reality as it presents itself in the complaints. 

In a way, one is complaining without really “getting to the pain point” – perhaps blaming everything and everyone, yet not actually seeing and acknowledging what is felt and experienced, actually, on the emotional level, in the context of the various betrayals and offences. 

It’s essentially rootless complaining; it is complaining as a way to escape facing yourself. Let me add that there is no blame in this, as some things (e.g. traumatic residues) are better not faced before you are prepared (well) to deal with them. 

Freewheel complaining

Still, I believe this rootlessness, or ungroundedness, is the root of complaining that lacks flavour, satisfaction, and completion. 

Complaining that feels like free-wheeling. A wheel turning in the air, grips no ground – one gets more exhausted the longer it turns, but doesn’t really get anywhere despite all the spinning. You feel that there’s something you want to get to, somewhere, in the background, that drives and spins you; but the gestalt doesn’t quite get completed, somehow. 

The other version feels weighty, solid, spot-on precise, juicy, and after it’s been done, there is relief and renewed agility. The nail has been hit on the head; an art form has been practiced to very satisfying perfection. The circle has been closed. There is firmness, and there is perhaps humour, there arises lightness or laughter. Breathing arises. One can go and do things, or nothings. 

There is no explicit action goal, but intelligent action may result from listening to and understanding your own will, values, priorities, identity, what they call “boundaries” – intuitively enwrapped in your complaints. The action-independent goal is the restoration of psychological boundaries, getting a better sense of self by hearing what bothers you, what matters to you, what your voice and standpoint is. Honouring your voice and self, to those who lost it somewhere on the way – a big moment of restoration.


The difference seems to be in the weight, in the voice. Coming from inside, from the centre. Also coming from not running away from what you’re actually saying; whether that makes you cry or laugh. 


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