I just got back from teaching a week-long workshop at Kripalu, which is a yoga and personal growth retreat center in western Massachusetts. It was really fun to build a curriculum and create a place where emotional awareness was accepted and expected. This is very different from the regular world, I tell you what!
One fun activity we did grew out of a skill in the book, and I thought you’d like to try it with a friend.
Conscious Complaining with a Partner
In The Language of Emotions, I present Conscious Complaining as one of the five empathic skills that can help you access and understand your emotions more clearly. In the book, conscious complaining is a solitary practice, but you can also use it with friends and family (provided they want to play). Conscious complaining is an excellent way to de-steam without blowing up, and if you can use it with the people in your life, it can help create strong partnerships.
I lifted this partner-complaining practice from the book Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want by Barbara Sher (you can download it for free online!). In the book, Barbara helps you focus on moving toward the job or lifestyle that you dream of (but can’t make happen yet), and she’s a raucous, fun, and real person who understands how ridiculously hard that process can be. Barbara outlines your need to openly complain with supportive friends (rather than shutting down and becoming stuck and toxic). It’s an excellent book!
In partner conscious complaining, one person takes the position of listener, while the other person complains. The complainer starts out with some conscious recognition that the complaining needs to happen. In our family, we say, “I don’t need you to fix me. I just need to complain.” Then, the complainer is allowed to bring up whatever sticks in his or her craw — “Things are just rotten, this situation is bothering me, and things are too hard” etc.
The listener’s job is to support the complaining with helpful and upbeat “yeahs!” and “uh huhs!”— no advice, no suggestions, just enthusiastic support. The listener’s job is to create a safe haven for the complaining — which immediately makes the complaining less toxic.
Note: There’s a very important rule, which is that the complainer can’t complain about the listener — because that wouldn’t be fair. If someone is willing to listen and provide support for your complaining, then complaining about him or her would be cruel — it would be like taking a hostage! If there’s conflict in your relationship, this is not the right tool to use. Conscious complaining is for times when the problems are outside the relationship of the listener and the complainer.
When the complainer feels done, he or she ends the complaints in some way, like, “Thanks — that’s been crushing me.” or, “I didn’t realize I was carrying that much stuff around — thanks!” Then, the two get to trade positions — the listener now gets to do some conscious complaining while the previous complainer listens and provides support. When both people are done, the session is over.
You’ll be amazed at how productive (and funny) this complaining technique is. We’re all taught to be positive and peppy at all times — which means we’ve got to repress most of our emotions. Sadly, this repression tends to clog us up with all of the things we’re not allowed to say, or notice, or feel. Conscious complaining helps us restore our emotional flow when we get really trapped. It clears us out and brings back our perspective and our sense of humor.
When we can’t complain consciously, we tend to get stuck in moody emotional states that just won’t resolve. Conscious complaining lets us tell the truth, and it restores our flow. Conscious complaining as it’s presented in the book (as a solitary practice) is a great all-around tension reliever, but when you can complain with a partner, there’s a special secondary function: it teaches you to reach out when you’re in turmoil (instead of isolating yourself) in a relationship-strengthening and boundary-respecting way.
The Secret Surprise
When you can complain consciously, you allow your emotions to be what they are as you speak honestly about what you feel. In unconscious complaining, you may just whinge and crab endlessly while you bore yourself and everyone around you.
However, when you can create a specific practice and boundaries for your complaining, it’s much easier to get to the point. When you can complain consciously, your emotions can help you understand the deeper issues trapped underneath your crankiness or your whininess. Then, you can go on with your day, get back to work, or take a breather. Huzzah! When you know how to work with them empathically, emotions rock!
2013 update: Conscious Complaining with a Partner is now included in my new book The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, along with many other practices for increasing your emotional skills, your communication skills, and your empathic aptitude!