Kvetching for Better Health


Are you tired of being told to look on the bright side? Of smiling when you feel like crying? Of saying, "It's okay," when really, it's not? Well, at last someone understands.

Barbara Held, Ph.D., author of "Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining," thinks Americans are ready to rise up against what she calls the "tyranny of the positive attitude." While not advocating that everyone become a pessimist, she believes people can and should have the opportunity to "kvetch" (Yiddish for complain) when they feel like it—and feel okay about it.

"I'm arguing that pressure to pretend you're okay when you're not, and pressure to be optimistic when you're not feeling that way, can be harmful," Held says. "I think it can be helpful in our culture to have a little more space for people to feel bad, because life is hard. People shouldn't have to feel guilty when they can't smile and have a nice day."

Held stresses that she has nothing against happiness, optimism, or even looking on the bright side. "What I'm against is pressuring people to pretend to be okay when they're not," she says. But she realizes that complaining can drive people away in a culture that tends to label expressions of pain as "negativity."

Creative Kvetching

Held invented the term "creative kvetching" to describe complaining that not only makes you feel better, but helps your listener empathize, thus reducing the number of "cheer up, things could be worse" platitudes.

"Creative kvetching is about connecting with someone when you're in pain so you're not so alone," Held says. "There is evidence in the psychological literature that if you can express in words what is wrong with you, it helps you think about it in new ways, it helps you reorganize it and to get unstuck."

Her five steps are:

1. Your Inalienable Right to Kvetch

"In America, in the Land of the Positive Attitude, I invite people to recognize that life is hard for everyone, at least some of the time," Held says. "Just because your problems are not as bad as someone else's doesn't mean you don't have the right to feel bad or experience pain and express that in appropriate context."

Kvetching for Better Health (<i>cont'd</i>)

She recognizes that, yes, other people have worse problems, or children may be starving abroad—"but that doesn't mean that a fight with your spouse or disappointment over not receiving a promotion are not causing you pain," she says. "These are not mutually exclusive."

2. You Can't Kvetch to All of the People All of the Time

"Once you accept that you have an inalienable right to kvetch, you also have to accept that you can't exercise that right indiscriminately without driving people away," Held says. Creative kvetchers should try to determine whether the listener is truly a willing one. "If they are receptive to hearing about your difficulties, good! Tell 'em! Kvetch about it! But if not, say 'Look I really need to kvetch about this for a bit, can you stand to listen?'"

She notes she uses this technique with her husband who often responds with "Well I can, but I can only give you 10 minutes." By respecting the listener's limits, the kvetcher recognizes that listeners have problems too, and don't have to give up their time to listen to you.

3. Do Not Pretend You Aren't Kvetching When You Are

Often when people are told they're kvetching, they say, "I'm not complaining, I'm just stating how things are." According to Held, this isn't fair. "If you're pretending you aren't kvetching when you are, then you're a KID, or Kvetcher in Denial," she says. "And you're not a creative kvetcher because how can you assess the reception potential of your listener if you can't even admit to the fact that you're kvetching or complaining?"

Held puts the burden on the kvetcher to figure out if the listener can deal with the complaints. But because people send mixed messages by indicating they can listen when they really don't want to, the listener also has to be honest. "Instead of saying, 'Look on the bright side,' or 'It's not that bad,'" she suggests listeners say, "'You know, I hear you, you're in pain, I respect that, that's your right, but I'm having a tough day myself and I really don't have much to give you right now, I'm sorry.'"

4. Do Not Be a Competitive Kvetcher

We've all heard it—you go to unburden yourself to a friend, and she says, "You think you've got problems! Yesterday I ..." According to Held, this is not creative kvetching. "It's not a contest! If you feel you can't listen, just be honest about it and don't get competitive. Because whether your problems are worse than the kvetcher's is irrelevant. You have your pain, they have their pain, it's not a competition."

While it's true that some people's problems are worse than others, (something you might want to keep in mind when choosing a listener) that doesn't mean minor stresses aren't real or causing difficulties. "If you really can't listen, or don't want to, I think it's much cleaner and more straightforward to say so. That way you don't invalidate the person's feelings but you also don't give things to the listener you feel you can't give," she says.

Kvetching for Better Health (<i>cont'd</i>)

5. In Praise of Kvetching

Held's mission is to encourage people to accept that they don't have to be happy—or pretend to be happy—all of the time. She believes that it's okay to complain as long as you have a willing listener, you do it in moderation, and you are sensitive to the listener. "And give other people the right to kvetch as well—don't hog all the kvetching. What we want is a balance of kvetching," she says with a laugh.

Optimism is Okay, Too

Held complains—okay, kvetches—that her research is often misunderstood as promoting pessimism. She denies that, noting that some people are naturally more optimistic than others, and that just as pessimism doesn't work for optimists, it's not fair to force optimism on pessimists. She believes that being pessimistic doesn't mean you have a problem, and doesn't mean you can't be happy—it's just a coping strategy that works for you.

"I'm pessimistic, but I'm a happy person," she reports. People tend to be either "strategic optimists" or "defensive pessimists," she explains. "Defensive pessimists like me like to think ahead of all the things that can go wrong and then plan and when they're allowed to do that, they function as well as the strategic optimists. Strategic optimists don't want to think about what could go wrong."

Complaining may not be considered a virtue in the Land of the Positive Attitude, but it should at least be socially acceptable so that kvetchers don't have to mask their true selves, Held believes. Through creative kvetching and respect for the listener, she hopes this will change.

"I won't claim kvetching will make you physically healthier or make radical changes in your mental health, but it may make you a little less miserable, and given how hard life is, that's not so bad," she says.