Can’t Complain by Kathryn Norlock

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About this Episode

Complaining about our pains is often viewed as weak or soft. Kant and Aristotle went so far as to say that it should never be done. And they say it's something a real man would never do. But could complaining actually be a virtue, even when you can't fix the thing that makes you sad or mad? When done well, complaining can expose our vulnerabilities, invite others to commiserate over share pains, affirm and validate experiences, and just maybe--help us all feel a little less alone.

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Complaining offers important personal and interpersonal benefits, to oneself when one may otherwise feel isolated or wonder if one’s perceptions are correct, and to others when complaining fulfills social expectations to be a certain kind of cooperative and discursive companion. In short, minor complaints can fulfill the functions of affirmation of one’s own presence and perceptions, or affirmation of others’ perceptions, or both. The whinge can communicate one’s insistence on acknowledgement (“I am not alone”) and/or the interest in acknowledging others (“You are not alone”).

Most pressing to me are those occasions when one’s complaint is a plea for validation that one’s pains are not insignificant, and one’s complaint further seeks company to attenuate isolation in suffering, because denial of recognition frustrates basic goods of self-knowledge and autonomy. The recognition of others provides us with options, sources of control, and assistance in integrating our self-narratives; the denial of recognition can leave us trapped within ourselves.