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Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining
 0312283512, 9780312283513

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"Help has arrived for the chronically cheerful."

—Frederick Crews, author of The Pooh Perplex

STOP SMILING START KVETCHING

BARBARA HELD,

PH.D.

Digitized by the Internet Archive in

2011

http://www.archive.org/details/stopsmilingstartOOheld

kCVLT^Lli

tic;

Also

by

Barbara Held, Ph.D

Back

to

Reality:

A Critique of Postmodern Theory in

Psychotherapy

SJOP

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6TAR.T kCVE_T5TACLL5 JO CR-LATlVL klVtTCtllNc

I

live in

as

Yankee

American as

territory

years, but

where

—the coast of Maine. Sometimes

living in a

Not as American

Norman Rockwell

as living in Nebraska,

much more American than

started out, or in Houston,

I

year. It's

been

instructive to learn

of the country react to pecially interesting to

TYRANNY

0\L, TJ-I^

my

I

living in the I

did for five long

Bronx, which

life.

is

spent one very long

how Americans from

philosophy of

seems

painting. Well, almost.

which

where

it

all

parts

But Mainers are

es-

me, since they pride themselves on their

understated, no-nonsense approach to

life.

That brings

me

to Phil,

a fellow in our neighborhood. Phil

is

a regular guy

—a

real

American, an accountant with a

35

Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching

36

two

wife,

kids, three pets,

and a mortgage. He has a shed

snowblower and lawn mower; he pickup truck. He hunts and winter to

— Phil

is

fishes,

also has a

and even goes

We

have

greeted

him

told

ice fishing in the likes

also likes to complain.

great fun complaining to each other. So

I

woodstove and a

no wimp. He has a great sense of humor and

spend time with the guys. Phil

when he

for his

me

was caught

I

guard

off

one day with the usual, "How are you?" and

for the first time,

"You don't mean

"To be honest,

really hate life."

I

ready

that, Babs!" Phil said nervously, the

smile gone from his face. do, really,

"I

ceeded

to explain

than a

you

my

visibly upset;

"Why

me

do; let

that,

answered, and pro-

but you can't say that." Phil was

favorite saying?"

curious, since Phil often says, "Life's a bitch

humor. But he says going his way.

it

he always says

way

It's Phil's

sounds to

this

me

of kvetching,

when

like

I

was more

I

— and then

with a smile, with good

nonetheless, especially

"Well, I'm just joking it

I

life.

What about your

die." It's true that

"But

you why,"

obviously had struck a nerve.

I

not, Phil?

little

tell

philosophy of

you may think

"Well,

now

I

I

when

things aren't

think.

say that." Phil sounded defensive.

you mean

it

when you

say

it," I

coun-

tered.

"Yeah, but

it's

not the same as saying you hate

life.

Life

is

wonderful. You can't say you hate something wonderful. You can say you hate something awful, but not something wonderful."

What happened

here? Obviously,

I

had stumbled onto some-

thing sacred, but Phil isn't a spiritual kind of guy. So I

offended his religious

phemy

of another sort.

It

sensibilities.

was

No,

I

I

don't think

had committed

blas-

had

bias-

secular blasphemy, as

if I

"

"

Obstacles to Creative Kvetching

phemed America best

Here in America

itself.

we

37

have a good

life

— the

according to many, and certainly according to Phil. Saying

life,

you hate

life is like

saying you hate America and apple pie, or so

I

concluded.

many

I'm happy to say that, after

my

"gets"

long discussions, Phil

point of view. He's no longer upset by

ments about

He

life.

pronounce-

prefers to stick with his "Life's a bitch," but

what's wrong with that?

We

each must kvetch

(although Phil denies that he's kvetching Still,

my

now

Phil's reaction to

my

philosophy of

in

when he

life is

own way

our

says that).

not unique. Here's

a small sample of what others have said (and they're not just Mainers):



"You can't really

mean what you

say about

or

life,

you'd be depressed, and you're not depressed (or unhappy, miserable or whatever). You have too to

My

hate

life.

response:

"Just because

the

way



u

I

hate

'the system'

You

life

doesn't

works, and

can't really hate

mean I

still

life

can't have fun.

I

have some fun within

can hate it."

or everything, because you

me.

like

My

much fun

response:

"Yes,

I

do

like you.

But you're just you, you're not

life,

you're

not everything. You're not the system" (This one always gets a little

too philosophical for most people.)

"

Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching

38

"You can't really hate



life

because

go badly. Things can and do go

My

doesn't always

life

well.

response:

"True, but the problem

is

there's

no guarantee. That's the prob-

lem with the system, the problem with

Some people

try to write

me

off:

they laugh, or they just ignore lecture

me

life."

They take me

me when

I

to

be joking, and

kvetch about

life,

or they

about the dangers of negativity, or they keep their

no matter what, they seem just a

tance. But

little

dis-

nervous. I'm

obviously saying something that just isn't said. Certainly not here.

And

certainly not

by someone who's not down and out



at least

not yet.

People keep rejecting

my

philosophy until

life

mess that unwarranted optimism or denial won't times, they

ment I

come around



like

my

moment

fix.

Then, some-

friend Andrea, who, in a

of "weakness," blurted out that she

see that as a

hands them a

hated

life

too.

mo-

Of course,

of strength, but we'll let that pass. Unlike

Andrea, some have stuck with their kvetching for more than a day.

Some have

my friends

actively sought

If

from

life,

out for kvetching lessons.

Some

have formed a kvetching club. People are crying out

you want

help.

me

to kvetch about

but kvetch about

help you out.

Need

proof?

it!

life

in

America

— there are no

Answer

of for

—not "recover"

support systems to

this question:

Where

are

all

those self-help books on kvetching?

Why

is

there such an aversion in America to kvetching

— to the

point that Americans can't even admit that they are kvetching

when

Why is expressing unhappiness about life form? Why is it taken as a sign of weakness, or

they do kvetch?

seen as such bad

Obstacles to Creative Kvetching of a poor attitude, or worse?

can be found This

is

gets.

As

we

under

live

up and look on the bright I

said before,

rough go of

when we

think the answer to these questions

words: the Tryanny of the Positive Attitude.

in six

the pressure

to cheer

I

it,

39

some

we

may then

can't feel good. In

my

and have a nice

when

life

gives us a

life

also feel guilty or defective

opinion, this adds insult to injury.

to say that to her "kvetching

acknowledging the grief of

day,

no matter how hard

side,

not only feel bad

of us

One reader wrote me

to smile

living in the world."

is

a

way

of

She suggested that

the anti-kvetching attitude of Americans reflects the "denial of grief

and grieving

in our culture."

Another reader said that "optimism

and high energy are methods employed dealing with

unpleasantries, both large and small." Both of

life's

these readers

felt

to excess in order to avoid

they would have benefitted from receiving more

tolerance for their pain, instead of exhortations to stop kvetching

and but

start smiling. I

do know

forms, and so

I

this:

we

don't

know how many Americans

The tyranny

face

rest of this chapter,

I

many

of the positive attitude takes

many

1:

most serious ones.

American

History

How did Americans get

so

need a history lesson

answer that question. Remember our

ish ancestors?

upper

to

hooked on a

positive attitude?

They brought with them

lip." Still, to

be

fair,

way,

obstacles to creative kvetching. In the

discuss the five

Obstacle

feel this

we

You don't

that famous British

can't put

all

Brit"stiff

the blame on them.

the American Revolution did start out with a lot of kvetch-

After

all,

ing:

Remember "No Taxation Without

there's a great

example

Representation"?

of world-class kvetching,

Now

and kvetching

that didn't prevent taking action, to boot! So our founding fathers



.

Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching

40

and mothers had some kvetching least a

at least to

little,

kvetch proudly

ability to



at

begin with.

But somewhere along the way, something went wrong.

I

sug-

gest this: Early on, America billed itself as the land of opportunity.

Remember

the Western Frontier and the Gold Rush?

the stories about the immigrants getting their Statue of Liberty? stories?

From

Remember

Remember

glimpse of the

first

those Horatio Alger rags-to-riches

all

the beginning, America has been famous as the place

where "anything

is

possible

if

you

hard enough." That's the

try

American Dream. The American Dream

is

Even

anti-kvetching.

though the Dream gets exposed over and over as nothing but myth,

you don't see signs

mism

is

of Americans' giving

2:

American

opti-

American Psychology

do so many Americans

when we're

Isn't

it

insist that

we

happy

smile and act

not? What, psychologically speaking, might motivate

Two

that anti-kvetching attitude?

1

it.

our biggest claim to fame.

Obstacle

Why

up on

explanations occur to me:

easier for people not to listen? Lots of people

to pretend everything

is

okay, and hearing you kvetch

may remind them

makes them nervous.

It

ally aren't okay, that

they have real problems, too

my

my

friend

pretense

Andrea or

— as long as

it

want

neighbor

Phil.

works, that

is.

that things re-



like

They prefer the

When

it

doesn't,

they crack. 2.

Then there

are those

who

don't

want

to listen to

you

period. They're not in denial, they're just selfish. After

— Obstacles to Creative Kvetching

most people don't want

all,

lems. Most people

want

Most people want Yet

many

41

to hear other people's prob-

to talk about their

own problems.

to be the kvetchers, not the listeners.

same people demand a

of those

positive atti-

tude, but only in others, not in themselves.

shouldn't they feel this for their

own

way?

It

gives

them lots

And why

of listeners

kvetching, kvetching which, by the way,

they often deny. (More about Kvetchers in Denial in

Chapter

Yet those same people, the ones

6.)

who

kvetch

loudest but deny that they are kvetching, are sometimes

the ones in

everyone

When many

who push

else, of course.

you think about

therapists.

the hardest for a positive attitude

We

it,

it's

no wonder that

have to pay people to

all

listen to

because there are so many kvetchers and so few to

we

pay people to be our Professional Kvetching

need so

us kvetch,

We have Listeners. We can

listeners.

go to therapy and kvetch with perfect confidentiality, and then

pretend to everyone else that we're not kvetching at pretend that

we

have a positive attitude

all.

We

can

when we have no such

thing.

Are most Americans closet kvetchers?

If so,

there's

hope

for

us yet.

Obstacle I

hate to

list

3:

American Psychotherapy

professional psychotherapy

creative kvetching. After

all, I

am

among my

obstacles to

a professional psychotherapist.

I

believe in the value of professional therapy, both as a practitioner

Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching

42

and as a consumer: There are times,

lots of times,

when

self-help

books just won't do the job, even self-help books about kvetching. Still, I

see problems.

Here's an obvious problem: Therapists

may listen patiently (and

confidentially) to their clients' kvetching.

They may even encour-

age their clients to kvetch to them freely and openly. That's what

therapy

is for,

right?

therapist gets tired of fessional burnout.

therapists are it,

I

But sooner or all

even the most patient

later

the kvetching. This

is

what we

call pro-

think the burnout has to do with the fact that

on the receiving end

kvetching back at your clients

is

of

all

that kvetching. Let's face

just not considered acceptable

therapeutic behavior, at least not in most professional circles.

myself have done

it

only on rare occasions, and then only with lots

of forethought. No, there's in the consultation

So even

all

if

no balance of kvetching give and take

who

room. He

pays the piper gets to kvetch.

Americans had their own therapist

to kvetch to,

sooner or later they would wear those therapists out. Then could they kvetch to

Even

if

even

ing,

often,

even

if

they didn't burn out, even

type of therapy that teaches clients real It's

life.

amount

of kvetch-

they encouraged their clients to kvetch to them more if

they kvetched back, a

obvious problem lurks in the background:

less

whom

—without blowing their smiley-face image?

therapists could tolerate an endless

if

I

And

real

life is,

after

all,

how

I

don't

know a single

to kvetch creatively in

where kvetching

really counts.

one thing to kvetch to your therapist, where you don't have to

be particularly creative about

Your therapist has to friends, coworkers,

especially

if

it,

because you're paying to kvetch.

listen. It's quite

and

family.

another to kvetch to your

There you can get into

you don't know how to kvetch

real trouble,

creatively, especially

if

they can't tolerate anything but a positive attitude. They don't have

Obstacles to Creative Kvetching

43

American Psychotherapy

"I feel ©

to listen.

we've had a good session today."

2000 Leo Cullum from cartoonbank.com.

They can stop you

end up needing a

right in

All

Rights Reserved.

your kvetchy tracks. You could

therapist.

Obstacle By now you may be

4:

American

Self-Help

thinking, "Wait a minute!

What

about? America has no anti-kvetching attitude.

are you talking

What about

all

those support groups, where people get together and kvetch about everything, from their love

and shopping addictions

dependency? What about those daytime-TV

talk

to their co-

shows, where

all

those people love to air their dysfunctional families and two-timing lovers before millions of

hungry viewers? What about

all

that public

Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching

44

complaining going on in the

name

What about

of 'recovery'?

the

bigger and bigger section of bookstores devoted to 'self-help'?" confess, you've got a point. Being a victim

I

America these days. So fashionable, of being "in denial"

if

we

in fact, that

fashionable in

is

we're

all

don't proclaim ourselves the

in

danger

member

of

some victim category and then join a twelve-step recovery program some kind

or

of support group, or at least

sounds

this certainly

But

most

is

like there's

a whole

there? Look closer. Behind

all

buy a

lot of

kvetching going on.

that alleged kvetching

positive, optimistic attitude imaginable. In

You're Dysfunctional,

functional,

self-help book. No,

is

the

her book, I'm Dys-

Wendy Kaminer documents

trend as she dissects the recovery movement and other self-help

this

Norman Vincent Peale's 1952

trends, from itive

Thinking,

Werner Erhard's

to

movement, Adult Children

of Alcoholics,

book, The Power of Pos-

codependency

the

est,

and so

on.

Even

Dr. Joyce

Brothers recently published a ten-rule prescription for happiness.

She enjoined us

to "expect that

"gripes in a box,"

we

good things

and remember to

happen," put our

will

smile. So,

everywhere

we

look

hear similar messages: Just follow the twelve steps, think posi-

tive thoughts, listen to

"self-help" advice rich, self,

loved

.

.

Kaminer

.

is),

you

and you too can be whole, happy,

fill

in the blank.

explains.

of guarantees.

your inner child (or whatever the expert's

It's all laid

Show and

tell,

You don't have

self-directed,

to think for your-

out for you, in advance, with lots

and then everything

is

A-okay.

Go on

TV, and confess to having a dark past (or present), and then you get "closure." In

ing. At best

my it's

opinion, this isn't kvetching

noncreative kvetching.



it's

And who,

in

jpseudokv etch-

any case, holds

these noncreative kvetchers up as the paragons of American tue?

No

smiling,

vir-

one! That's because the paragon of American virtue

and not kvetching

of

any

sort.

is

Obstacles to Creative Kvetching Don't get

who have

Wendy

wrong. Like

gotten real help, better

movements. But

of these

kvetch

me

—they won't

if

45

Kaminer, I'm happy for those

lives,

you want

true happiness, from any

to learn to kvetch



really

help you. You won't learn the real thing in

those groups. That's because real kvetching has a very different philosophy

behind for

Remember, we're

it.

all victims of life,

everyone at least some of the time.

to tell us

what

life

know

many problems, because

completely okay. Sometimes,

make

life

a

is

that there's no big

probably a good

answer

to

inherently problematic. Life

life is

it's

little

just a

little

Not convinced? Consider the

— even

is

life's

never

less not-okay. Creative

less not-okay. That's

such limited claims for kvetching

hard

life is

don't have crystal balls

has in store for us (which

thing). Real kvetchers

kvetching can

We

because

why

I

make

for creative kvetching.

titles of

recent self-help books.

Here's a small sample: Spontaneous Optimism, The Pursuit of

Happiness, Prescriptions for Happiness, You

Matter What, Happiness

Happy?, Shortcuts

Days the

to

is

to Bliss,

a Choice, When

Am I Going

Happiness in 30 Days or

Happiness. Nowhere

demand

Can Be Happy No

is

for a positive attitude,

between the covers

that has never

worked

me.

Obstacle

On November covery of a

know

that

29, 1996,

new gene

5:

The

I

need

is),

to kvetch.

good

Maybe

30

If

you find

for you, it's

but

genetic.

American Biology

New

York Times reported the

that determines our behavior.

many forms

Less,

expressed more clearly and

(of those books, that

for

Be

America's positive attitude, and

tyrannically than inside the covers of self-help books.

joy

to

of behavior

dis-

You probably

—from drinking and criminality

Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching

46

American Self-Help

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