For a Nation of Whiners, Therapists Try Tough Love
Sharon Rosenblatt was talking to her therapist fast and furiously about her dating life, when the woman suddenly interrupted her. "Haven't we heard this before?" the therapist asked.
Was Ms. Rosenblatt offended? Not at all. The 23-year-old, who works in business development for an information technology company, says she specifically sought out a tough-love therapist after graduating from college and moving to Silver Spring, Md., two years ago.
"When there's unconditional love from my therapist, I'm not inclined to change," Ms. Rosenblatt says. Previous therapists, she says, would listen passively while she complained unchallenged.
Whining, as defined by experts—the therapists, spouses, co-workers and others who have to listen to it—is chronic complaining, a pattern of negative communication. It brings down the mood of everyone within earshot. It can hold whiners back at work and keep them stuck in a problem, rather than working to identify a solution. It can be toxic to relationships.
How do you get someone to stop the constant griping? The answer is simple, but not always easy: Don't listen to it.
Moms, and bosses, are good at this. Some therapists are refusing to let clients complain endlessly, as well—offering up Tough Love in place of the nurturing gaze and the question "How does that make you feel?"
They're setting time limits on how long a client can stay on certain topics and declaring some topics off-limits altogether. Some are even taping clients so they can hear how they sound and firing clients who can't stop complaining.
"Talking endlessly about your problems isn't going to help," says Christina Steinorth, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Barbara, Calif. She tells her patients in the first session: "If you are looking for the type of therapy where I am going to nod my head and affirm what you are feeling, this isn't the place to come."
When clients whine, Ms. Steinorth has them make a list of how their life could improve if they stopped complaining and started working to solve their problems. She suggests they set aside a 10-minute window every day and do all their whining then. For clients who still won't stop, she suggests they consider discontinuing therapy until they are ready to move forward.
Sometimes it feels like we're a nation of whiners. Many of us learned this behavior as children, when we got what we wanted by wearing our parents down. In adulthood, whining—or venting, as I like to call it when I'm doing it—can be a coping mechanism, allowing us to let off steam.
"A lot of whiners don't know they whine," says Julie Hanks, a licensed clinical social worker who has a therapy clinic in Salt Lake City. "I want them to ask themselves, 'Would I want to hang out with this person?' "
Television encourages us to whine, thanks to shows like WE tv's "Bridezillas" or A&E's "Monster In-Laws," about people who do almost nothing else. Technology, meanwhile, has trained us to expect instant gratification and become frustrated when we have to be patient. Facebook can make us feel that everyone else has it easier.
According to the Seattle-based Gottman Institute, married couples who flourish have a 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions within "conflict conversations." In couples who divorce, the ratio is less than 5 to 1.
The good news is that it is possible to get whiners to stop. Ms. Hanks, who takes a tough stance on whining, says it is critical to build a rapport with a client. She often challenges patients to go an entire session without talking about pet topics, such as their mother or their ex. You can ban overvisited topics at home, too, she says, as long as you pay attention to real problems. She sometimes audiotapes sessions, so clients can hear themselves whine. She has even taped herself at home, to learn how she relates to family members.
Ms. Hanks says it is important for the listener to understand that whining masks a deeper, more vulnerable emotion. For example, a person might complain about a boss, but what he is really feeling is fear that his career is stalled. "Whining is just a powerless complaint," she says. Understand this and you can get to the root of what is wrong.
Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills, Calif., licensed psychotherapist, has a three-step stop-whining program. First, she points out the behavior, sometimes mirroring it back to a client, using both the same words and tone.
"The goal is to create self-awareness," Dr. Walfish says, and in a neutral way.
Next, she points out that there's a pattern to the complaining. Finally, she asks the whiner what he or she plans to do about it.
"When someone whines to you, it is an indirect way of saying, 'You fix it,' " Dr. Walfish says. "You want to put the responsibility back where it belongs, in the whiner's lap."
Douglas Maxwell, a licensed psychoanalyst in Manhattan and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, says constant complaining is often a "resistance," and the person whining is often unaware of it.
With a client who gripes incessantly about a problem without making progress, he will say: "Stop. No more complaints. I don't want to hear about this one more day. You must talk about something else."
Often, clients don't take this so well, Mr. Maxwell says. They resist his attempt to break through their barriers and even transfer their anger onto him. But he holds his ground—and says he is prepared to repeat his ban as often as he has to.
Sometimes, Mr. Maxwell will use humor. "Here we go again," he might tease a patient.
"Once you draw the line in the sand, you have to hold that line," he says. "Otherwise, anything you say as a therapist loses its effect."
Crybabies, Be Gone!
Often, people don't realize they are whining. The trick: Raise their self-awareness without using accusatory or sarcastic language.
Go gently: Even therapists say this conversation sometimes ends with the client walking out. Start by telling the person who is whining how much you appreciate him or her.
Use a tone of genuine curiosity. You want to get to the bottom of the problem together. You may want to mirror the negative communication. 'I don't know if you hear yourself, but listen to what you just said.'
Point out there's a pattern. Say, 'Do you realize it's the fifth night in a row you've talked about this?' Offer to tape future conversations so the person can hear for him or herself.
Open up the conversation. A person whining about work may be feeling unwell, or stuck in his career. Ask, 'Is there something else that's wrong?' Explain that it is hard for you to hear the real issue because the person's tone and attitude are getting in the way.
Ask the person what he or she plans to do about the problem. Hold them accountable.
Suggest alternatives. The person might want to write down a list of complaints and leave it in a drawer. Or keep a journal and circle repeated complaints in red pen. Or spend an hour at the gym, or do something outdoors with you.
Set a time limit. For 10 minutes a day, the person can whine unfettered—and you will listen. Then time is up. Do this once a day, once a week—or challenge the person to a 'whine-free day.'
Give positive reinforcement. Say, 'I love to hear good things about your job.' Praise each increment toward healthy communication.