Monday, December 12, 2011

In Defense of Whining

I come from a culture of very gloomy, glass-half-empty people. People complain a lot, all the time, about everything. Men and women both complain. Complaining is a mode of interpersonal communication, akin to talking about the weather here in the US. It is a way to bond. Complaining does not mean that a person is incapable of dealing with their own problems, although the power that one has over one's own life is drastically lower there than here in the US. So yeah, there is a lot of bitching and moaning going on everywhere.

I am personally a high-strung and fairly anxious person. Some of it is my upbringing, but some of it is my temperament. I think this trait of mine is also responsible for my drive at work -- I am not one to rest on my laurels, not even for a little bit -- but I can be quite exhausting in my personal life. I worry all the time, constantly trying to predict all the things that could go wrong. I think subconsciously I have this misconception that worrying is somehow supposed to protect against bad luck; it's stupid, I know rationally, but this powerful programming is very hard to get rid of. My mother always used to say "When everything in your life is great, put a pebble in your shoe to bother you." Apparently, I was brought up thinking that the state of contentment and happiness is unnatural and painfully transient; it is bound to end quickly and tragically, so one should be the most worried when everything is fine, because who knows what kind of horror comes next. I think this way of thinking is fairly common in my culture, and definitely marked my upbringing. As a result, I am one tense overachiever who worries all the time, about everything. Every time my baby sneezes, I envisions how two weeks down the road he will have yet another raging ear infection (I really wish I were more wrong about this one). Every time a grant gets rejected, I envision that I will never again in my life get another grant and my research program will die a slow and painful death.

Interestingly, my husband, who is the product of the same culture, is a calm, relaxed person who does not worry about anything. He says "You worry enough for both of us." He obviously did not grow up with my mother.

Now, while I am sure you find this gratuitous insight into my psyche fascinating and/or eyeroll-inducing, that's not where I was going with this post. In the comments to Cloud's post from a few weeks ago, which I somehow missed when it appeared, there was a conversation thread about how people, especially women, bitch and moan all the time and how it is rare for women to say that they themselves are awesome, that their lives, their families, their jobs are all perfect. And, yes, how they complain all the time and don't do anything about their problems.

I cannot say why other people bitch and moan on the internet, but I can certainly say why I do.

1) I don't have the impression, at least in the circles where I move in real life, that complaining is welcome or even tolerated. None of my colleagues complain, I am sure that none would want to listen to me complain, and if I did that would imply a weakness on my part. So in real life I have to have my $hit together at all times. The only people in real life who hear me complain are my poor husband, and on occasion my mother on the phone. My husband is wonderful but I think it's not fair for me to offload all of my many, many worries and paranoias on him. He's not a therapist and he cannot expend all of his energy on calming me down.

One of the reasons I blog to begin with is to offload the things that bother me. Getting used to being in control and calm all the time, as expected in this culture, took me quite a while, and I really miss the ability to vent and shoot shit with people in real life. I miss this ability to talk the ear off of someone, it was highly therapeutic for me. This option no longer exists in real life; I tried therapy for a couple of sessions, but I found it quite off-putting; I might talk about it more some other time. Anyway...

So I whine, rant, bitch, and complain in order to offload fatigue and frustration, and overall feel lighter and better. The negative stuff I write is exaggerated, but these exaggerated negative emotions are exactly what I need. That does not mean my life is bleak, on the contrary. In objective terms, my life is absolutely wonderful. Getting rid of the frustration helps me see more clearly how wonderful it really is. One of these days I may find enough time to exercise, so maybe I'll become more upbeat at that time. Or not.

2) Being a Chicken Little who constantly thinks the sky is falling, I have a deep-seated fear of admitting that everything is perfect. Admitting that my life is great, which it really is, fills me with dread. I knock on wood. I fear some terrible punishment will come upon me. For instance, I was a total nervous wreck my whole last pregnancy, because I couldn't shake the fear that I am asking for more than my fair share of happiness (by going for a 3rd baby) and that as a result something will go very wrong. This whole nervousness was exacerbated or even brought on by the miscarriage that preceded my last pregnancy (for long-term readers, that was the time when I shut the blog down for a while, after which it re-emerged at the new location). So the whole pregnancy was marked by a very uncomfortable fight between reason and my irrational terrors. It was not pleasant.

Bottom line is -- it may be very hard for some people to admit that everything is peachy, even if it is and even they really want to. You don't know what purpose bitching and moaning online serves for someone. If you don't like it, just move on. People's relationships with blogging can be casual or serious, torrid or made in heaven. And never assume that you know anything, not really, about a person from one or even a hundred of their blog posts. In real life, getting to know a person takes a lifetime. What makes anyone think it is possible to accomplish the same feat online in astronomically shorter times?

And, of course -- don't believe everything you read on the internet.

14 comments:

feMOMhist said...

some how I missed that post as well but just to add my 02 I BITCH on the internet about sh!t I can't say IRL, such as I really really hate being a mother sometimes, or even worse, I really really hate my kids right now (actually I lacked the guts for the latter and deleted before posting). So if you are brave enough the interwebs are a space to speak the unspeakable

Alyssa said...

I do it for the same reasons - to offload some of my worries and frustrations, so DH doesn't have to deal with SO much of it.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post and so timely. I've been realizing that the thing that makes academia kind of unpleasant, exhausting, and stressful for me is the social part. I feel like I have to wear a freaking mask all the time. I'm a postdoc, and I feel this immense pressure to look totally competent, very confident, 110% dedicated, and often more interested in other people's research than I actually am (it's not that I can't be excited about other people's work--it's more that there's a lot of research where I don't care too much about the answer). And worrying about funding if I go for a TT job is a close second. I could see how the funding would breed a constant anxiety about what other people (who will be reviewing my grants and papers and planning private conferences) think of me.

"Getting used to being in control and calm all the time, as expected in this culture, took me quite a while, and I really miss the ability to vent and shoot shit with people in real life."

I totally understand. Sometimes I feel like I'm surrounded by people like your husband who just don't worry (so why should I?).

Cloud said...

I hope you don't think that I was saying women shouldn't complain (either online or in real life)! Far from it. I vent on my blog a lot, too. And I agree with @FeMOMhist that the internet is a great place to say things that need to be said but that are too difficult to discuss openly in real life.

I just needed to balance some of what I'd been reading, and was really, really tired of having to defend myself anytime I said that my husband and I in fact split our household work roughly 50-50. For some reason, people won't take my word on that and are sure I must be deluded, to the point of looking at the more detailed earlier post and trying to find evidence that my husband was actually getting a free pass.

Now that, I do not understand. I am (amongst other things) a PROJECT MANAGER. I divide work up for a living. I am also reasonably good at math. I think I am capable of judging the fairness of the work split in my own household!

OK, sorry for that off topic rant.

GMP said...

Hi Cloud, it wasn't anything you wrote in the post itself, but some of your commenters later in the thread that inspired the post. (FWIW, I completely believe that you share your workload equitably. The only thing that matters is that you both are happy with the division of labor and no one feels taken advantage of. Anyone else's opinion of how you divide labor is irrelevant -- although I know it can be quite maddening, as I have been a recipient of quite judgmental comments of how I should run things in my personal life too.)

Alyssa -- I hear you. I am very grateful for my wonderful, very patient husband.

feMOMhist: if you are brave enough the interwebs are a space to speak the unspeakable

Very true. Although, since I consistently use one pseudonym, I find that even so certain things become hard or impossible to say, because people envision you are a certain way and should or should not think/say/write certain things and you can get surprising blowback and lots of wasted time. Honestly, I think even pseudonymity may not be enough to shield a person willing to discuss the unspeakable. And often the unspeakable is exactly what needs to be spoken for things to move.

@Anon: Sometimes I feel like I'm surrounded by people like your husband who just don't worry (so why should I?).

Anon, this is spot on. I am reasonably well-established in my career yet I feel like this very often too! I think that, for women in science, this feeling is strongly coupled with the impostor syndrome. I am curious if there are academic men who worry a lot and feel the need to express it but can't because the culture does not encourage it and I wonder how they deal with it. The men I know well don't vent when frustrated; instead, they work on their pet garage projects and/or kill creatures on WoW.

Anonymous said...

"I think that, for women in science, this feeling is strongly coupled with the impostor syndrome."

Yes. The thought process goes "I'm worried, but no one else seems worried. That strongly implies they're more confident because they have a zillion great ideas and understand everything. Thus, I don't really belong here." I've been fighting this thinking for years and years, but a part of me is still convinced it's right.

Alex said...

I am curious if there are academic men who worry a lot and feel the need to express it but can't because the culture does not encourage it and I wonder how they deal with it. The men I know well don't vent when frustrated; instead, they work on their pet garage projects and/or kill creatures on WoW.

My wife hears a lot of rants from me when I get home from work. Usually related to how poorly-prepared my students are, or how lazy and unambitious my cow-orkers are.

Anonymous said...

Heh. Alex, now I worry you're ranting about people like me who aren't ambitious (110% committed) enough. :) I wonder how much of this stems from people's different tendencies to internalize/externalize stress. It's a fraught dynamic.

Alex said...

I don't care about their personal ambitions. I care that they try to actively impede efforts to raise standards (note that tenure standards are NEVER raised retroactively here) and that they are able to get a lot of resources for Mickey Mouse projects. If they don't want to do what I want to do, fine. If they want to get in the way of ambitious people, that's a problem.

feMOMhist said...

umm am idiot did of course participate in the conversation chez cloud (sigh, early onset dementia? book writing induced fog? Lice ridden panic? who can say really?)

inBetween said...

the funny thing that comes to mind for me reading this is that I don't think of your blog as whiny/complaining at all. In fact, I marvel at how together you are. Hmm. What does that say about how much I must whine?!? :)

Dr. Shellie said...

Ha! Yes, yes to this post. I too am high-strung and anxious and must constantly work to manage it. I also fear that if I relax for a second and feel happy, I will overlook some sign of imminent ruin. Mindfulness meditation and exercise are both good for these.

Dr. Sneetch said...

Very sorry to hear about your miscarriage and many good wishes for you and your family.

Kvetching among friends is cheaper than therapy and just as effective. My mom was rather relaxed and didn't worry much. My good friend's mom was the opposite. My friend and I have adopted each other's mother's habits. She doesn't worry much, I worry a lot. Naturally, spouse doesn't worry because he's got someone to take care of crap when it happens.

Some of the worry has to do with being an immigrant and knowing I'm on my own entirely. Spouse doesn't have a good relationship with his parents so he's on his own too (except he has me to rely on).

What I've noticed is that some people lead charmed lives and have few or no bad experiences. More often than not, it is just random luck (although you can do things to increase your chances of good luck). It is hard to think about the randomness in our lives. The hope is that those whose kids rarely fall ill understand how lucky they are. Those who blame the unlucky parents whose kids frequently fall ill for causing it. are best avoided because nothing you say will change their minds.

So here's to a good glass of whine.

GMP said...

Thanks, everyone!

Kvetching -- new favorite word. :-)