“I’m whining. I should just stop it. It’s an ugly sound. No one wants to hear it.   It would be better if I were just gagged.”

“All I do is complain. I don’t know why that is, but it gets tedious. I can tell by the look on your face that you hate it.   You listen because I pay you.   I know there are better things to do than complain.”

It is possible, of course, to whine about whining and to complain about complaining.  

I have puzzled over the years about how to respond to these regressive sallies.   I call them “regressive sallies” because they aim to close down psychic space, to preempt any investigation that aims to reach psychological depth. Instead of proposing to listen to themselves, the patients who propose these solutions through will power are trying to shut themselves up, to shut themselves down, to shut themselves in..

The Free Online Dictionary defines “whining” as “to utter a plaintive, high pitched protracted sound as in pain, fear, supplication or complaint.This is a reasonable place to start, although whining can be applied to sounds that are not so high-pitched, not so protracted. It can be applied to what would be described as normal speech were it not tinged with overtones of reproach and accusation.


Whining has to do with frustration and rage. Whining has in common with itching that it has a direct route to the limbic system. When a person whines, we feel a distinctive kind of discomfort that reflects and propagates in the interpersonal field the acute discomfort of the whiner. Two important ingredients in whining are need and fear. In fact, I have hypothesized that whining occurs when a need collides with fear that closes off any pathway to satisfaction, so that the results are painful frustration and rage.   We are easily repulsed by whining so that we back away from the whiner or respond critically, both of which worsen the whiners’ predicament.

A better strategy in the face of whining is to try to mitigate the fear so that it becomes possible for the need to be expressed more clearly.   A need expressed free from the fellow travelers of fear, frustration and rage has a much better chance of being understood. This understanding can pave the way to the development of effective strategies that might allow the need to be met.   A large part of whining is the sense of an impasse and, beyond that, unhappy hopelessness.   It is important, though, in the face of whining, to remember that whining is an effort at communication, one that should be respected as at least a try.

“I never get what I want the way I want it,” a whiner might insist.

Here we come across the dynamics of spoiling as part of the spirit of whining.   Whining reflects an impasse which may be short-tern or long term.   Part of what generates the impasse is often internal sabotage so that the compromise involved in an adaptively flexible response to reality is rendered impossible.

Consider for example the kind of patient who after long struggle comes out with something like, “I can’t imagine saying out loud what I actually need, because just think of the risk. Suppose I actually asked for what I knew I needed and I didn’t get it. I don’t know if I could survive that.”  

In all probability such a patient will have had many real early life experiences of having her needs ignored and repudiated. This kind of a patient has both a grandiose view of her own power and a conviction of her own utter helplessness.   All-or-nothing becomes, in a peculiar way, all and nothing, a contradictory jumble that is only too stable.   To exit the impasse there needs to be moderation on both sides. Each of these strange bedfellows, or strange mind-fellows, needs deflation, so that the patient can move towards a middle ground and take the risk of revealing herself in her needs. Of course, there will be frustrations as others respond with more or less sensitivity.   These frustrations need not be catastrophic.

When a patient complains about the patient’s complaining, saying that the patient should just be quiet and not trouble the airways, I often respond that I believe that the Declaration of Independence left something important out, an addition to the enumeration of “certain unalienable rights, “ The Declaration chose from among these “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” but left out the right to complain which is a fundamental right.

Virtually everyone complains. We complain out loud and, importantly, we complain in our minds.   Complaints are usually repetitive.   Complaints are beginnings and it is up to us whether we are able to take them down the road to realization.   “I don’t like my job” sets an agenda, one that has diverse parts:   What don’t I like about my job?   Can I modify my job?   Do I need different skills and more training to put myself in a position that I might like better?   The complaint has at least the possibility of setting in motion an adaptive progression both inside the complainer and in the complainer’s actions in the world.

One other thing that the complaint makes possible is a critique of the complaint. Is it based on unreasonable expectations? Is it based on misconstruing the past, the present or the possibilities of the future?   How much does vanity play a part in generating the complaint?   How much of the promptings of vanity are legitimate?

Are there ways to revise the compliant so that it has greater appeal and is more able to support reasonable and discrete actions to realize improvements?

I find a sacred aura surrounding complaining.   Without the complaint and the bill of particulars relating to it, a static state of affairs obtains.   I believe that the right to complain is of the same order as the rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   Totalitarian states do not allow complaint and selves developed along totalitarian lines have much trouble making genuine complaints and hearing them and deliberating what sort of redress might be possible and desirable.  

The Declaration of Independence was, of course, itself a complaint, a fruitful and creative one.




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