Complaining. Bitching. Whinging, as the English in my beloved mysteries say. We all do it. Oftentimes, while we’re doing it, it feels like we must–there’s so much to point our fingers at, and it all gets to be too much at times. So, why are we complaining, really? What do we get out of it? Is it fun? Is it a release of emotions? If so, what emotions?

Let’s drop down deeper into this complaining stuff. Where does complaint come from, and what how does it work? Even more concise:

What is the archetype of complaint?

I think of complaint as an expression of fear, firstly. Something is changing too fast, and we’re afraid of what will come forth from the burgeoning cauldron–so we try to stall the change, and thus our active participation in it, by bitching about it. Or, something is changing too slowly for our tastes; we fear for a lack of something, and so we complain.

Complaint can be an expression of a grandiose relationship to the process complained about–I have a right to this or that, and my rights are being denied, and so I’m letting the world, through you the listener, know how
displeased I am. As I can complain about things over which I have no direct control, I can use complaint to give myself the feeling that I can control things way out yonder, even if, in the light of calm, non-complaining consideration, I might realize I don’t. Complaint can be an expression of overt shame–I always do this, I can’t believe I’ve done this again, I’ll never get it right; or of the covert shame of victimhood–those evil bastards, at it again. Political discussions, especially, can devolve into vortexes of complaints both grandiose and shame-based.

If I am complaining about something, I am not taking goal-directed action towards addressing my feelings about the situation I’m complaining about. I have the illusion that I am doing so; I feel like I’m heading somewhere as I make my case. But as I’m not making my case to the person or situation I’m complaining about, I’m really just taking a detour, performing in a side show. In the moment of complaint, I’m acting as if I do not participate with ecstatic love in an abundant universe; instead I am a victim, powerless to act beyond a narration in which I can secrete feelings of anger and loss and fear, like a gambler’s extra aces. Hopefully, my interlocutor will wake up from the spell of my complaint, look at her watch, and yawning, take her leave before I really get up and running. Wormtongue, the poisonous and poisoned advisor to the King of Rohan in Lord of the Rings. Lear’s plotting daughters. Mordred, Morgan le Fey’s son in the Arthurian legend.  These are characters who are so sodden with complaint that whatever light they once possessed is drowned in inky murk. They act as if possessed, for possessed they are, by an archetypal energy of which they are wholly unconscious.

An archetype always has two poles, like the two centers of any ellipse. When we perceive an archetypal energy at work, we should alert ourselves–its opposite energy is near. So what is the opposite of complaint? Who stands next to the complainer as the opposite pole of the complaint-archetype? Lear’s daughters plot and whisper in the shadow of their  father, the King–the one with the power to act, eroded though it is. Perhaps we can identify the archetypes involved in complaining as POWER and Powerlessness. Neither archetypal position is in itself an accurate, healthy relationship with the world. To heal our complaining selves, our feelings of powerlessness, we’ll have to integrate some of the opposite archetype, Power. We’ll have to take responsibility for our situation again. We’ll have to get back up on that horse, and ride out once again into the unknown.

Thanks go to Dr. Anjanette Cureton, psychologist at the UNM Cancer Center, for the question.


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