Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

“I Can’t Complain:” Shorthand For Guilt

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 3, 2013


Carrie, fifty-seven, comes to therapy and says, “I can’t complain,” implying that she feels too guilty to acknowledge the burdens she feels. Her internal script, one that goes back to her early childhood, is that she is born into a “fortunate” family, and all those who were born into other families suffer in ways that she does not, and hence, she has no right to express heaviness or disappointments. Of course, the word “fortunate” is a code word for financial privilege, which, of course, is not a privilege if Carrie is constricted emotionally. “Since when does having money mean that you cannot have negative feelings?” I ask, in order to challenge this family narrative that if one does not have financial woes, then one has no woes. This narrative is mirrored by many impoverished families who recite “well, if we had money, all our problems could be solved.” Superficially, this is obviously a weak thesis. Financial comfort does not save one from the hurt of relationships, or the threat of health problems. Sure, money does ease a lot of burdens, but at the same time, without the appreciation for friendship, for interpersonal connections, and for good health, then money serves families in very limited ways. Since Carrie cannot acknowledge her struggles to herself, she is unable to metabolize them in a way which leads to deeper understanding and compassion. As little compassion was shown to her as a young child, so she exhibits little connection to her emotional interior, and subsequently, her relationships feel shallow to her. Pushing through that guilt is my challenge. This is the guilt in which Carrie feels she is betraying her family story if she “complains,” as she was taught that she could not complain, and even worse, that she was a bad child if she attempted to voice any negativity. I need to slowly and gently unhinge her from this confining notion. The goal-some good complainin’.

7 Responses to ““I Can’t Complain:” Shorthand For Guilt”

  1. Ashana M said

    The second half of that common expression is, “No one listens anyway.” Are you sure it’s guilt that holds her back, or the expectation of a lack of a sympathetic listener?

  2. Jon said

    Like Ashana, I have another half to the phrase, “I can’t complain,” and that is “it does no good to complain.” While Carrie may not be in this situation, one possible thing to do is not to complain, but without complaining to do what can be done to improve a situation. Other catch phases for this type of situation are “to be results oriented” or to “consider the goals.”

    That said, Carrie uses the phase “I can’t complain,” to start a session of psychotherapy. Irrespective of any sense of guilt, I would guess that goal is to now more her into a course of action to improve that situation. Does that work in this hypothetical case?

    • Hmmm….the “right” to complain, seems to be a gift of parenting. Expressing discontent, even without needing a solution, is a rare luxury, as both you and Ashana state. Complaining is hard to tolerate, but that does not make it useful, as you say. Complaining is the first step towards change. The inability to complain creates stagnation and frustration. If a child says “I don’t want to go visit grandma,” the parent can respond with “I know that is how you feel” or “stop complaining, families need to take care of each other.” These very different responses can lead to different internal states in which feelings are either embraced or denied. The goal is not so much to move Carrie into action, but to move her to a place in which however she feels, she is entitled to feel that way, irrespective of how others might feel in her situation. Thanks.

  3. Shelly said

    Carrie used the phrase, “I can’t complain” with you because that is the usual phrase she uses with everyone else; she obviously wanted to get to the bottom of her feelings or else she wouldn’t have come to you in the first place. Many families, both wealthy and not wealthy, do not allow a healthy place for feelings to be expressed. Carrie obviously grew up this way. On the other hand, complainers are generally not accepted well socially, so one has to learn the art of balancing the expression of positive and negative emotions in public.

    • Yes, one has to know one’s audience. Any behavior, in the wrong context, is inappropriate. Carrie’s issue is that she never feels the right to complain, regardless of social norms. Yes, complaining burdens others, but in Carrie’s case, complaining burdens herself, as she has identified with the parent who told her she had no “right” given all that she has. She is in my office to feel better, but she does not see in this moment that feeling better, might start, with feeling worse. Thanks.

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