Erika Oliver is just looking for a little sympathy — and she's not afraid to ask for it.
“My favorite things to complain about are low level things, like if I didn’t sleep or I have a pinched sciatic nerve so my upper back is bothering me,” says the 45-year-old from Portage, Mich. "I know what my reason is. I want a pity party. I want people to go, ‘Oh, that’s terrible.’”
From raging sinus headaches to relentless insomnia to those weird toe cramps we get when we wear the wrong shoes, Americans are no longer suffering in silence about their aches and pains.
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Instead, we've gone from point A to point B-I-T-C-H and become a crybaby nation, complete with Facebook updates about pulled hamstrings, minute-by-minute tweets on sore throats and runny noses and blogs devoted to everything from back pain to bad cramps.
“I never saw my dad stay home from work or my mother miss work for an illness,” says Barbara Crowley, a 57-year-old social networking guru from Dallas. “But now kids get to take personal days. What the hell is a personal day? Boomers complain more than our parents did and we’ve raised children who complain more than we do. It’s like we started the wave, like in a stadium. The boomers stood up and started the complaint wave.”
Whether boomers started the wave or not, it’s definitely here, says Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
“It does seem that there’s a diminished motivation around sucking it up,” he says. “Generalizing, I think Gen X and Gen Y people have had a greater degree of security and when you have a great deal of security, there’s this kind of allowance about being able to complain.”
We also have a slew of exciting new things to complain about, says Martha Crowther, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama.
“We’ve had a proliferation of talk shows for the last 20 years where they talk about issues that were just not discussed before,” she says. “There’s a proliferation of medications and commercials for various conditions. We’re putting names on things we didn’t know the name for before. We think, ‘Well, maybe I have a problem with that.’”
More ways to complain
And let’s not forget the Internet and social media which have helped turn every trip to the doctor into a shot heard ’round the world.
“When there wasn’t an Internet, you couldn’t randomly call someone’s telephone number and say ‘I hurt my arm,’” says Pillay. “The Internet has upped it because there’s a platform for complaining. It makes it easier.”
But is all this bitching and moaning helping or hurting?
“I think it can be initially beneficial,” says Crowther. “You feel like you’ve lessened your anxiety about the problem and gotten feedback from someone else. But that’s a momentary fix.”
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Oliver, who works as a “positive approach coach,” says being able to share her woes — and get input and advice from others — has definitely been a boon.
“When I started getting night sweats, I was thinking this is horrible,” she says. “But then I started to tell people and they said, ‘Oh yeah, that happens to me, too.’ I suddenly felt better about it because I wasn’t the only one. It’s that camaraderie, although it depends how far you take it.”
Pillay of Harvard Medical School says vocalizing aches and pains can indeed produce mixed results.
“Studies have shown that anxiety and fear can increase the sensation of pain,” he says. “But if social networks help relieve the anxiety and aloneness, they may contribute towards lessening the pain. It would be safe to say that sometimes sharing your feelings about pain with an empathetic person will help alleviate it. But overfocusing on it can intensify the amount of pain you feel.”
Not to mention intensify the pain your friends and family feel as a result of listening to you carry on 24-7.
“I’ve got a cousin who does this,” says Karlene McLeod, a 48-year-old communications specialist from Seattle. “Sometimes she’s fine and other times, it’s this hurts or that hurts. It’s Debbie Downer in every possible way. You learn to pay attention to your caller I.D. It’s very draining.”
Equally daunting is when die-hard complainers come up against their arch nemesis: the dreaded one-upper.
“I’ve got a neighbor who does this,” says Oliver. “I don’t even complain to her any more because she messes up my pity party every time. I’d say, my upper back hurts and she’ll be like, ‘You think that’s bad? I had a compound fracture just the other day!’”
Even those suffering serious health issues have to deal with people who jockey for top spot in the pain game.
“When I was 34, I was in a wheelchair,” says Litsa Dremousis, a 43-year-old writer from Seattle diagnosed with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome. “I needed help eating and showering; I didn’t even have the strength to wheel myself. And I had a ‘friend’ who was pointing out that she had a cough all week and still had to go to work. I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s really similar.’”
One-uppers can sometimes lack empathy, says Crowther, the psychologist. But more often, they’ve simply lost perspective.
“In their own minds, their pain and suffering is worse than any one else’s so to have someone say, ‘I have this,’ is a challenge to their system,” she says. “It becomes like a competition to have the worse outcome.”
Pillay advises those with ongoing aches and pains first seek medical help to alleviate the problem. If they’re still suffering after that, he suggests seeking out a sympathetic audience, as opposed to whoever happens to be sitting next to you on the bus.
“I’m taking my business to another neighbor,” says Oliver regarding her ongoing quest for compassion. “She just nods her head and says, ‘That’s awful. That should not happen to you’. Sometimes you just want to be acknowledged for that moment.”
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