Do you have any room to complain?


I once knew someone who was, by most standards, rather well-off. Maybe not wealthy in the traditional sense, but definitely doing okay for herself.

And yet, there were areas of her life that she wanted to improve. She talked about this for a bit with me once, but then stopped and in a moment of self-consciousness said, “but I guess I don’t really have any room to complain, do I?”

Everything is fine, statistically speaking

If you’re reading this now, you probably have one of the highest standards of living in the world. I don’t know if I can find a proper statistic for this (though if you can, please share in the comments), but a little bit of thought and a few citations will bear this out. If you are reading a web site, this means that you have access to a computer with internet. As of 2011, this means that you are part of the 35% of the world’s population that can claim this. Bravo.

But you’re not just checking email. You’re reading a blog that claims (occasionally) to be in the “self-help” category. A study from Christine Whelan, who did her doctoral thesis on the self-help publishing industry, was able to satisfactorily profile the demographic, as summarized in this article from Huffington Post:

Self-help is about self-control, and the people who are best at personal control tend to be the affluent, educated and proactive types … Middle-aged, educated, affluent people have the self-efficacy, the social support system, and also the resources to change their behavior. Midlife is a time where people are most in control of various spheres of their life –family, career, financial–so they are free to seek control in other aspects of their lives.

I was get a little uncomfortable when people try to fit me into a demographic box (I’m not middle-aged, hold only a college degree, and currently live well if not extravagantly) but the point for me is clear. If you’re here, you’re probably doing more than okay by certain socioeconomic standards.

But that doesn’t mean that you have no room to complain.

Second-order feelings

There are feelings and there are thoughts about feelings. A feeling is something like fear, joy, or longing. A thought about a feeling—what I call a “second-order feeling”—isn’t a feeling per se, but a judgement about that feeling.

And while your feelings are always valid (stop and read that one a few times if you’re not already convinced), your thoughts about your feelings are never helpful.

“I shouldn’t feel unhappy about this.” The feeling is unhappy, and that’s unfortunate, but the second-order feeling is the judgement about that unhappiness. (No surprise that we find that pesky word should here again.) To which I say, in best Wikipedia fashion: “citation needed.” Who says? Who has the supreme authority on what you are “allowed” to feel good or bad about?

How does it feel to feel (not great)?

You are allowed to desire better for yourself. This desire is valid and good, and that doesn’t change regardless of where you consider your “standing” to be. Life isn’t a ladder to climb, or even a problem to solve, though it can feel that way. Life is a journey, a search for survival, fulfillment, and love. And these are moving goals, and asymptotic goals at that, so there will always be ways you can move closer to any one of them.

When you have second-order feelings about your dissatisfaction, you negate your desires and wishes. You judge your feelings. But we can’t control what we feel, only how we react to what we feel, so this is a practice that is rife with peril. You feel what you feel, and it is valid.

So do you have room to complain about your situation, no matter how cushy it may appear to others? Absolutely.

Your second-order feelings are just judgements, and they will harm you if you let them. Feel your feelings and accept them. And if you’re dissatisfied, be okay with that.

One final caution

So yes, you may have room to complain, however, you don’t have room to only complain. There is nothing wrong with longing to improve yourself, but only if you turn it into action.

But enough about me. Have you ever wanted to make change in your life, but thought poorly of your dissatisfaction?


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