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Neuroscience

Grievance Stories: Remaining a Victim

Sharing tales of woe keeps your nervous system fired up.

Key points

  • All of us are wronged every day, often multiple times. The wrongs may be real or perceived.
  • Your choice centers around how you want to process them.
  • Do you hold on to the wrongs or let go and move on?
  • Recognizing the nature of a “grievance story” is the first step to resolving pain.

In workshops I have conducted on pain, one thing I discovered is how much people complain—not only about their pain but also about life in general. How can you enjoy your life when you are continually upset?

The workshops, based on awareness, hope, forgiveness, and play, have three ground rules: 1) you cannot complain about your pain or let the other participants know where you are hurting; 2) medical care can not be discussed; 3) no complaining—period. Most participants are initially thrown off by not being able to discuss their pain but quickly realize how important it is in contributing to healing.

Your grievance story

In his book Forgive for Good,1 Stanford psychologist Fred Luskin observes that if you tell the same story of woe to others more than three times where you are the victim, you have a “grievance story.” The person or situation you are recounting is “renting too much space in your mind,” he claims.

Directing your attention

Your nervous system rewires and matures in whatever direction you place your attention. How much time do you spend thinking (obsessing) about your pain? How aware are you of others' needs? What percent of your conversations is spent discussing some aspect of your suffering? Do you really enjoy discussing your pain? Don’t you become tired of it? Are you driving friends and family away?

Kozorog/AdobeStock
Source: Kozorog/AdobeStock

BTW, talking to your dog or cat is OK. It is a variation of expressive writing. And they listen.

Recognizing your grievance stories

Grievance stories are common. Every day, life does not go exactly as planned. It becomes easy to look at “patterns” and feel that some particular person always does this to you or your employment situation is unacceptable. Home is also a great source of grievance stories.

Luskin's definition of a grievance story as telling the same story of being wronged to three different people is simple yet sobering. It feels good to vent and be supported when we are upset. Maybe once is fine. But how long do you want to remain a victim of circumstances? The only person who continues to suffer is you. If you apply this simple concept to your life and conversations, you might be shocked at how many such stories you have and how often you share them.

Bringing them into your home

People commonly bring their complaints about work or the day home. They somehow feel it is important to share and “download” the problems. Even if you are not upset at your family member or others in the house, telling such a story inserts an unpleasant energy and upsets your home. Home is a place to rest and regenerate, and complaining about the day doesn’t create peace. Through the actions of the brain's mirror neurons, you’ll directly fire up similar areas in other people's brains. We all know that just being around someone who is frustrated is not great.

Frequently, the scenarios at work or a painful disability are unsolvable, the grievances are legitimate. The continuing upset disrupts your family; all parties eventually get worn down.

Whatever your issue is, it is not others’ responsibility to solve it or even make you feel better. What, then, is the end point? It is you.

You always have a choice about how to relate to your troubles. You don’t have be happy about what is happening, but it is important to stop complaining. Recognizing your grievance stories is the first step. They are not only “renting too much space” in your mind, but they have also moved into your house.

Georgia

One of the most dramatic turnarounds I have witnessed occurred with a patient, Georgia, who came to me to treat her scoliosis. Her curvature was about 60 degrees and she was suffering from chronic back pain.

There is little evidence linking scoliosis to chronic pain. Since her spine was still balanced, I was not inclined to consider a surgical procedure. It would have involved at least 8 hours of surgery with a complication rate of over 50%. She had been wheelchair-bound for about 10 years and was taking a lot of narcotics.

I told her that I would consider surgery only if she engaged in a rehab process I have developed (outlined in my book Back in Control). I asked one of my colleagues to help out with her healing process. Within a couple of months, we realized that she was not taking any responsibility for her condition and was unwilling to put forth any significant effort. We decided to discharge her from our care, as we clearly were not being helpful.

About a year later, she reappeared on my schedule. I have to confess: I was dreading walking into the room, since I had already given her so many admonitions to engage. I opened the door and she was standing there without any support, was off all of her narcotics, and did not have any pain. She was working out in the gym and getting back to re-engaging with her friends. I was stunned.

I was more than a little curious about what had happened. She admitted that she had been sitting in her house for years, obsessing about everything that had gone wrong in her life. Essentially, all of her conversations were focused on her problems that were created by her pain. She had been in a couple of car accidents and had gone through a bitter divorce.

But eventually, the idea of forgiveness had resonated. She quit talking about her miseries and decided to let go and move on. Within six weeks the pain began to abate; by four months it was gone. Even though I saw her at a later date in the hospital (she had a fall), Georgia was still living the life she had always wanted to live and radiated energy and joy.

Rechitan Sorin/AdobeStock
Source: Rechitan Sorin/AdobeStock

Recap: Stop it!

Stop discussing your pain, medical care, or even any of your troubles with the world—now! There are no shortcuts. You are not going to move forward while hanging on to your grievances.

Every day is an opportunity to begin anew. Behavioral patterns are so deep that changing your conversation to enjoyable topics may be difficult. It will initially be challenging, but you will be surprised at the effectiveness of this simple strategy.

Can’t do it? Really? It’s time to ask yourself: How badly do you want to heal? It is surprising at the number of people who unconsciously hold onto the power of their suffering.

References

1. Luskin, Fred. Forgive for Good. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2002.

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