When I was in high school, I vividly remember an afternoon when our headmaster joined a group of us in study hall. At first, we were convinced he was planting himself there to make sure we were actually working, but before long, we ended up in a series of thought-provoking conversations about adolescence, adulthood, and identity. His advice to us ranged from forging authentic friendships to reaching academic success, but among his admonitions was a piece of advice I never forgot:
“Be careful not to forge friendships based solely on commiseration.”
At the time, I had no idea what he meant. Fast forward a few years, and his words made more sense than I care to admit. In fact, I was shocked at just how many of my college “friendships” formed chiefly around common struggles, how many conversations were punctuated by a venting that I convinced myself was healthy, and frankly, just how much complaining filled my life during that time. And it takes little more than a cursory look at the types of friendships our culture and our media glorify to know that I wasn’t alone.
When “I’m glad I’m not the only one” has a pernicious downside
To commiserate is “to feel or express sympathy; to feel or express sorrow or compassion for.” Seems harmless, right? After all, we can all identify with the cathartic release we feel after a good venting session with friends.
Consider these all-too-familiar examples:
“My kids have been driving me nuts.”
“I know. Mine, too.”
“My in-laws have really been pushing my buttons. You’ll never believe what they’ve done now.”
“What? That’s awful—how dare they! I’d be angry, too!”
While these examples sound like garden-variety complaining, commiseration can channel deeper suffering that goes beyond whiny children and challenging in-laws. You may bond with a friend, for instance, over your shared status as single, but if she meets her mate first, you may be left feeling bitter and lonely. Or when you deeply connect with a friend over the shared emotional wounds caused by infertility, you may feel hollowed-out and forgotten once your friend shares a joyful and long-awaited pregnancy update.
How many of us have lived these exact scenarios? Worse yet, how many of us can honestly admit that we’ve forged a substantial number of connections with our friends over a common grievance—whether a minor complaint or a deep-seated emotional struggle?
It may feel good, in the moment, for someone to echo or identify with our struggles. However, it is dangerous to conflate this type of problem-talk with authentic community. After all, the reality is that friendships built upon shared complaining are unlikely to last beyond the problem, which, like most problems in life, is temporary. And the end of such a relationship can lead to feelings of isolation, abandonment, or even estrangement.
The long-term health impact of co-rumination
What’s more, the bonds forged by commiseration—which researchers dub “co-rumination”—can be deleterious to our physical and mental health. Talking about stressful events encourages the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can cause headaches, chest pain, increased blood pressure, and insomnia.
Women are particularly susceptible to the effects of co-rumination, especially adolescents. Research shows that among teens and young adults, time spent rehashing problems increases the amount of time they spend thinking about them, which leads to an increased risk of depression.
This is not to say that talking about our problems is bad—quite the contrary. But we need to distinguish between co-rumination and emotionally healthy—and healing—conversations (the kind of conversation you might have, for example, with a therapist). According to an article by renowned clinical psychologist, author, and speaker Guy Winch, “Brooding about problems without including a problem-solving element is, by definition, what distinguishes unhealthy rumination from healthier forms of self-reflection.” He goes on to explain the heightened danger among adolescent women can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation and detrimentally impact their emotional well-being and sense of identity. “What makes this process damaging rather than emotionally healthy,” Winch explains, “is the sheer amount of time girls can spend focusing on their problems and negative emotions.” He notes that women are less likely to balance their problem-talk with problem-solving strategies that can help them “identify how to better their situation.”
The limits of emotional crutches
Research supports the notion that while commiseration may feel good in the moment, it is harmful not only to our physical and mental health, but also, to the relationships themselves: co-rumination spurs us to think about and conceive of other people as tools for our own cathartic release, rather than as individuals with a unique identity and story.
The philosopher Aristotle distinguishes three kinds of friendships: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and perfect friendship. All three friendships are a kind of reciprocated goodwill. It is the source of this goodwill, however, that separates a pure, perfect friendship from the two imperfect ones. True friendship, he explains, is one in which friends value each other for their own sake and will the good of the other. Conversely, imperfect friends value each other for the benefits they derive from the friendship. Friendships of utility create a sense of goodwill through a specific purpose or end that the friendship serves. When that end eventually becomes irrelevant, so does the friendship. Friendships with study partners in graduate school or co-workers who help each other navigate sticky office politics come to mind.
While friendships of utility are not inherently bad, we must treat them cautiously. When we view other people as means to an end or as echo chambers in which to affirm our own grievances, we fail to see, appreciate, and value the unique individual in front of us. Instead, we use the other person to prop us up emotionally. Viewed in this manner, friendships are set up to fail, and when they do, it is particularly painful to break ties, given the often emotionally charged nature of sharing common struggles.
The quest for authentic community
The unique danger of commiseration is that it doesn’t challenge us to be better. It doesn’t push us to lean into our suffering, to rise up from our despair, to lean into our unique seasons in life. It reinforces and affirms our suffering, challenges, and complaints, without offering a means or a reason to press on.
But there are undeniably healthy ways to share our struggles with our friends. When we are shouldering a burden in our work, our relationships, or our family lives, seeking wise counsel from a friend who has trod a similar path can be both practically helpful and emotionally healing. Not to mention, inviting our friends into our suffering in a healthy, productive way can make us feel less alone.
In my own experience, I walked a long road of infertility that felt much less isolating when I finally shared my struggle with a small handful of my closest friends. Not only did this create a culture of vulnerability and honesty within my friend group, it also taught me how to frame my struggles in a new way, transforming my challenges from a “woe is me” mentality to a “I know I can endure this, because I am strong” message. As such, there is tremendous value in sharing burdens—so long as they are structured as a request for support and encouragement rather than an opportunity to complain.
Perhaps in an age in which the world can easily feel dark and suffering and complaining seem to run rampant, we can challenge ourselves to build community with others that values good counsel over commiseration. Perhaps we can stop treating our friends like emotional crutches and instead forge connections that call us to a higher place. Perhaps, in the end, we can all strive for the kind of connection that whispers, beckons: less of who you should be, more of who you are.