September 30, 2010

A Complaint Free World

I came across an interesting book, “A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted” (Doubleday 2007). It’s written by a fellow named Will Bowen and his idea of living complaint free has become an international challenge to “leave the toxic communication of complaining behind.” According to Bowen’s web site, he’s distributed over six million purple “Complaint Free World” bracelets ($10 for a pack of 10) to people across the globe who want to stop complaining. The method he’s come up with is simple. Just move the bracelet from one wrist to the other every time you catch yourself complaining. When you have gone 21 days in a row without complaining, you’ve completed the program. Bowen’s message, that the world would be a better place without complaining, and his technique to achieve this goal, clearly resonates with people. He’s appeared on Oprah, The Today Show, ABC Evening News, and in hundreds of TV and radio interviews. 

I’m not much taken with self-help gurus, being committed as I am to the practical application of Wilhelm Reich’s discoveries for the betterment of individuals and humankind. However, I agree fully with Bowen’s premise that chronic complaining isn’t helpful and is often destructive. It doesn’t solve problems or alleviate one’s unhappiness. Complainers annoy and frustrate those around them with their self-involved griping and are bound to lose friends, or to end up with ones who are complainers like themselves.

I support Bowen’s crusade and his method to control complaining. To the extent this works, great. However, even if one is able to entirely extinguish a particular undesirable behavior, in this case complaining, it doesn't resolve the underlying emotional problem giving rise to it. This is the principle shortcoming of behavioral modification approaches. 

Complaining: Cause and Function 

Much can be said about why we complain. Well-known reasons include to gain sympathy, reassurance and understanding from others; to get others to agree with us; and to voice how we've been mistreated. Complaining also serves to place the blame for our unhappiness on external factors, including other people. Complaining eliminates of the need for self-examination to identify our own role in the cause of our problems.

To understand the nature of complaining, we can look to Wilhelm Reich’s discoveries related to masochism, a specific aspect of human behavior. The first trait Reich cites in his description of the masochistic character type is “a chronic sense of suffering, which appears objectively as a tendency to complain.” (Italics in original. See Chapter XI, The Masochistic Character, “Character Analysis,” 3rd ed. New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1949.) Today’s prevailing definition of masochism tells us only that it is the tendency to derive pleasure from one’s own pain, or the enjoyment of that which appears to be painful. It tells us nothing about how the disorder presents in those so afflicted or how such a bizarre condition occurs. Why would anyone derive pleasure from pain? It makes no sense. When Reich discovered the mechanism underlying masochism, these mysteries were solved. 

Reich observed that individuals who suffered from masochism in its most severe form--those with the perversion to actually be beaten--had a particular kind of extreme biophysical tension. This was the cause of their distress and their endless complaining. He also noticed such individuals would put others in a bad light. They did this without conscious awareness, to annoy with the hope they would so infuriate their target that they would be hit, or at least be given a “tongue-lashing” by them. Reich determined that masochistic characters complain, annoy and make others angry with them because want to be relieved them of their distress. They want to be hit, not to feel pain, but rather to gain relief from the enormous tension inside them. They are like taught, over-inflated balloons that seek to be burst open.

From an energetic perspective, the driving force behind most complaining is inner tension. People whine, grumble and complain as a way to express their distress in a relatively socially acceptable way. Doing so provides a small measure of relief, a weak and temporary discharge, akin to a pressure cooker or steam engine that periodically releases its built-up internal pressure. 

It is important to note that complaining is expressed in many non verbal ways, such as attitude, tone of voice, sighs, rolling of the eyes, and silences. The question this raises is, what’s beneath the suffering that causes complaining? The answer is plain and simple: repressed anger. Frustration and outright anger, almost entirely from infancy and early childhood, has to go underground when it cannot not be expressed. Such angry feelings don’t disappear, although they are no longer remembered. They remain alive, stored away in the armor out of conscious awareness.*

Treating Complaining With Psychiatric Orgone Therapy

Complaining is so common and widespread because armoring is universal. Psychiatric orgone therapy removes armor and in so doing strikes at the cause of the suffering that leads to complaining. During therapy, patients who are chronic complainers are made aware of their behavior, how much they engage in it, and they are encouraged to stop voicing their unhappiness. Stopping this neurotic behavior forces them in the direction of taking more responsibility for, and resolving, their dissatisfaction, wherever it may present itself in their lives. As complaining is controlled, the “leak” of anger is reduced. This increases inner tension. At this point, the therapy is able to move away from a strictly verbal character-analytic approach to one that allows emotional release. Patients, who are now in better contact with their underlying feelings, especially anger, can express the rage they are feeling that has long been kept inside. When patients are comfortable enough to rage with full expression, they reduce their inner tension, and the need to complain, with every session.

In sessions such strong feelings are released in the controlled setting of a specially designed treatment room. Patients can shout out, hit the couch or a pad on the wall, kick, bite (or choke) a towel, stamp on a rubber mat, and in other ways release their intense, sometimes violent, feelings in a safe environment. What might surprise many is that the emotions arise spontaneously in each session, usually without any special actions on my part. 

Those unfamiliar with this therapy might expect patients to leave my office angrier than when they walked in. However, just the opposite is true. After the release of any emotion, but especially rage, the experience is one of well-being and relief. Most people usually leave the office smiling. It’s very important in this form of treatment that patients exert strict control outside of therapy sessions. Anger must not be discharged inappropriately and destructively in social situations. Out in the world, patients must restrain themselves; in therapy sessions they have free rein to express all they feel.

Unfortunately, there are a great number of emotional release therapists, some of whom call themselves "Reichians." I have learned largely from some of my own patients, who have come to me for treatment after having had therapy with such individuals, that their primary modality is getting people to rage. Evoking rage is bound to make something happen. However, without considering all aspects important in treating patients, the results are ineffective at best and can even be disastrous. Anybody can take apart a broken bicycle, but it is something quite different to fix the bike and put the pieces back where they belong. 

Will Bowen’s dream of a complaint-free world is admirable. However, human suffering cannot be eliminated just by stamping out its symptoms. It is necessary to resolve the underlying cause. For those new to Wilhelm Reich’s method of therapy, and the science of orgonomy, I encourage you to explore with an open mind.


*For a definition of armoring, see the note at the end of my post “Exerting Parental Authority.”

Those wishing to learn more about psychiatric orgone therapy may wish to read “Man in the Trap” by Elsworth F. Baker, M.D. and “Emotional Armoring: An Introduction to Psychiatric Orgone Therapy” by Morton Herskowitz, D.O.

Psychiatric Orgone Therapy

One of Wilhelm Reich’s most important and lasting contributions is a unique treatment for emotional disorders called psychiatric orgone therapy. Reich began as a psychoanalyst and was a member of Freud’s inner circle, but moved away from Freud’s method of free association when he developed a more effective verbal approach he called character analysis. Later he came to recognize the existence of a specific biologic energy in living organisms that he called “orgone,” which was coined from the word “organism.” With this discovery Reich was able to combine his verbal method with a technique that could normalize a person’s energy. The result was an entirely new approach to treating emotional disorders that he named orgone therapy.

Reich’s work with patients convinced him the disturbance in an individual’s energy state is caused by contractions in the body, especially in the musculature. He called these contractions “armor,” and established that they begin to develop in infancy as a way to block out emotionally painful events.

Past traumatic experiences are locked in the body--and they remain throughout life. How this happens is not fully understood, but there is no question that anxiety, anger and sadness, as well as the other upsetting feelings and emotions from childhood are not forgotten. Armor not only holds the disturbing past, causing it to remain alive but out of consciousness awareness, but it also affects how one feels and functions. Because living a natural healthy life depends upon whether a person’s energy flows freely or is blocked, the aim of psychiatric orgone therapy is to free up energy by breaking down armor. As these areas of holding dissolve, patients release their long buried feelings and emotions in the safety of the therapist’s office. They most usually surface spontaneously with the specific method Reich innovated, without the need of urging or any intervention on the part of the treating psychiatrist. However, occasionally, pressure needs to be applied to spastic muscles, or other techniques used to normalize the body. Because this treatment combines a verbal approach with a physical technique, it addresses both the mind and the body to bring about profound changes in how one thinks, feels and functions.

Today almost all people seeking treatment from a psychiatrist are given medications to reduce their symptoms. However, with psychiatric orgone therapy it is usual that patients, over time, find themselves able to wean themselves off medication and function without pharmacologic treatment. Reich’s therapy is unique in that it not only relieves distressing symptoms, but also does much more. It enables individuals to expand and feel pleasure, and better enjoy the many satisfactions life has to offer.

There are people who claim to practice some form of “Reichian” or “orgone” therapy, even though they have had no formal training in medicine or psychology. Often the techniques used by these self-proclaimed therapists have little or nothing to do with the very specific methods Reich developed and taught. The value of such therapies is questionable and may even harm those who get involved in them.

Qualified psychiatric orgone therapists have extensive training. They are physicians who have gone on to specialize in psychiatry and then in the very unique subspecialty of orgone therapy. They practice in much the same way as Reich did more than a half century ago. Ph.D. Psychologists who have had proper training can practice a form of orgone therapy safely and effectively. However, it is crucial they have supervision by a qualified psychiatric orgone therapist.