When to write grievances instead of gratitude

when to write grievances instead of gratitude blue text over lightened image of tea light candles arranged in the shape of a heart on red shag carpet via Unsplash
Date Posted:
8/24/2022

There are times when expressing your grievances is far more productive than reflecting on what you're learning from being frustrated. I know this intimately. Just three weeks ago, I was buried neck deep in my own darkness. The idea of hope felt like a taunt. My thoughts were miserable and for good reason; there were many external circumstances contributing to my inability to believe the sun would shine again. I did plenty of complaining and I felt guilty about it, but trying to see a silver lining to my distress felt too much like gaslighting myself. What was happening to me sucked, and it was real. Why should I not write about it?

I could go on for days about the uselessness of guilt when you're already depressed. How the feeling that I was doing something wrong was the toxic side of positivity culture. Instead, I want to talk about the bright light of complaining, because complaining to myself was the number one thing I did that changed my situation and clarified my path to brighter pastures.

Book recommendation

Recently, I came across a book that took my misery seriously in a way that allowed me to take it less seriously. Grievance Journal: A Burn Book of the Discerning Misanthrope written by Meredith Erin and designed by Matt Snow, is a journal that counters the socially implied guilt (re: toxic positivity) associated with gratitude practices, offering an alternative to normative practices of self-expression.

Don’t get me wrong—gratitude is quite valuable. But sometimes, sitting in discomfort helps, too. Sometimes we just need a good whine. This book offers prompts for multiple sessions of grievance expression so that, if you are so inclined, you can look back and see your patterns. It asks questions like, "What are your biggest resentments?" and offers inspirational quotes like, "Imagining all the ways everything could go wrong is my superpower."

Grievance Journal as a practice really spoke to me. And not just by speaking to me directly through my insecurities with the question, "What did you want to say to someone but couldn't?" (That prompt alone could keep me writing for more decades than I've lived!)

Grievance journaling and trauma writing

As a trauma writing instructor, I'm a big fan of writing what sucks. When we engage what is heavy on our minds, we are practicing acceptance, the first step in healing trauma, after which come release and recovery. Essentially, trauma writing is recording one's grievances, and not necessarily with an eye toward hope, but toward reality via compassion for yourself and what you experienced. A genuine, "This happened to me." And I believe it to be 100% necessary whether or not your goal is to heal by reframing your personal narrative down the road. What I'm saying here is there is no road if we don't look at the yuck because there is no light if we can't identify the darkness.

Are you following me? Because I've been writing what ails me and my path is lit.

As with gratitude practice, a grievance practice has the potential for healing. Think about a spot that itches and you aren't sure why until you twist just right in the mirror to see a bug bit you in your sleep. From there you either ignore it or put some cortisone cream on it, neither of which make it go away; but because you know the source of the discomfort, you're fine with it. Pinning down a problem with words allows us to either sit with or address discomfort—that's what the concept of a grievance journal is pitching.

A writing prompt

There is evidence that complaining or venting, especially to an active listener, can be of great benefit in healing. Isn't that what therapy is for most of us? When we write, we are our own active listeners. And with expressive writing, as I teach in Writing through Trauma to Truth, we learn how to set aside any judgment and move forward. I love Grievance Journal because it provides a list of prompts on topics for which we don't need an external listener (and some we do, which is great because we may not know it until we've run the gamut by writing our thoughts down first).

If you are seeking a path forward and find the next steps obscured, consider writing your grievances, starting with a Grievance Journal-provided prompt: What puts you in a bad mood?

Note: Some grievances, such as traumatic experiences, linger in a way writing on your own does not relieve. The Center for Creative Writing offers an array of courses that address writing as a self-care practice. Writing through Trauma to Truth employs expressive writing as a path to release and recovery. Like grievance journaling, it offers you a chance to connect with an active listener (i.e., me, your instructor). If you would like to learn more about the Center's classes and how we can support your writing work, visit our Courses page here

Do you journal? About gratitude? Will you try journaling your grievances? What did you think of Shawna’s book recommendation and thoughts on grievance journaling? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: How expressive writing can keep you afloat

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