I recently called up Jean Stafford, an executive coach in Washington, D.C., to ask a simple question: Who is it safe to complain to?
Complaining can have benefits, if not always psychologically, then at least for the levity of heart that comes from someone else knowing what an idiot that dude is. But when it comes to work-related issues, Stafford wouldn’t recommend downing Chardonnay at a happy hour and venting about your boss to sympathetic colleagues. Sometimes we “misinterpret someone’s friendly behavior to mean that person is a friend,” she said. Complaints about that one guy on your team, the struggles you’re having finishing that project—that information could be used to undermine you later.
Some people, after all, thrive on office politics. “They know everybody. They know everything about everybody,” Stafford said. “If things aren’t exciting enough, they’ll pull a pin on a grenade and roll it into the conference room.”
If you really need to get something off your chest about office life, many people have a circle of family and friends they can trust outside of work. “Although sometimes your friends have no idea what you’re talking about, because they’re not in your industry,” Stafford said. People might not understand why TPS reports are so annoying. Or if you’re moaning about a mutual acquaintance, a friend might just tell that person the thing they swore they wouldn’t.
When it comes to complaining, then, that rules out colleagues and even your nonwork friends. And your significant other might get tired of hearing you harp on work. That’s why so many people in competitive, white-collar jobs hire coaches like Stafford. Or, they go to therapy.
Of course, people have many reasons for seeking either coaching or therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, in particular, has been shown to be as effective as medication for some forms of depression. Therapy of all kinds can address deeper traumas than your latest personal or professional snub. But a major perk of such services is that therapists are bound by law to not reveal anything about their clients to anyone, unless it’s a matter of physical safety. Some therapists told me that they don’t even keep written notes, in case they ever get subpoenaed. (Stafford said she doesn’t reveal what her clients say in coaching even at the request of employers who pay for it.)
The confidentiality of therapy can thus make it the ultimate safe space: a place to unleash all your gossip and guarantee that no one will find out.
I’ve noticed this is especially a motivator in Washington, a uniquely competitive place where many jobs are top secret, or might as well be. As my colleague Kathy Gilsinan put it, “No one moves to Washington to find themselves.” People move here, for the most part, to work. Many, at their dream job—one countless other people are vying for. Ladder-climbing is our sport. Bars here overflow with people one-upping one another at pub trivia, and people lay out their five-year plan on first dates.
The stress and anxiety provide a lot to complain about. Yet there are few safe venues in which to do it. Many people here, after all, work for political parties locked in constant, direct opposition to one another. Keith Miller, a D.C. psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher, estimates that at least half of his clients have jobs that can’t be discussed easily with friends or professional contacts. Take two pals who work for opposing political parties. “They’re friends because they like each other, and they hang out together and they drink together,” Miller says. “But they work for the enemy. And mistakes happen, because the desire to connect to another human is stronger than the desire to do things by the book.” D.C.’s an insular town: The guy you met on Tinder might soon be your new co-worker.
Because of that, many Washingtonians spout off in therapy. Several therapists told me that the stress of on-the-job competition is one of the biggest work-related issues they see—followed closely by bad bosses. Miller often sees clients who have so much pent-up stress, they become angry or, conversely, grow withdrawn and burned-out. Some people take their frustrations to the bedroom. Another D.C. therapist, Karen Osterle, told me, “The amount of infidelity in this town is enough to change one’s worldview.”
To be sure, this is far from simply a D.C. problem. Work has consumed more and more of American life. In Silicon Valley, many people are working under nondisclosure agreements at secretive start-ups, limiting the amount they can share with their nonwork friends. “This sense of isolation only serves to increase the pressure and make people feel that there is nowhere they can turn for support,” Jacob Brown, a psychotherapist in Marin County, California, told me via email.
The confidentiality of therapy can be a benefit for people with relatively low-stress jobs, too. Essence Wilks, a 24-year-old in Dallas, went to therapy because she felt like she didn’t have enough direction in her life. Part of the reason for seeking help was that she wanted to avoid complaining to her family about her problems. “I don’t like to be a burden,” she says. Plus, she adds, “certain things you can tell a family member and it can travel through the whole family.” Her therapist, meanwhile, will guard her secrets.
For couples, too, therapists are perfect for end-running mutual friends. It can be awkward to complain to someone about your significant other and then later invite that person to hang out with the two of you at a barbecue. In therapy, you say everything you hate about your beloved, and ensure that it will never get back to them. Be careful if you and your partner have the same therapist, though. Fran Walfish, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, told me via email that “it can get very sticky when one partner phones or tries to corner me separately and tell me a ‘secret.’” She said she makes a rule to not hold secrets when she treats couples.
Therapy is a fundamentally different process than friendship. Those who seek it out hoping for a really expensive, tight-lipped buddy might be surprised—or even challenged—by what they find. Unlike friends, therapists don’t expect equal time devoted to themselves and their problems. Therapy “is very hard work. So it’s not nearly as much fun as talking with a friend,” says Elisabeth LaMotte, another D.C. therapist.
At best, a friend can be a sounding board and help you talk through your problems. “If it’s a really good friend, they’ll be like, ‘Wow, that must be really hard,’” Osterle said. A therapist, meanwhile, can help you dig deeper. If the problem stems from an unconscious pattern in the person’s life, therapy can be, well, more therapeutic than simply complaining. LaMotte, for instance, focuses on helping people develop a good sense of themselves, without being defined by what others think of them. Resolving some of those conflicts, she says, might help the person communicate differently or experience less anxiety.
That can help you with the core problem at hand: getting what you want, so you don’t have to complain anymore.