One of the false beliefs that many agree on is that what’s called ‘venting’ or ‘letting off steam’ is a natural and healthy way to deal with emotional burdens.
“But if I bottle it up inside I’ll explode….” This is the argument I hear again and again whenever I advise my clients to give up this destructive habit.
So how, then, can we express that which needs to be said, but do so in a constructive way?
To answer this question, let’s look into the distinction between constructive ways to share your feelings and what’s called venting or letting off steam:
Sharing: Acknowledgment of one’s emotional state – being hurt, sad, angry, or fearful.
Venting: Expression of either the need for revenge by bad-mouthing the other person, or the need to demean another person and present them as inferior in order to get a momentary boost of self-enhancement at their expense.
Sharing: Moderate. With one person, two, or three at most. The words will be relatively concise.
Venting: With as many people as possible and as many times as possible. The main goal is to condemn whoever hurt us and to get validation that we’re right and the other person is wrong. Such conversation may continue for a long while and often we’ll repeat the same things over and over again
Way of presenting things
Sharing: A 360-degree view that considers the limitations of the other person – what they are capable of or incapable of, as well as our own attitude toward them, even if only behind the scenes.
For example, I may express anger at my friend’s behavior toward me, but at the same time I’m aware that I’ve been harboring a grudge against her for a while, and that this has likely influenced her attitude toward me.
Venting: One-sided and tendentious. The other person is Satan and we’re only an innocent victim. Plenty of accusations are being thrown around, without any consideration of the other person’s capabilities and their level of self-awareness, and without taking a closer look at our own impact on the situation.
Sharing: May express anger, pain, or sadness – but without excessive drama or need to defame the person who hurt us in order to “get back at them.”
Venting: Whiny, harsh, ridiculing, arrogant, and even violent. Such a conversation will easily lead to full-blown sobbing, not because of the circumstances, but because of the huge drama that we’ve created around them. The sobbing is part of the drama – its objective is to emphasize what was said and win us sympathy.
Choice of words
Sharing: Words that reflect our feelings: “I’m very angry,” “I’m hurt,” “I’m not feeling my best yet,” “It’s hard for me,” etc.
Venting: Wording filled with accusations and self-justification. Harsh and intense words will be used regarding our situation and toward the other person.
Sharing: Neutral. Although emotions such as anger or sadness may appear on our face.
Venting: Intended to magnify the drama by emphasizing our judgment and aversion toward the person we are speaking about, or our own misery.
Sharing: A sense of relief may be felt upon sharing. Yet, if we are over the need for drama, we might as well feel the intensification of the negative emotions if we’ve been accidentally caught by self-pity.
Venting: Since ‘venting’ is accompanied with so much drama and negativity, it drains our power, paints everything black, presents us as helpless victims, and thus, fills us with anger and despair and makes it much more difficult for us to deal with the situation.
What Should You Do If Someone Repeatedly ‘Vents’ to You?
Often, your mother, sister, or a friend will turn you into their favorite listener and spill out their anger, frustrations, and problems before you over and over again.
When I advise my clients to minimize interaction of this nature, they are quick to say something like, “But what will she do without me??”
They believe that their willingness to listen benefits the other person even if they’re about to explode and are just waiting for them to stop talking.
In practice, that’s not the case. Just as ‘venting’ is poisonous to you when you do it, it’s also poisonous to the one who’s ‘venting’ to you, as well as to you as the listener – since you are absorbing the poisonous energy that the other person expresses.
I don’t recommend shutting people up or being prompt to explain how unhealthy what they are doing is, but rather simply not to get involved in that person’s drama. Instead, you can respond in a way that doesn’t fan the flames of their drama. You may say something such as, “I understand” and a bit later you can gently shift the conversation to another topic. Sometimes the right thing to say is something like, “there’s no point talking about it again – that’s the situation,” or, “you need to address it directly with her.”
And Another Little Thing…
If you’ve noticed – every time that I’ve written the word ‘venting’ I wrote it in quotation marks, as a reminder that we’re not truly relieving our feelings by doing that. And here’s a picture that will serve as a reminder for what you’re truly doing each time you convince yourself that the way you express yourself is only natural and even inevitable:
That’s what I do each time I say the word ‘venting’ when I speak with my clients.
Good luck with putting it to practice 🙂