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 time and time again when 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 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 might as well be part of the drama – used to emphasize our words and win us sympathy.
Choice of words
Sharing: Words that reflect our feelings: “I’m very angry,” “I’m hurt,” “I’m not at my best yet,” “It’s hard for me,” etc.
Venting: Wording filled with accusations and self-justification. Harsh and intense words are being used to describe our situation and our judgment and opinion of the other person.
Sharing: Neutral. Although our facial expression may show emotions such as anger or sadness.
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. And if we’ve been accidentally caught by self-pity and have enough self-awareness, we’ll feel the intensification of the negative emotions .
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 cope 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 this person to stop talking.
In practice, that’s not the case. Just as ‘venting’ is toxic to you when you do it, it’s also toxic to the person who ‘vents’ to you, Also, you are not just listening – you are absorbing the toxic energy that the other person expresses, just like a passive smoker.
I don’t recommend telling people to shut-up or being prompt to explain how unhealthy what they do 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 in talking about it again – that’s the situation,” or, “you need to address it directly with her.”
And Another Little Thing…
You might have noticed that every time that I have written the word ‘venting’ I wrote it in quotation marks, as a reminder that we’re not truly relieving our feelings by doing that.
The following picture 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 🙂