I lot of people mistake venting for therapy. They think that if they can say what’s on their mind, they’ll feel better and get that problem off their chest. They will, up to a point. If you have something you’re trying to figure out, or something you need to be honest about, then vent away. But, if you have already vented, and need to do so again and again, and nothing changes, then venting is not working. It may be making everything worse. You need to know the point of maximum venting effectiveness, beyond which there are diminishing, then reversing returns, and how to stop after you’ve crossed it.
It’s natural and healthy to vent when you’re feeling strong emotions. Others can validate what you’re going through. If you’re feeling angry, sad, hurt, disgusted, or afraid and are not sure you should be feeling that way, then venting to a good listener helps you check your perceptions. It’s also great to know there’s someone you can rely on who takes the time to listen. Sharing your feelings also gives you a chance to gain insight into what’s causing them and prevent future episodes. Sometimes, putting feelings into words helps to clarify the situation. Your confidants can provide new perspective and offer sound advice, if they have any.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time, nothing is gained by venting. Sounds come out of your mouth, but nothing changes because noting enters your ears. What do you need to hear? You need to absorb the validation, accept different perspectives, acknowledge that someone’s listening, gain insight, act on good advice, and change.
Venting is often compared to letting steam off an overheated boiler. If you reduce the pressure in a safe place, it’ll keep you from blowing up. Venting feels like having a good burp, a fart, or puking when you’ve eaten bad food. But analogies can be misleading. If venting was just like those things, it would be fine to repeat your performance as many times as needed. But venting is often more like scratching a rash caused by poison ivy. It feels good but leads to further irritation. It’s more like returning to eat that food you’ve barfed up and barfing it up again, all over your friends.
Get angry and someone is bound to tell you to go punch a pillow. They’ll urge you to yell, scream, and carry on. It’s supposed to soothe your anger. However, studies show it actually makes most peoples’ anger worse. People have assumed debriefing after a traumatic event will ward off post-traumatic stress. Wrong. People who debrief after trauma are MORE likely to develop PTSD. Another study, after 9/11 reported that “focus on and venting of emotions was found to be uniquely predictive of longer-term anxiety.” Venting over social media backfires, as well. The post-traumatic stress and depression scores of students at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University after mass shootings actually went up the more they vented.
Many people believe we therapists want you to vent and that we think it’s a good thing. Some people cite Freud as a proponent of venting, using that analogy to the boiler. They say, if I don’t get a chance to vent, I’ll be repressed, and all that bottled material will build up and wreak havoc on my psyche. Therefore, let me vent. I’m paying you to do it.
This puts me in the unfortunate position of having to explain that, after a point, I don’t want you to vent, and I don’t think it’s a good idea. It rarely goes well when I say that. The venters think that, just like many of the people in their lives, I simply don’t want to hear about it, I’m trying to silence them, or control them. They know how uncomfortable it is to listen when someone vents to them, going on and on, in a loud voice, and not getting to say anything in return. Listening to someone vent is hard work, I grant them, but I’d be willing to do it if I thought it would be productive.
I have no problem with healthy venting, of course. I need to know what the problem is from the client’s point of view. But, after the third or fourth time hearing the same story, I say enough is enough. Is this really helping you? They usually say venting does help them because they have been taught to believe it. Or they cite the momentary cathartic relief they get from getting something off their chest. But that’s not the same as helping. If venting was helping, why would you need to do it repeatedly?
Sometimes, people come to realize that repeated venting doesn’t help them that well, but they can’t stop themselves from doing it. In those cases, venting has turned into a compulsive behavior, like washing your hands a million times, getting blind drunk whenever something doesn’t go your way, checking your ex’s Facebook page, or screaming at every other driver who fails to signal. It promises to give relief but makes things worse.
Venting makes things worse when it reinforces the usual way you think of things. It’s addicting. The momentary relief gets you hooked while the toxic memories and beliefs do their damage. No one says anything new to themselves when they vent repeatedly. They gain no insights the hundredth time they tell the story. They practice no new skills. They simply go over the same tired issues they already have many times before. Every time, the ruts get deeper and the harder it is to get out of them. Is that why you go to therapy? Is that why you talk things over with a friend? Do you like watching the same bad movie a hundred times?
Besides making you feel worse, venting also has a negative impact on your audience. You must know how frustrating it is to listen to someone who vents frequently. It’s hard to listen to anger, fear, hurt, disgust, or sadness without catching the feelings yourself. There’s a limit to how much your listener can absorb. You’ll find people avoiding you if you vent a lot, which will give you more to vent about.
Repeated venting doesn’t even relieve repression, a la Freud; it represses you all the more. Let’s get something straight. Your repressed thoughts and feelings are not those that you think about constantly and say every time you get a chance. Your repressed thoughts and feelings are those you don’t permit yourself to think or feel. The things you are repressing are the things you won’t say; you are not even conscious of them.
I would even claim that venting is how you repress yourself. Far from releasing bottled up emotions, compulsive venting of some feelings bottles others up. The story you tell becomes a dominant narrative, it takes up all the airtime, so you never get a chance to say those things you really need to talk about.
Sometimes venting can get in the way of needed change. If venting makes you feel temporarily better, then you may not feel the need to change the circumstances that lead you to vent.
So, what should you do if you’re a compulsive venter? Do you need to sit down and shut up? Not at all. Like I said, if you’ve never told your story before, then vent away. The first time you let it out, you may hear yourself in a new way. Something you never noticed up till now may become apparent. Also, if you’ve told it before, but have a new therapist, then they need to hear it. When you find you’re repeating yourself, that’s when you need to be concerned.
The first step to treat your own compulsive venting is to try not doing it at all. Sometimes strong emotions can be dealt with by getting some exercise or changing your surroundings. If you’re a person who prays, then pray. If you meditate, now’s the time. Try putting your vent in writing. That will organize your feelings. When you read yourself afterwards, you might find a new perspective.
If you must vent to another, tell them that you don’t need advice until after they’ve repeated your story back to you. They don’t need to be a perfect mirror or echo. It’s better if they put it in their own words, just as long as they still capture what you’re trying to say. We therapists are trained to do this, anyway. It’s called active listening. Having your story told back to you does a few things. It lets you know they’ve been listening. Often, people vent compulsively because they don’t feel that anyone has been listening. Additionally, when you hear your story told back to you, it might almost be like you’re hearing it for the first time. You might notice things about your story you never noticed when you were the one speaking.
If you do this and your interlocutor can demonstrate understanding, then you don’t need to say it again. You can move on. If they get it wrong, you have a choice to make. You might conclude that the person you’ve been venting to is incapable of understanding. Not everyone can listen to a venter. But more often, they’re incapable of understanding in the way you’ve been saying it. Try saying it differently.
Most venting comes loaded with emotion. Anger, frustration, despair, hurt, terror, or disgust complicates the content of what you are trying to say. When that happens, it’s hard for people to listen. They put up their guard or look for ways to solve your problem so they can solve their problem of having to listen to it at all. So, try venting in a softer voice, calmer, and less insistent. It’s going to seem like you’re not letting off any steam, but you may be successfully communicating.
Other than toning down the emotion, you can take another perspective. Tell the story as you might tell it when you are old and on your deathbed, or as you would tell it ten years from now. If you are venting about another person, some awful thing they did, then tell it from that person’s point of view. Or adopt the point of view of an onlooker. One powerful method is to imagine the point of view of God, or any being that can see the big picture.
The point is to shake things up a bit. Try to get something else loose that’s been jammed up. The point of venting is to move on. If you have vented and have not moved on, then you are doing it wrong and venting may have become part of the problem.
In summary, for venting to be productive, it needs two phases: the speaking phase and the listening phase. In the speaking phase, let it out, let it all out. In the listening phase, absorb the validation, accept a different perspective, acknowledge that someone’s listening, learn something, act on good advice, and change. The mistake people make is when they perform the first phase and neglect the second.