Venting. We all do it from time to time. Is it helpful? In this article I explore the idea of venting. I strongly believe that venting “negative” emotions such as anger, hatred, resentment or jealousy can be harmful, and that venting has little to no helpful purpose in these cases. I argue that venting negative emotions can cause harm to ourselves, our friends and family, and our communities.
Urban Dictionary gives a thorough definition of emotional venting that reflects common knowledge on the subject (type-o’s and grammatical errors have been carried over from original text):
“…[Venting is a] coping mechanism that allows a person to rationalize and validate their own fears, concerns, worries, dreams and hopes. If we are not allowed to vent , we end up bottling up our emotions which is detrimental to the human psyche and can end up suffering from it's side effects. Such as Ulcers, depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, migraines, fatigue. The list goes on and on. So when you find yourself in the position of being the receiver of someone’s griping moaning bitching realize that not always is advice warranted but more or less you have become the outlet for someone’s Physical and Psychological health.”
Venting is a form of expressing intense emotions, often in the presence of a third party. This emotional venting can be dramatic and exaggerated. Sometimes emotional venting is seen as ”telling it like it is,” and it is sometimes mistakenly thought of as direct and authentic expression of reality. It can come out raw and unfiltered. Often folks who vent site a feeling of a release, and may feel better after the vent session.
Reasons for Venting
One way of seeing emotional venting of negative emotions is that it is an activity of harm reduction. It can be a way of acting out harmful emotions in a controlled environment. For example, if I am angry with someone at work, I may go out with another co-worker and “vent” about it over lunch. This can be effective as a harm reduction approach, as it avoids negative consequences such as engaging in a power struggle with my co-worker. But this harm reduction technique is setting the bar pretty low and ignores a variety of other approaches that may be more effective in helping me to “deal” with my strong emotions – not to mention it is reinforcing a passive form of communication with coworkers which could overlap with gossip or talking behind the backs of others.
Another way to see venting is that it can help the venter “feel better.” Venting is sometimes seen as a way to blow off steam, release pressure and calm down. It can feel like a type of cleansing or detoxification. For some, venting might come with the initial euphoric feeling of letting go of pretext and “letting it all out.” Since the object of our anger is not present when venting, we feel unbridled by the realities or feelings of others. If we are not careful, our euphoric self-righteous state may be followed by the hangover of regret and shame.
The Problem with Venting
One of the biggest problems with venting anger is that it sets us up for more anger. I often use the metaphor of a hiking trail in my Motivational Interviewing (MI) trainings. Our brains have a variety of trails where neurons travel to create thoughts, behaviors and emotions. Some trails are smaller like animal trails in the forest; others resemble the rock-hard dirt of hiking trails dating back to the 1800’s. The dirt in these old trails responds to the feet of millions of travelers over hundreds of years by compacting and persevering the path. The old paths are easy to travel on and hard to change. In a similar manner, our brains respond to repeated thought patterns by creating paths; the more often these paths are used, the more lasting the path becomes. In this way, the repeated reenactment and exaggeration used in emotional venting of anger creates the habit of anger. This might explain why a 2007 study showed that venting is likely to create more anger in the participants studied (Olatunji, Lohr & Burhman).
Using the lens of Motivational Interviewing, we might say that venting is the act of anger talking ourselves into anger. The act of venting can include many arguments for why we are justified in our anger (sustain talk) and why it is not our fault or others are wrong (the blaming trap). Rather than seeking to understand others through empathy, we seek to blame and argue for anger when venting. These “arguments for anger” add fuel to our emotional fire and block us from compassion and acceptance of others. Repeated venting creates a habit of disconnectedness with others that prevents collaboration, acceptance, and compassion (the MI Spirit). In this way, venting can be poison for MI practitioners like myself, it can be a major road block for those of us who strive to create habits of compassion.
Another aspect of venting is that others hear our venting, and others are affected by what they hear. A friend may at first offer a supportive response to my expression of frustration and disappointment by empathetically listening or allowing me to “talk it through.” However, once my language turns towards anger (or other negative emotions) it can actually hurt the listener. Even though the anger is not directed towards the listener, anger is at least not fun to listen to and can even harm relationships. We have likely had the experience of being a listener to someone vent. When you reflect on this experience, how did the venting make you feel? Depressed, insecure, scared, angry? Anger can be contagious, and rarely does the expression of anger inspire joy or comfort to the listener.
When venting becomes the norm in an organization, it can be a cause of a toxic culture. Many of us have had the opportunity to work, volunteer, shop, visit or otherwise participate in toxic environments. I think of toxic cultures as those in which the established norms, values, and practices do not support collaborative, welcoming or inclusive environments. These environments lack psychological safety and are the breeding grounds for unhelpful emotions like fear, insecurity, aggression and the like. The act of venting models an unhelpful manner of indirect communication and spreads anger and other emotions to others in the culture. When we vent anger repeatedly, it first hurts us and then those listening to us. The long-term effect of continued venting can cause toxicity of the organizational cultures where we work, play and commune.
Working With Tough Emotions
There are a variety of ways that folks work with anger. I think a good staring place is to consider that emotions are fleeting and not permanent states of being. Jill Bolte Taylor reminds us of this fact in her book ”My Stroke of Insight.” She notes that the chemical process that occurs after an emotional trigger takes 90 seconds to complete. After those initial 90 seconds, the emotion causing chemicals dissipate. Just as the bright fleeting flame of an engulfed newspaper, emotions will extinguish on their own in a few minutes. It is when we add fuel to the fire that these emotions can be sustained and even grow out of control (2008). Unfortunately, actually resisting our impulse to add a few sticks to the fire is harder than it might seem. Emotions often present themselves, uninvited, to our minds.
Just as trying to help someone calm down by yelling “calm down” does not work, we cannot try to control our emotional experience through force and aggression. We must be intentional when we are working with tough emotions. Skills such as breathing, visualization, self-reflections, distraction, creative action, exercise, and music are among the many different activities that we can use to get back to a balanced emotional state.
One good first step is to avoid arguing for anger or even arguing with anger. Instead, we might follow the advice of Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) and notice the emotion and thought as they arise and attempt to “defuse” from that thought. Sometimes it can be helpful to reflect the feeling by naming it as “anger.” Once we acknowledge the emotion, we are in a good place to decide what action to take (Wilson & DuFrenne, 2009). If our goal is to arrive at a place of peace, balance and compassion with ourselves and others, I suggest re-evaluating our practice of venting.
Bolte, J.T. (2008). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Viking: NY.
Olatunji, B.O., Lohr, J. M., & Bushman, B.J. (2007). The pseudopsychology of venting in the treatment of
anger: Implications and alternatives for mental health practice. In T. A. Cavell & K. T. Malcolm (Eds.),
Anger, Aggression and Interventions.
Venting [Def. 1]. (2010). In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved on July 21, 2016, from
Wilson, K. G., & DuFrene, T. (2009). Mindfulness for Two: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Approach to Mindfulness in Psychotherapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Jesse Jonesberg (Berg) is a mental health professional, field instructor, trainer, and MINT member. He is passionate about issues of mental health, cultural humility, compassion, and motivational interviewing.
Jesse Jonesberg (Berg) is a member of the MINT network and active member of the MINT IDAC.
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