I Have To Be Able To Vent!
Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. “But Beth, I have to able to vent! It isn’t healthy to hold it in.” Bam. There it is. I teach in my Navigating Challenging Dialogue™ workshop that venting is simply polluting everyone else’s environment with your crap. When I reach that part of the workshop someone inevitably retorts, “But Beth, I have to be able to vent!”
This is a myth. It is one of the rocks we hold on to that burden us and weigh us down. And it just isn’t true. Venting is not a right, a privilege, or a therapeutic action. It is actually a sort of human rights violation as far as I’m concerned.
Consider this scenario. A client leaves the building. She is a valued client, but can be a little challenging to deal with. After she leaves, a customer service representive begins venting to her coworkers - coworkers who were going along having a relatively good day. The tenor and content of the venting is negative and the context is personal. “Can you believe her? I can’t stand waiting on her. She is privileged and stuck up. She never knows what she wants. She takes forever to decide. Her opinions are stupid. I can’t stand it when I see her coming in. She makes me so angry! Doesn’t she just tick you off?”
This is your invitation to jump in and validate your coworker’s feelings. To allow the pollution from her swirling pool of negativity to overflow into your peace and contentment and engage in her unproductive drama.
When a supervisor calls the employee out regarding the negative diatribe her response is, “I’m venting. I have to be able to vent about people if I’m going to be able to do my job! It doesn’t hurt anyone. She can’t hear me. It’s how I get rid of the my stress.”
So that’s the myth. Here’s the truth:
According to researchers, venting actually continues or recreates the same activity in our brain as anger does. The act of venting sustains that anger-based activity for longer periods of time. In other words, whatever yucky feelings you are experiencing (anger, disappointment, sadness) would have disappeared sooner had you not gone into venting mode.
The reality is that when someone says, “I have to vent to get over it” what they are really saying is “I want to stay in this muck for a while longer. And by the way, I'm going to bring you into the fray with me by venting to you.”
Being in the presence of someone who is venting can feel like being held against your will. Especially when you fear hurting their feelings or damaging the relationship. So how do you not engage with the venting co-worker, family member, or friend, etc. without causing more drama?
Be frank. "I value you but I want to stay in a positive space right now so I want to change the topic."
Explore. Ask simple questions that get to the heart of the matter.
“What about this has you feeling angry?”
“What are you frustrated about?”
“What are your really worried about?” and then the follow up question, “What are you going to do about it?”
People want to stay in venting mode in order to be validated or gain allies. When this is the case, they will take the venting elsewhere when you begin discussing concrete action steps to resolve the issue.
State what you want. “I value our relationship, however right now I’m focusing on positive energy so I’m not going to participate in this venting.”
Are you the culprit? Sometimes we all indulge in a little venting. But know that venting is habit forming. It is important to be clear about your purpose and be sure the person you vent to is willing, able, and in a space to hear it without getting polluted. My daughters and I have an agreement. If someone feels the need to indulge in venting, we lead with that, “I’m just calling you to vent. Is that okay?”
But if you find yourself doing this frequently or if you just charge into someone’s emotional, mental or physical space without regard for their time or capacity, you may be a chronic, unhealthy venter.
Do you catch yourself in defensive mode saying, “But I just need to vent” or “Venting is how I release stress”? If yes, then you are the dreaded venter. And you are negatively impacting those around you – as well as yourself.
You will find a great deal of relief and deeper more meaningful connections with others if you turn that unhealthy and unproductive habit around. Here are some action steps and strategies that work.
- Look Inward. Take an honest look at what you are feeling. Chances are the situation you are venting about brings up feelings of loss, disappointment, anger or sadness (or a combination of all of them). Are you trying to escape from or avoid those feelings? Get to the root of it and simply feel that feeling without blaming or venting about the other person.
- Breathe and move. Breath and movement (like going for a walk or stretching) actually makes it impossible for the anger to stick in our brain and body.
- Question your motives: Venting is a form of triangulation. We want to gain allies and validation that our beliefs are true. Reflect on a time when you were venting. Was there a piece of you that wasn’t looking for a solution and was really just looking for someone to confirm you were right and justify your outrage? While this temporarily relieves anxiety, it actually reduces rather than builds connection. And like a habit-forming drug, the relief is short lived and then you find yourself needing another dose. That is how you become chronic complainer.
- Put it in writing: Instead of polluting the good vibes of others, journal about what is bugging you. As you do, look to what is the cause. What feels disappointing? What is triggering you? What was your role in the situation? And what practices can you put in place to navigate the situation more effectively in the future. In other words what can you learn about yourself in this situation. Remember, it is never really about the other person. End your writing with what you are grateful for within the situation. You can always find something.
- Let it go. Our brain believes the messages we say. If we repeat the words, “I’m so angry” over and over to everyone we see (venting), our brain believes us. If we say things like, “I’ve let it go” or “I’m feeling peace” or “I am grateful” over and over, our brain also believes us.
- Be grateful. Your heart and your brain prefer to be in a state of gratitude and grace over anger any day. Find what in the situation you are truly grateful for (there is always something) and fill your heart and mind with thoughts of gratitude.
- Skill build. Choose positive communication skills versus anger management skills. Why spend time managing anger when you can learn what triggers your anger and navigate tough situations without it?
- Get a buddy. Changing behaviors and habits requires practice. Ask a trusted friend or co-worker to let you know when you are starting to vent. You can establish a signal or a code word that gently and simply gives you the head’s up that you are going down the venting road.
- Be humble. If you do misstep and engage in the venting behavior, when you catch yourself simply stop and say, “Oh wow. I almost slipped back into venting. My bad” and then redirect the conversation to something positive. No need to apologize or feel shame. You are on a growth path and it is a beautiful thing!