To deal with heavy thoughts and strong feelings, my preferred approach is “better out than in.” The down side of holding in emotions is well-documented: over time, they eat you up, causing a variety of stress-related symptoms, physical illnesses, and mental health challenges. However, rampant venting also has risks. Numerous studies show that this practice does not support long-term happiness or well-being, increasing cortisol production and creating an extended state of stress response (i.e. survival mode). Another unintended consequence of unfiltered complaining is audience burnout, depleting your support system at a critical time.
One myth about venting is that it releases negative emotions, leaving a person feeling relieved, lighter, and free. In reality, venting rarely works this way, for the following reasons:
Some people recognize when they have reached the vicious circle of #5: “My colleagues, spouse, family, and friends are sick of hearing me talk about this, so I came to you.” I don’t mind being “used” this way, but when people have strong feelings to express, no one person can absorb them all. Even if people vented to me non-stop for hours, and I provided exquisite listening and validation, they might still feel the need to express themselves to others. Instead of expanding venting with a surrogate audience, you can practice more meaningful forms of emotional expression, and empower your support system to be better listeners.
Contracting for verbal expression
Most people would feel awkward proposing an explicit contract for voicing their concerns. Never considering this idea, they stumble forward, venting to anyone that will listen without giving much thought about the quality of listening they will experience or the impact of their complaints on the audience. Those who accept the listener role enter into a silent contract with the aggrieved person, implying that they will care and offer some form of support.
Why must this contract be silent? Since an unspoken agreement exists anyway, and often leads to negative outcomes, I challenge the idea that explicit contracts are weird, and propose to make them the norm. If you were my close colleague, and I were feeling furious about my experience at the hands of a treacherous co-worker, I could propose the following contract:
“I am so angry right now, I can barely contain myself. I feel lucky to have someone like you in my life, because you listen, and you get me. Right now, I don’t trust my ability to judge when I’m venting excessively and becoming a burden to you, and I don’t want to burn you out. Can we identify a safe word or time-out gesture you can use when I’m exceeding your capacity to listen, and you start to feel overwhelmed? I promise to honor that limit, view it as an act of kindness, and not take it as a rejection or criticism. What do you say?”
Another contracting option is setting time limits:
“I am so angry right now, I can barely contain myself. I’m afraid I will wear you out with my complaining. A time limit would help me. Can I ask a favor? The moment I start venting, assuming it’s a convenient time, you say, ‘The time is , you have five minutes.’ You give me your undivided attention, then cut me off if I’m not done. I get two of those per day max, and I commit to staying within those limits. Are you game?”
A better process to vent
After contracting with your support system to limit your venting, you can focus on making your process of verbal expression more effective. Prior to leaning on others, it will help to identify which elements of the situation are within reach and which are beyond your control, and then to consider possible solutions or coping strategies. It will also help to identify your thoughts about the situation that are fueling strong emotions, and the specific feelings that arise (e.g. anger, frustration, hurt, sadness, disappointment, fear, etc.). This prepares you for a constructive method of emotional expression that puts the brain in a less stressed and more regulated state. Jeff Nally, author of “Four Steps to Spark Your Best Thinking” in the book, Humans@Work, refers to this as the Space-Clearing Technique, which you practice like this:
“What I’m thinking about right now is (what my evil colleague did to me), and the feelings that arise from those thoughts are (anger, hurt, betrayal). I have explored all options for dealing with this situation, and I have a plan to implement. However, since much of this situation (like how my colleague will react) is beyond my control, and I don’t gain anything from dwelling on such details, and since I have other priorities that need my attention right now, I’m going to take this box of thoughts and feelings and set it aside.” Then, you make a motion with your arms of setting a box to the side.
You can repeat this process as long as lingering thoughts and feelings are swirling inside of you. Not only will this decrease your stress and take your body out of survival mode, but it will also dramatically improve your audience’s listening capacity. If you contract with your support system to limit your venting, then express yourself constructively using the Space-Clearing Technique, your support system will become truly supportive, and you won’t burn out a single person.