Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

The Do’s and Don’ts of Emotional Ventilation

There’s a right and wrong way to air out distressful feelings.

This approach is definitely a don't!
This post complements my earlier piece, “The 12 Virtues, and Vices, of Venting.” In that post I suggested it might not be very prudent to air out your frustrations directly to the person who caused them. Here I’ll elaborate on this notion, at the same time I suggestif such venting is necessary and could be beneficial—how to most effectively confront your “provocateur.”

But before exploring such a direct (and possibly precarious) encounter, let’s look at optimal ways to approach a friend or confidant(e) about helping you mitigate your emotional distress.

In choosing a person appropriate to get something off your chest, consider first whether the communication needs to be confidential. If it does, take care to find someone who can resist the temptation to share your “privileged” information with others. Obviously, taking your frustrations to the town gossip wouldn’t be a particularly good idea (though, undoubtedly, such an individual would be delighted to hear about them!). You’d hardly want anything disclosed in private to go public by being indiscriminate in whom you confide.

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Closely related to this caveat is the more general dictum to choose a confidant(e) who’s safe to share yourself with. And that means someone who’s not only trustworthy but can be counted on to understand your perspective—as well as be supportive of, and sympathetic toward, your burdensome feelings. Additionally, you’re not seeking some know-it-all who can’t wait to interrupt you to glibly announce what you should do about the situation. Rather, what you’re looking for is a person who’s forbearing and can hear you out before even suggesting what might be helpful in resolving your problem—if, that is, it’s resolvable (since many such issues simply aren’t).

You also need to respect your listener’s limits and take care that your complaining, or griping, isn’t excessive—that it doesn’t wear them out. When you’ve found someone willing to function as a sympathetic sounding board, it’s all too easy to get so carried away that you ventilate to them ad nauseam. So when you’re bending someone’s ear, you want to be as mindful as possible about the negative energy you’re unquestionably deflecting onto them. You need to be as thoughtful and considerate of them as they’ve been toward you in their willingness to let you air out whatever worrisome, perplexing, or angry feelings are bothering you.

Let your confidant(e) know in advance that, well, you’re in a venting frame of mind (and feeling). And, in addition, get their permission to vent beforehand. Do they have the time right now?—or might they be willing to make time for you? As upset and self-absorbed as you may be, you still need to try to be as courteous and thoughtful in your venting as possible. You’re quite within your rights to search out someone who can offer you sympathy and support at times when you’re coming emotionally unglued. But you really don’t want to take advantage of their caring either.

If your heavy-duty venting is unexpected or especially vehement, and it takes your listener by surprise, they may not be able to respond as you need them to. Besides, they may be having a bad day themselves—or in the moment their emotional reserves may be exhausted. Or, if they haven’t been given the opportunity to brace themselves for your fervidly letting off steam, they may become irritated, overwhelmed, or possibly even a bit intimidated by the forcefulness (or fury) of your words and tone. Friend or not, if you find yourself in a frenzied state approaching “homicidal rage,” it’s best to do everything possible to calm yourself down (slow, deep breaths, anyone?) before you subject them to such emotional intensity. 

So, what about airing out your frustrations directly to the one who triggered them in the first place? As I’ve already suggested, such venting has to be done with great care...and caution. For whoever provoked your distress (in many instances, your boss or spouse) is not anywhere as likely to listen to your complaints in the patient, sympathetic manner your confidant(e) might. Moreover, if you’re still feeling incensed with this person, it will be all the more difficult to approach them the right way (that is, in the manner I’ve already indicated you’d want to reach out to a friend).

Given the possibly problematic nature of this relationship, the chances of actually receiving the support and understanding you want will probably also be much more elusive than they would with a trusted confidant(e). And should you still be in a highly agitated state, your very ability to communicate to them with the tact, consideration, and restraint necessary to maximize the odds that they’ll respond favorably to you will be gravely compromised.

How, then, can you approach the person who so upset you in a way you won’t later regret? To begin with, it will be essential that before you request they listen to what you have to tell them, you do everything possible to calm yourself down.

There are almost endless ways to alleviate your inner tension or turbulence when your emotions have begun to get the better of you. Different things work best for different people, so there’s no one procedure to recommend above all others. But consider such well-established relaxation methods as deep breathing, visualization, meditation, self-hypnosis, and progressive muscle relaxation. Or such physical outlets as yoga, qigong, tai chi, or any form of exercise or sport that will at once distract you from ruminating about your upset and also help you expend some of your nervous energy and keyed-up feelings.

Once you’ve regained some emotional equilibrium, you next need to explore alternative ways of understanding the troubling situation. Can you try to see it from their point of view? Contrary to your natural inclination, try to get yourself to perceive the whole thing with greater empathy for your antagonist and attempt to appreciate (even if you can’t agree with) the subjective validity of their thoughts and feelings. You don’t really have to forsake your own perspective to do this—only to temporarily suspend it so that when you go back to it, it won’t be quite so heated or one-sidedly dogmatic.

Also ask yourself whether you might have magnified the hurtfulness of what they said or did to you. In your possibly ego-centered self-righteousness, have you perhaps exaggerated the offense? Attributed motives to them more malevolent than might be likely? Arbitrarily imposed on them your (undeniably) self-biased criteria for “right” behavior? Additionally, to further lessen your negative feelings toward them, might you be able to get yourself to reflect on some of their more positive, redeeming qualities?

On preparing yourself to confront your "provocateur," one alternative suggestion frequently made is to begin the ventilation process on paper. For that practice, too, can help take the edge off your disturbance and promote a more balanced perspective of what so upset you. To get out as much venom as possible, feel free to employ as many expletives (#@&*) as you like, But don’t even think of doing this if such unconstrained letting go ends up making you even more livid and inflamed (!).

By performing such written ventilation conscientiously, once it’s over you should feel less upset, not more. And you should also be better able to recognize precisely what it was that so distressed you—that is, the deeper, underlying feelings that the other person may have brought up for you: such as feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness; unimportance; being misunderstood, mistrusted, devalued, or rejected; or, finally, not being loved or cared about. For when you air out your frustrations to their source, these are the feelings on which you should probably focus. Optimally, having already begun in writing to identify and express such emotions will also help you come up with tenable ideas for rectifying the conflict between you.

It’s only after you’ve self-soothed and calmed yourself down that it makes sense to confront the person who precipitated your frustrations. And hopefully, now you’ll be able to do so non-aggressively—with as much regard for their feelings as your own. As already indicated, much of what I’ve described as the proper “etiquette” for venting to a friend applies here as well. And as soon as you’re able to feel assured that the other person does understand where you’re coming from and can see your position as legitimate, you’ll want to refocus the conversation on what, realistically, can be productively altered in the future. You’ll want to search out remedies workable for both of you. Otherwise, they’re unlikely to be agreed to—or sustainable.

It cannot be overemphasized that if your goal is to make things better between yourself and the other person, at some point you'll need to move beyond simple venting to search for mutually agreeable solutions to resolve what was so disturbing to you. True, your particular problem may not allow for any practical or ready-made resolution. Still, if you can ventilate your deeper feelings non-attackingly—and so enable your listener to lower their defenses and grasp how they played a crucial role in your distress—at least the discord between the two of you should be substantially reduced.

If, for whatever reason, the other person can’t be induced to assent to any of your suggestions, then the question becomes: Can you let it go? For, as intimated earlier, many problems can’t be solved the way you’d prefer. And in such instances the best thing to do is simply accept that there are certain inherent limitations in the relationship. Of course, you always have the option of leaving the relationship altogether. But if that’s not really viable, or what you’d choose, the wisest alternative is to change your attitude. That way your temporary upset won’t fester inside you indefinitely.

Ultimately, holding a grudge against the person who left you antagonized doesn’t serve either one of you. So if your ventilation isn’t successful, it’s best to try to accept this—and the relationship—for what it is...and isn’t.

Note: If you found this post in some way useful and think others might as well, please consider sending them its link. Also, here again is the link for my companion piece, “The 12 Virtues, and Vices, of Venting.” Finally, if you’d like to explore other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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