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6 Virtues, and 6 Vices, of Venting

Check this expert's guide before unloading your frustrations on others.

Source: InesBazdar/Shutterstock

Any scrupulous appraisal of airing out your frustrations with others must conclude that its value—practically as well as ethically—is somewhat ambiguous.

Undeniably, emotional ventilation has positive features. But just as indisputably, there are negative aspects as well.

Generally, it’s better to let things out than hold them in. And doing so feels almost akin to problem-solving—in the moment, at least.

Venting your frustrations alleviates tension and stress. You almost always feel better—and “lighter”—after sharing some perceived threat, indignity, misfortune, or injustice.

Yet ventilating, when it’s confined to repetitively self-vindicating messages, can also be self-limiting. And misused in this way (which is all too common) it can link to prematurely, and self-defeatingly, claiming “victimhood” when what’s really called for is actively behaving in ways that could potentially rectify a situation. As such, it can become little more than an excuse for not acting to resolve a problem or confront an issue that requires confrontation.

All this is by way of introducing the complexities of this surprisingly thorny topic. Following are some advantages—and disadvantages—of emotionally venting your frustration.

6 Virtues of Venting

  1. In many (though not all) situations it’s better for you to discharge negative emotions than to keep them bottled up inside. Whether it’s sorrow, anxiety, anger, or frustrations in general, repeatedly holding in what may need to come out has been related to compromised health—physical, mental, and emotional. The immediate feelings of relief derived from such letting go can hardly be overstated. Doubtless, at some point in your life you’ve benefited from the comfort and consolation of another person's supporting and validating you when you shared some distressing experience with them.
  2. Venting helps to restore your equilibrium. When your emotions have catapulted to the ceiling because you’ve let something get to you, your higher neocortical functioning goes offline. And with that impairment, your mental faculties can become addled—discombobulated. But if you have a trusted confidant(e) to assist you in regaining control of these rattled feelings, you’ll be able to think more logically. And hopefully, you’ll then be capable of viewing the disturbing situation from a less exaggerated—or distorted—perspective.
  3. As long as you’re sufficiently careful in selecting whom you’ll confide in, their sympathetic response is likely to make you feel better—or at least not quite as bad. The troubling sense of being all alone in your misfortune is almost always significantly reduced by another’s concerned willingness to allow you to share your grievances with them. Just in itself, self-expression feels good. But what can help you feel even better is being listened to by someone who genuinely seems to care about you. For through their warmheartedly “getting” your discomfiture and commiserating with you, your frustrations feel all the more rightful and legitimate.
  4. If you’re too emotionally entangled in what happened to you, you can’t think very clearly about what you may still be able to do about the situation. Your confidant(e), however, by being more detached, may be in a much better position to suggest ways of effectively addressing your frustrations. True, in many instances there may be nothing that can be done about the situation (other than “sucking it up”). But even here we might consider the meaning and validity of the famous expression, “misery loves company.” The mere act of venting to a compassionate other has its own gratifications. All the same, there are times when your friend might be able to suggest potentially productive actions that, in your agitated state, might never have occurred to you.
  5. Ideally, you ought to be capable of independently moving beyond the feelings that plague you—and to do this by changing the negative assumptions or assessments you attributed to whomever, or whatever, instigated those feelings. But at times you may need to vent to another to get assistance in reinterpreting what you may either have taken too personally or perceived erroneously. Your over-the-top feelings could relate specifically to anxiety and fear, guilt and shame, sadness or despondency, or anger and rage. But in any case, it can be invaluable to have another person—with their own vantage point and authority—help you to relieve, release, or resolve such pestering feelings.
  6. Directly confronting the source of your frustrations could possibly put you at serious risk (e.g., get you fired). Despite the fact that reason and ethics may plainly be on your side, there are various situations that are simply too dangerous to go up against. In such scenarios, it’s a great relief to at least have someone in your corner who you know is safe to vent these strong feelings to.

6 Vices of Venting

  1. It can damage, or even destroy, relationships. If you habitually rely on another to vent negative feelings, you may eventually exhaust their patience and lead them to feel that their own wants, needs, and feelings have very little importance to you. And if they begin, routinely, to feel used by you—or even exploited—at some point, they may refuse to continue as your private “dumping ground.” Having heard quite enough of your frustrations or failures, they may opt to liberate themselves from such negativity. So regularly deflecting your troubling emotions toward a friend (who in most instances hasn’t had anything to do with whatever provoked you) can seriously threaten that relationship.
  2. Choosing to ventilate directly to the person who upset you (typically, not a very prudent move) can actually increase your level of distress. Depending on their response—and you can generally assume that such individuals are either insensitive to your feelings or, frankly, don’t much care about them—you’re likely to feel even worse than you did earlier. Consider that many (if not most) people are likely to immediately get defensive when they feel criticized or “attacked." And their efforts to counter, or challenge, what you share with them will probably only exacerbate your frustrations. In most instances, it’s foolish to expect such people to react with supportive understanding to your impassioned complaints, especially since, in their own sensitivity, they may feel verbally bludgeoned by you!). Finally, if their response further intensifies whatever feelings of anger or hostility you may harbor toward them—and it’s already in your behavioral repertoire—it’s just possible that your verbal aggression could morph into something physical. And consider the serious negative ramifications that such unrestrained acting out could have for you.
  3. In the moment, emotional ventilation can feel almost like problem-solving: By airing out the problem, you’re doing something about it. But if viable ways of effectively confronting the problem actually exist—and the problem demands to be confronted—mere ventilation is a poor substitute for taking appropriate action. In fact, in many instances venting, by partially relieving your distress, can be counter-productive by making you less likely to act constructively in your behalf. Paradoxically, such venting, at the same time that it opens up self-expression, can also close it down—in ways that ultimately could be harmful to you. In this respect, it’s hardly a coincidence that emotional ventilation has sometimes been related to cowardice.
  4. Venting can be a way of denying any personal responsibility for the situation that’s so disconcerting to you. In tone and substance, it tends to be both blaming and self-righteous, to presuppose a certain moral superiority. Obviously, it can be comforting to see yourself as a victim of someone else’s unfairness or disregard. But it hardly facilitates your appreciating the subjective validity of their viewpoint. In other words, it can be polarizing in a way that’s not particularly healthy—and certainly not very productive. And with an attitude that, if not downright smug, is at least rather self-satisfied, it doesn’t foster any sort of later “remedial” communication between you and your alleged “perpetrator.” Adopting such a complacent stance is more likely to frustrate them, and widen the chasm between the two of you even further.
  5. Although venting is frequently viewed as cathartic, in that it can lead to substantial emotional release, if it’s done with the wrong person(s) or with too much vehemence, it can also backfire. Angry venting, in particular, can antagonize another—and their response to your impassioned discharge could then be similarly heated. In short, your inadvertently prompting such a negative reaction in your confidant(e) can, in turn, lead you to become even more upset—surely, the opposite of experiencing any sort of catharsis or improved mood.
  6. In regularly venting your frustration or anger, you’re in effect practicing it—and thereby becoming more “skilled” at it. This will make you more likely to get upset by future disappointments, even relatively petty ones. For such a response, through sheer repetition, can become easier and easier to trigger. It may become nothing less than a knee-jerk reaction whenever something doesn’t go your way. This is yet another instance of emotional ventilation boomeranging, setting in motion a life that’s much more tense and disturbing than it would be otherwise. If you repeatedly use venting to justify and validate yourself—and this pattern becomes as automatic as it is self-reinforcing—you can see how it would actually increase the odds of your ending up living a life of heightened stress, if not downright misery.

These lists should suggest how this response can—and must—be understood as the mixed and multifaceted phenomenon it is.

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

My next (companion) post, "The Do’s and Don’ts of Emotional Ventilation,” will go beyond cataloging what’s good and bad about venting to describing just how to ventilate, in order to minimize the chances that you’ll later come to regret it.

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