The other day one of my very faves, Martha Beck, was speaking to me directly about something I do frequently. Venting.
Oh, the joy of collective bitching! How sweet it is to speak the unspeakable truth about the stupidity of your boss, the tedium of your daily chores, the intolerable passive aggression of your in-laws!
Until you start to feel a tad sick—much like you might after, say, polishing off a package of cookies.
Maybe you’ve had the creeping feeling that frequent venting, like smacking your foot with a hammer, may not be an optimal health choice in the long term. Sure, it’s cathartic, but can it also hurt you? Is it equally useful in all contexts? Does it help us solve problems, or merely entrench them more deeply in our minds and, therefore, our lives?
The very word vent hints at the answers. We also call it blowing off steam because we know venting is the metaphorical equivalent of controlling the pressure in a steam engine. Negative emotions give us energy to act—there’s nothing like intolerability to light a fire under one’s feet—but too much of that negative energy, contained too tightly, causes explosions in people and machines alike. (For example, if parents couldn’t vent their feelings about colicky infants, exhausting toddlers, or obnoxious teenagers, no human child would ever survive long enough to see adulthood.)
So venting is useful and necessary. It’s also easy to misuse. Many of us, fearing we’ll explode, err on the side of venting excessively, releasing so much pressure we can’t move forward as powerfully as we otherwise could. Vent too much of your frustration, and you may never invent a brilliant solution to a practical problem or challenge social injustice. Vent all your passion, and you may never write the book that’s inside you or pursue the love of your life.
Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to tell whether yo u’re venting too much, too little, or just enough. Most often we know we’re not venting enough when we’re keeping secrets—for example, swallowing anger at a loved one, hiding misbehavior (your own or someone else’s), or feeling too ashamed to talk about failure or disappointment. Refusing to share such intense emotional issues leads to shallow interactions that leave us feeling unseen or misunderstood.
If you feel isolated because you’re hiding something you consider unpleasant or embarrassing, you must vent. Talk to the person or people you trust most. If it doesn’t feel right or safe to vent with loved ones, find a therapist, a support group, or a hotline. You’ll be amazed by how much better you’ll feel once you have a safe place to let out your internal pressure and pain.
On the flip side, you’ll know you’re venting too much when you complain about a situation constantly without ever actually changing your behavior. You tell everyone from your coworkers to your dentist how much you despise your neighbor, but go on attending her dinner parties with a smile on your face and murder in your heart. You plod along at your thankless job all day every day, then moan about it all evening, every evening. You participate graciously in family gatherings even as you mentally note your relatives’ outrageous dysfunction, the better to vent afterward with your friends. Just like you did last week.
This amount of venting leaves you stranded in the very places you most dislike, and over time it creates a sense of powerlessness that fuels even more venting. You can see where this is headed. It’s in this situation that venting can become truly toxic, even dangerous, like an exhaust pipe pumping fumes back into a car.
We all know people who endlessly bemoan their own helplessness. That sort of venting feels so noxious that almost everyone backs away from it. If you vent like a victim of circumstance—even if you happen to truly be a victim of circumstance—it’s imperative that you stop now and instead act on the very information you’ve been sharing (and sharing, and sharing) with others.
Cool Mona Note: Part 2 tomorrow. Until we vent again.