Many of us think venting will make things feel a little better, whether it’s complaining to co-workers about a micromanaging boss or airing frustration with your partner and kids. But while blowing off steam often feels like it works to extinguish negative emotions,State of Mindsays that academic papers and clinical work with patients show it doesn’t. In fact, it often makes things worse.
The idea of venting can be traced as far back as Aristotle, but Freud is the one who really popularized the notion of catharsis. Most of what we assume about the need to “let it out” comes from his assertions about the danger of unexpressed feelings.
Neuroscience—specifically, neural plasticity—explains why venting reinforces negative emotions. You can think of our brain circuitry like hiking trails. The ones that get a lot of traffic get smoother and wider, with brush stomped down and pushed back. The neural pathways that sit fallow grow over, becoming less likely to be used. Kindergarten teachers are thus spot on when they say, “The thoughts you water are the ones that grow.” This is also true for emotions, like resentment, and the ways we respond to them, like venting. The more we vent, the more likely we are to vent in the future.
Why do we still do it?
For starters, venting can be like scratching a mosquito bite. Itfeelslike it works at first. Studies have shown a drop in diastolic blood pressure of 1 to 10 points after venting. But they show no attendant drop in hostility. It feels like we release anger or frustration, but we don’t. Even if we didn’t experience this temporary alleviation, there’s the fact that negative feelings naturally dissipate over time. People who do nothing assume the abatement owes to time; people who vent believe venting did the trick. And our choices can be self-reinforcing. If it seems like venting worked, we’re less likely to abide by social norms around holding back in the future.
Another culprit reinforcing the “catharsis hypothesis” is media messaging. Emotional awareness is on the rise, with more Americans understanding concepts like trauma and toxic positivity. We’ve gotten the message that we need to acknowledge our emotions and set boundaries in our workplaces and relationships. But complaining to co-workers about your office manager switching muffin brands isn’t the same as whistleblowing, and an occasional gripe is different from constant negativity. In more general terms, embracing our feelings isn’t the same as expressing them, and not all forms of expression are created equal. Realizing “I’m angry” (always OK) is a different beast from telling someone “I’m angry” (sometimes OK), and it’s even further from berating someone for causing your anger (not OK).
We want to give in to the urge to wallow, to do damage, to invite company into our misery. We also can feel closer to others when we expose them to our raw emotion, and if there’s one reliable truth about human psychology, it’s that we desire connection so much that we’ll take it in negative forms when we can’t get positive ones. But venting often doesn’t work to enhance intimacy; it can even isolate us further, whether we’re talking about getting a bad rep among our colleagues for being a negative Nancy, undermining our partner’s sense of trust and safety, or having people in our social circles associate us with stress.
None of this means you should repress your emotions or never grouse to your loved ones. In fact, studies on “social sharing” show that the productiveness of this type of venting depends on how it’s done. According to a 2019 paper, “When Chatting About Negative Experiences Helps—and When It Hurts,” recounting a negative experience takes you right back there emotionally and physiologically, just like the grievance narrative research shows. That leads to an increase in negativity.
Chatting with friends can bring closure when they help youreconstruean event, rather than just recount it. What does that look like? Asking why you think the other person acted that way, prodding to see whether there’s anything to be learned from it all, and just generally broadening your perspective to “the grand scheme of things.”
There are lots of other things you can do when overwhelmed by negative emotion. Try “square breathing,” four breaths in and four breaths out, in order to take your body out of fight-or-flight mode. If that doesn’t work, there’s another schoolteacher trick: Cross your arms in front of you like steps five and six of the macarena; make fists, pretending one holds a bouquet and the other a candle; breathe in the roses; and blow out the flame. Psychologists call techniques like this “psychological distancing,” and studies show that they’re an effective way to defuse upsetting emotions like anger. When a modicum of calm descends, try to identify the root of your frustration by asking yourself: “Why am I so upset about this?” Ultimately, anger is like smoke. You have to get at what’s feeding the fire. After sitting with your emotions, move forward by problem-solving, scheduling a future time to discuss underlying issues, or using any number of other healthy coping mechanisms.
I think it is best to try to stop counting venting (without any reconstruction following your vent) among them. 😊 Our company feels it is best to treat people with kindness, and I personally find a good long walk helps me too. Thanks for reading.
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P.S. Here's a joke for you!
A woman in a store was complaining vehemently about her bathroom fan.