Let me be the first to say that I love the opportunity to vent. For me, like most people, it can be a full body cathartic experience to get something off my chest. Not to mention, if the person I am sharing with is able to demonstrate active listening (eye contact, nods, ask questions), be patient and empathize with whatever my woe happens to be, it usually leaves me feeling more deeply connected to them.
What's really happening when we vent?
When something's upsetting, it causes our own stress and anxiety to rise. Small doses of this are normal and manageable, but as it builds, we start to look for opportunities to vent. When we "get something off our chest", we are quite literally transferring our anxiety from ourselves to someone else. This is one of the great benefits of being in loving, attentive relationships. We carry the burdens and stress of one another, which helps us deal with the normal and predictable challenges of life, and helps us feel like others are "with us" in our struggles.
Two ways venting can bite us in the a**
As stated above, venting transfers our anxiety and stress from us to others. Moreover, our anxiety goes back to a more manageable level.
1.) Venting can bite you and me in the a** when real change is needed. The catalyst for change (often high levels of distress that feel unmanageable) essentially gets undermined because we cope so well via venting. The real danger with venting is that you can use it to cope so well, that you cope yourself into accepting the status quo. Your anxiety and distress don't have the opportunity to mount to such a level that the unknown of change is preferred to the unpleasant realities of the present. This applies across the board from to careers, to home life, to friendships to politics.
2.) Venting can have an erosive effect on our relationships if the venting is one sided, or dominates interactions. It's not uncommon for folks to start to dread these relationships and slowly pull away, as the listener can easily feel used as "free therapy".
What this looks like in real life.
What usually develops is what's called a Relational Triangle. Person A is upset with person B, and instead of dealing with issue X directly with person B, person A shares the frustration with person C. Creating this triangle meets the need of decreasing stress for person A, has a stabilizing effect on person A and person B's relationship, and creates a more intimate relationship between person A and person C. However, it also limits person A and person B's capacity to deal with their issues and bring about any real substantial change.
Stress and anxiety can often be a signal that something is not right, that something needs to change. In the same way that chronic pain in the body needs to be attended to, so does emotional/relational stress. If you're chronically unhappy at work and you've been venting for some time, maybe instead of only venting, pay attention to your dissatisfaction. If it could speak, what would it say? What direct conversation needs to happen with your boss, co-worker, etc? Is there a need for systemic change in the office? Or perhaps even a job/career change? In your personal life, what do you find yourself complaining about most often? If you're not speaking directly to person B about issue X, who are you channeling that stress to? Is that coping method undermining the opportunity for your relationship to grow?
tips to manage stress & anxiety Well
Without it damaging relationships or missing cues that change is needed.
1.) Make sure the person you're sharing with has the bandwidth at that moment for you to share. Check in with them and just ask "Hi, do you mind if I vent for a few minutes?". Respect if they are just mentally and emotionally not in a good place to carry anymore at that time. On the receiving end, if you're just not in a good spot to carry anymore, just be honest and let the person trying to share know you love them but are already feeling overwhelmed by your own stuff or the day or the kids or whatever it is. Ask if you can take care of yourself first via a shower, a walk, calling a friend, bad TV (my personal favorite), etc. and follow up with them after you've met your own needs.
2.) Diversify your people. Relationships get weighted down when they are characterized by one party dumping all their anxiety of the other, and it starts to feel more like therapy than friendship. Or just go find a therapist to free up your friendships.
3.) Be mindful of how long your venting. My husband and I (under normal circumstances and as long as we've got the bandwidth) offer one another an empathetic audience that is time-limited so as to avoid over-burdening the relationship.
4.) Pay attention to chronic complaints. If something in your life needs to change or be addressed, likely that issue won't go away on its own. Don't like how someone talks to you? What assignments you get at work? What falls on your shoulders at home? Just venting about things you really want changed usually doesn't create change until you address things directly with the person with whom you're having the issue. Relational triangles are sneaky, and it's easy to create them or be pulled into them by others unintentionally.