The Perils of Venting

The lady doth protest too much, methinks is a quotation from the 1599 play Hamlet by William Shakespeare.  Over the centuries, it has come to describe an individual’s frequent and vehement attempts to convince others of their version of events when the opposite is true.


Frequent and vehement attempts sounds like venting to me, “to give often vigorous or emotional expression to.” Venting comes on a continuum from a thoughtful airing of grievances with a trusted confidante to a self-vindicating verbal barrage on the unwitting listener. Thoughtful sharing can be cathartic; hours of verbal barrage are not. Healthy sharing with a trusted confidante yields assistance in reinterpreting what you may either have taken too personally or perceived erroneously.

Frequently venting frustration or anger  is a form of practice — the more you do it the more skilled you become at it. Being more skilled at venting makes you more likely to get upset by future disappointments, even small ones. If venting becomes a pattern as automatic as it is self-reinforcing—it heightens stress and leads to misery.

”Talking out an emotion doesn’t reduce it, it rehearses it,” wrote Dr. Carol Tavris, a social psychologist and researcher. ”People who are most prone to give vent to their rage get angrier, not less angry.”  Dr. Willard Gaylin, a New York psychiatrist, calls venting “a form of public littering.” My therapist called it “verbal vomiting.”

When you retell the story again and again you risk escalating yourself. The first step to letting go is to accept that the situation is not happening in this moment. It is past. Now is now. That was then.

The next step is to notice when you begin escalating, gently observing yourself without judgment. Have you ever noticed the longer and more vehemently you vent the more agitated you become?  You get louder and your pitch gets higher. You speak faster and you may clench your jaw or make a fist. You breathe faster and shallower. It’s as though you are re-experiencing the situation, not as it happened but as you have reconstructed it in your mind.

When you learn to notice your escalation, ask yourself “What about the re-telling is escalating me?”  Only then is it possible to begin talking about the means and function of the venting.

Words Matter

So what’s really going on when someone feels the need to vent? That’s where pesky “…ing” words come in. Venting involves accusing, arguing, blaming, defending, convincing and so on. The roots of these words are strong, even harsh, active verbs that require a subject and an object. When we turn them into a different part of speech, they often become labels, generalizations almost like name-calling. And they are toxic. My running list includes:

  • Accusing
  • Arguing
  • Ascribing (motive)
  • Blaming
  • Complaining
  • Convincing
  • Defending
  • Exaggerating
  • Excusing
  • (Over) Explaining
  • Misinterpreting (the facts)
  • Judging
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Justifying
  • Rationalizing
  • Story-telling

The Function of Unhealthy Venting

The function of unhealthy venting is complicated. Some people vent because they feel powerless. Venting gives them a sense of empowerment. They are doing something about the problem. In reality, their venting may keep them from actually solving the problem.

Some people vent because their true emotions frighten them too much to even acknowledge.  Venting masks the underlying emotions (e.g., shame, guilt, hurt) with anger and self-righteousness.

Other people vent to validate themselves. These people may have low self-esteem. When they blame or accuse someone else, they feel validated in their own righteousness.  They are trying to feel better about themselves.

Some people feel invisible and want to be seen and heard. Others fear if they take any responsibility they will be blamed for all.

For many people, venting anger and frustration becomes a habit. The urge to vent becomes more powerful each time you indulge it. Breaking the habit requires repetitive noticing, accepting the urge, creating space to think and then bringing your attention back to the present moment instead of focusing on the past.

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