The Pros and Cons of Venting or… Il Faut Arrter de Rler

Ready to explode at the end of a frustrating day? Express it! Pour out your feelings! Vent!

Prevailing wisdom says: Getting your troubles off your chest relieves stress. Isn’t that the prescription we’ve all been taught? But what if this common communication practice isn’t healthy after all? What if venting is the worst possible “solution” — for yourself and your relationships?

You may think it’s perfectly fine to subject your husband, your wife, your significant other or best friend to your litany of legitimate complaints, but what if you’re wrong? How do you feel when you’re on the receiving end of so much negative energy?

Venting — or, depending on your tone and language, bitching — has its pros and cons. And that once “prevailing wisdom” has been replaced by a more savvy understanding of human interactions.

One of the better articles I’ve seen on this method of letting off steam appears in the Style section of l’Express, which I read occasionally (in French).

In “Comment arrter de rler tout le temps?” — loosely translated as “how to stop bitching all the time” — the writer discusses the epiphany of author and business coach Christine Lewicki, who found herself constantly bitching about the daily grind — the juggle of work, kids, traffic, obligations. She realized that everything that goes wrong cannot be described as a drama or presented as such. (Frankly, these days, so many “systems” are broken that we could all be bitching all the time!)

Ms. Lewicki saw herself so caught up in expounding on irritating details that she felt as if she was living each day as “une journe pourrie” — a truly rotten day.

Bitching Does Not = Talking

Some studies say we complain anywhere from 15 to 30 times a day. But all complaining isn’t bad, and all of it does not escalate to feverish levels or an unpleasant exchange. In fact, benign complaining is often used as an entre into conversation. For example, we may join a circle of people we don’t know well and connect on the topic of the terrible weather, the long line to get into a local venue, or some other innocuous subject. This practice is common. Most of us have engaged in it at one time or another.

When it comes to more significant issues, certainly, I believe that talking about our problems helps. That said, when we discuss issues, we need to

  • Know our audience
  • Respect the nature of the relationships
  • Use appropriate tone and language
  • Pick our spots (place and timing)
  • Allow the other person to speak!
  • Exercise some self-control

Knowing our audience and our respective roles?

Here’s what I mean by that. Don’t vent to your 16-year-old about your latest lousy online date! (Boundaries, please.) Addressing the same frustration with a best friend or sibling is entirely appropriate.

Don’t walk through the door at six o’clock after a miserable commute, spewing and swearing over the tie-ups, the construction, the *$#!*#! crazy drivers. At the very least, limit yourself to three minutes, then put a sock in it! And if your husband or wife is pouring over a spreadsheet or under deadline on a document, better still, do try to hold it (like an adult) until dinnertime.

That last item on self-control? It’s key to this discussion, since substantive conversation and bitching are often intermixed, and if emotions run high, not only will we put the other person off with a dismal diatribe, but we aren’t able to really hear comforting words much less useful suggestions.

I plead guilty to poor self-control in particular, and wish I had read the Express article on the impacts of incessant venting — comment arrter de rler — nine months ago. I suspect that if I had, my life today would be very different.

How a Loved One Can Help

When we’re stressed, really stressed, we’re never at our best. When stress is combined with pressures from all corners and lack of sleep, we may run hot hot hot under the collar and go from zero to 60 in record time. This doesn’t change the fact that anyone on the receiving end of angry venting on a regular basis will logically pull back.

And who can blame them?

On the other hand, a truly good friend or a loving spouse will gently say something like this: “I know you’re under a strain, but let’s see if we can’t work together to ease the situation. I love you and I’m here for you, but you need to see yourself as I do right now. You’re bitching about everything and anything. The constant venting is putting a wedge between us and the negativity isn’t good for you or for us.”

With words like the above?

We are forced to see ourselves from the outside in.

We are compelled to remember the importance of empathy. We don’t feel like it’s us alone against the world. And a loved one can provide an invaluable mirror so we can work our way back to our “better” selves.

Why Venting Is Counterproductive

My own revelation on this topic is recent. While I didn’t indulge in bitching behavior during my marriage, I know I have in the years since. And it’s become habit — a bad habit.

Too often in the past months, my flurry of frustrations has taken form in venting. Thinking back, I can hear myself — and believe me, it isn’t pretty. My tone was shrill, my words were sharp, and my low-grade anger, unrelenting. The outpouring of everything going wrong — from filling out the same medical paperwork three times in the same day to traffic jams on back roads as well as major thoroughfares to yet another jury duty summons — surely came across as precisely the sort of negative monologue this article describes.

The sort that makes us hate ourselves. The sort that undermines relationships.

Whether or not we have reason to vent isn’t the point.

What is?

Excessive communication of this type is anything but healthy. In fact, it’s counterproductive.

First, if I’m telling my tales to a friend who agrees, we may find the conversation deteriorating quickly into a longer bitch session. The result is extended negativity, rather than successfully ridding oneself of anger. We may wind up more upset than we started, further bogged down in a sense of futility at being unable to resolve the situation.

Second, due to the first consequence, the person venting — in my example, me — feels no better. This can be particularly true if you find your emotional pitch putting distance between yourself and the person listening.

Just how destructive to a relationship can this become?

Occasional Bitching? Fine. All the Time? Nightmare!

One woman in the L’Express article tells the story of her epiphany on this subject, and she says it far better than I ever could:

“Je rle beaucoup, trop, aprs mes enfants, mon mec, les gens en gnral, quand a ne va pas comme je veux…  “Et puis un jour j’ai eu comme un ddoublement, comme si je me voyais de l’extrieur. Et je me suis entendue. Et j’ai dtest. Je me suis mme dit: “si j’tais ta femme, je t’aurais quitte depuis longtemps!” Et a m’a un peu fichu la trouille.

Here is my translation, and I wonder if you will find yourself nodding as I am nodding in recognition:

“I bitch a lot, too much, at my kids, my guy, people in general, when things aren’t going as I want… “Then one day, I saw myself as if from the outside. I heard myself. And I hated it. I said to myself: “If I were your wife, I would’ve left you long ago!” And that made me pretty damn scared.”

This brings up the issue of empathy of course — putting oneself in the other guy’s shoes. Who wants to hear non-stop complaining?

If a spouse is dealing with an unyielding barrage of negativity, no matter the reason, how can he not find that behavior alienating?

Manage Your Venting Like an Adult

“Non-stop” is key to this conversation. We all have times when we react to frustrations, and verbalizing is generally better than putting a fist through the wall or downing three shots of Tequila. We have other options as well — activities that comfort (reading, music, cooking), physical exercise (running, walking), putting our anger and frustration down in writing, or a method I plan to try — bitching at myself in the mirror — alone!

This last is likely to remind me precisely why I don’t want to do this to someone I care about.

Expressing ourselves remains a legitimate and useful means to release negative thoughts and feelings. That said, we need to keep in mind

  • How frequently we complain (occasional is okay, constant is not)
  • Tone of voice (dilute the anger or bitterness; lower the decibels)
  • Use of language (complaints that have nothing to do with the other person should not come across passive aggressive or blaming)
  • Subject matter that is likely to deteriorate into longer, unresolvable, unproductive bitch sessions

To expect a partner or friend to be a verbal punching bag, even indirectly, may not be our intent. However, it could well be the unfortunate result, which is unkind, unfair, and in the long run, untenable. While we do indeed benefit from expressing our feelings, let’s remember that how and when we do so are crucial.

This is a lesson I am still learning, and one which I hope with all my heart to master. Negativity spreads like a contagion, and we should do what we can so as not to pass along the disease of “journes pourries” — rotten days — to those we love, who want nothing more than to support us.