I just need to vent.
I just need to get this off my chest.
I need to speak my truth.
Sorry, I’m just venting.
Have you heard (or read) these things?
Maybe you’ve even written this yourself or said it to a friend.
Then let out in words all the stuff that’s bugging you … and feel hope to feel better.
Sometimes you do feel better.
Or maybe not, actually.
Or maybe you feel better for a little bit and then the same story comes around in your head again and again and again.
Why does that happen? How do we make it stop. In this article I’ll share some of my opinions and a little bit of research about venting.
The word venting makes me think of cooking.
When you have a microwave bag of something hot or a pot of something boiling you make a “vent” so that it doesn’t explode or boil over. I’m pretty sure where this version of the usage for feelings and emotions might come from.
Sometimes venting is helpful. Sometimes it’s not. I’ll explain the difference and what you may want to do to improve how you feel in these spots.
We’ve probably all felt this experience where you are bursting with things that you are holding inside and there’s almost a physical “pressure” to let these feelings out.
When you do finally get a chance to tell somebody it can come out as rapid flood of words and the experience of sharing can feel like a release.
What we might call venting is sometimes telling a story. Sharing an experience by letting a friend or the world know what happened in a situation.
In this case it’s often enough to just get the words out. This can work by telling a friend or in modern times posting online.
When the experience includes conflict or there are emotions tied to the situation, venting frequently doesn’t fix anything.
In fact, sometimes if the people you share with react poorly you can feel worse.
The problem with venting conflict situations is that often the people you share the events with will try to offer solutions that are not helpful. They mean well but if they are not in a position to impact a change action this usually doesn’t actually help.
In fact, in some online online parent and step-parent forums and groups that I’m a part of there is a way to mark your comments as “a vent.” or “venting.” And when you do that the etiquette is that any replies should be gentle and supportive.
How to support a friend who is venting
When somebody is venting and they don’t want you to be a fixer then what you want to do is just listen, support them and let them know that they are heard.
Leave any questions or judgments or “fixing” to another time.
When my dad died I was super emotional. My kids were young and I worked with a therapist for how to tell them, what to expect and how to support them.
One day our exterminator – an older gentleman named Pepe came to do the service. My son ran up and said, “Guess, what? My Grandad died.”
Pretty heavy sentence. Right? I was off to the side thinking oh geez what will happen next. But with a lifetime of experience Pepe just looked down at my son and gently said, “I know.”
That’s it and it was enough.
My kid scampered off to the next activity with a light heart of having said what was on his mind and knowing that it was heard.
When we vent sometimes we just want to know that somebody else has heard us.
I have a friend who is a coach and she’ll sometimes ask, “do you want a witness or some help.”
That’s a pretty direct question and the other person needs to be fairly knowledgeable for it to work but it’s spot on.
When venting is not enough
When you are sharing an emotional story, venting is in my experience, an incomplete way to try to process the emotion and this is why offers to fix are often not well received and also why it often doesn’t help to stop thinking about the story.
Maybe you are planning a surprise party and you are keeping the secret from the group you want to surprise so you are holding all this information inside until you can finally share with a friend what you’ve been up to. That’s probably a situation where once you tell the story you feel great and move on. That’s a story you are just recounting and maybe there are some dramatic plot points but not deep emotion.
Here’s a situation where venting won’t usually help or be enough, in my experience. This is a pretend situation.
Say you have a coworker who is rude to you. Over and over and you feel mistreated and you are fearful that this coworker is intentionally trying to sabotage your job. You think about it all day – every day. You replay scenes and conversations in your mind frequently.
One day you go to lunch with a friend and you say – I just need to vent for a few minutes. And you recount all the things that are on your mind. The story rushes out and you have so many details that are tripping all over the place that your friend has trouble keeping up with the details of the story. You may even through in some questions like ‘should I quit’ or ‘should I talk to him?’
After several minutes you take a deep breath. You look up and your friend says something like, “well don’t take this the wrong way but I just think you’re being too sensitive.”
Ouch. Doesn’t feel helpful.
You may immediately regret telling your friend. You might feel shame or doubt. You may begin to wonder if you can even trust this person with this story. You might feel it in the pit of your stomach. You take a sip of water and try to eat your lunch.
Then you find that the rest of the afternoon, not only are you worrying about the coworker you are also feeling crappy because your friend didn’t understand how you feel. You go home, you feel agitated and you can’t calm down and you may even struggle to sleep because you are replaying this movie of your coworker in your head.
It’s easy to blame the coworker and the friend in this story but they are just parts of it. If they knew that there role was just to nod and say I hear you…they would do that. But they may not know.
The friend is not in a position to actually help resolve a conflict with a coworker. That is definitely a piece of this puzzle. When you are talking to a person who is not involved and cannot actually help to resolve it’s helpful to keep that in mind with what you expect from the conversation.
One underlying issue is more likely that the person in this story is not fully allowing the emotions that they are experiencing to process.
They are thinking and thinking and thinking and struggling to get out of this repetitive thought loop. Stuck in frustration and confusion.
If you’ve ever had this happen to you — you might even have the thought of why can’t I stop thinking about this?
What does it mean to process emotion?
Processing emotion is a skill that babies do naturally but a lot of adults have been trained to unlearn.
If babies are unhappy they cry. New babies are either eating, crying or sleeping. That’s a newborn joke and it’s not quite totally true.
In your life anytime somebody has corrected your behavior when you were experiencing an emotion you may have been unlearning how to let them process.
- Stop crying.
- Don’t show people how you feel.
- Big Girls don’t cry.
- Never let them see you sweat.
- Calm down.
Of course it’s not super common for adults to be emoting all the time every day in every situation. Crying at your local bank while you make a withdrawal may draw some attention. Screaming in rage at the carwash may not be your desired behavior.
Regulating our emotions is a pretty good skill to have for living a balanced adult life.
If you go too far and begin to not ever allow the feelings to do their thing — it’s not a good thing. Some people think this may lead not only to emotional outbursts but in fact possibly to physical pain and illness.
When emotions build up. It doesn’t feel good.
Sometimes in points of high pressure – this is inevitable. We can be in situations where the actions that are required of us prevent us from having an opportunity to fully experience our emotions. The most heavily studied examples of this are soldiers in long-term conflict.
My personal experience has been with illness and grief. When you are very busy taking care of the business side of illness or grief there is no time to let the emotions out. In my case when there was a break in the crisis then the emotions did come flooding out.
So what do we do?
We allow ourselves to feel our feelings.
Part of processing emotions for most people includes a physical sensation. Crying, laughing, yelling in rage, shaking in fear.
It’s more than thinking. If you are thinking about your feelings that is a good start but you are probably negotiating with yourself about those feelings and that’s not feeling them.
I love journaling and it helps me connect with my thoughts but that’s not feeling feelings.
How can you tell if emotions are tied to a story.
There are two big signs – first you can’t get it off your mind. Second, you don’t feel resolution when you tell the story. You feel more tense or misunderstood when people react to your story. I think this is because the reaction is not what’s important it’s feeling what’s inside you. That’s my opinion.
When you have emotions tied to a story or event it can be helpful to work with somebody who has practice, skill or training to help you with this. This can be a therapist, a rabbi or priest, a counselor or a well-trained life coach. I’m the last one of this category — little self plug.
A person who is trained in this skill will listen and then help you walk through the process of processing the emotions.
Here’s the bad news.
Feeling emotions often isn’t a ton of fun. A lot of times it includes crying.
I can’t tell you how many of my clients will have what they call “break-downs” a few hours or a few days after we have a session. They may say something like “I hadn’t cried for years and I just sat in my car and sobbed. I couldn’t stop and I didn’t know what was wrong. And then the next day I was able to take that action step I’ve been putting off for so long.”
Nothing’s wrong. Your body – your human physical body — your meat sack as some people call it is working to release that emotion.
My experience as a human and as a coach has shown me that often taking the time to process the emotion and feel these feelings — this is the piece that allows us to move forward.
Feeling feelings isn’t complicated. You simply have to stop negotiating with yourself, observe the sensation and allow it to be until it passes.
Yup. Simple. Not always easy.
That process of letting it be or allowing it can be tricky. You might experience resistance.
Which is why it can be so helpful to have help.
Breathe and let it just be.
Some people will cocoon under blankets and do this alone. They will get still and stay still. Maybe they read books of sad stories or watch silly tv and cry at commercials.
This is the most common way to teach people to process and allow emotion. To be still.
Here’s where I veer from the common path. And what comes next is partly from research and mostly my opinion. I’m not great at sitting still very long.
I have found that other people (and many kids) will often find motion helpful to processing emotions. As a runner I’ve processed tons of emotions on long runs. I’ve also known people who find solace in swimming. In the book, The Urban Monk author Pedram Shojai talks about the role of movement in meditation especially in the context of modern humans.
I’ve met people who release emotions in safe group settings such as finding themselves softly crying while they sing at church. Organized support groups are a common place where adults will allow themselves to feel emotion.
Conversely I think that this is one of the things that makes some people find those support groups so uncomfortable. In this case, working one-on-one with a coach, therapist or other counselor might feel more natural.
I think a common thread here is that in each of these examples – you feel secure.
That’s my primer on how to allow feelings or emotions to move through your physical body.
Wherever you can do this and however it works for you – that’s good. One of the reasons I wrote this is to hopefully reassure anybody who is experiencing emotion and wondering if something is wrong — that it’s probably not. It’s probably okay.
If you have something that you are struggling with let me know. I am not a therapist – I am a coach but we can definitely hop on a call and see if I can help.