You know, let off some steam, in the moment or after the fact, whether directly at the apparent source of our anger or at a substitute (like an innocent co-worker).
We may even have encouraged another to vent!
But, is venting a good idea?
My colleague, Tammy Lenski, recently described venting as one of the great conflict resolution myths that still abounds today:
“While venting anger may feel cathartic, venting anger doesn’t purge aggression from your system or improve your psychological state. In fact, venting is more likely to increase anger and aggressiveness than reduce them.”*
She bases her assertion on the research by Dr Brad Bushman at Iowa State University:
“Catharsis theory predicts that venting anger should get rid of it and should therefore reduce subsequent aggression. The present findings, as well as previous findings, directly contradict catharsis theory (e.g., Bushman et al., 1999; Geen & Quanty, 1977). For reducing anger and aggression, the worst possible advice to give people is to tell them to imagine their provocateur’s face on a pillow or punching bag as they wallop it, yet this is precisely what many pop psychologists advise people to do. If followed, such advice will only make people angrier and more aggressive.”**
The dilemma: We need to acknowledge our emotions, but not in a way that reinforces anger or aggression.
Rather, we need to get the emotion’s message so we can respond consciously in the moment, and if possible release any unintegrated negative emotional charge from our past.
Venting seldom changes the situation in a positive way, or prevents it from happening again.
In fact, it becomes an unhealthy habit that makes things worse! We traumatize ourselves with each retelling, searing more neurons to wire together around our pain.
So, what can we do?
Venting is not the emotion. It is the behavior.
Meaning, with awareness of our anger, we can choose to behave differently.
The emotion of anger signifies that we care about something, but feel powerless to address the situation to our satisfaction.
Instead of indulging in the behavior of venting we can explore strategies to address our needs in a positive manner.
And, if we must vent, we can limit ourselves to express it just once and then, as is often suggested for folk working in crisis centers, for not more than 5 minutes.
We can choose the person that we express our dissatisfaction to with care. Some are going to encourage us to take personal responsibility for our feelings and act consciously. Others are going to encourage us to do battle and blame.
And when we can, we can explore why it is that we experienced anger in the first place.
Exploring the energetic relationship between what is triggering us in the present moment, and the original emotional imprinting points the way to reducing our negative emotional charge (real results).
So be careful with venting.
It’s not as beneficial as we have been led to believe.
Unless we seek more anger and aggression in our lives!
*5 Common Beliefs about Conflict that are Dead Wrong by Tammi Lenski
** Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding, by Brad J. Bushman at Iowa State University