According to the free dictionary, to "vent" is to give outlet to thoughts or emotions. Alternatively, it is to unburden oneself of strong, pent up emotions.
We have probably all had the experience of needing to vent. We are upset about something and we feel like we might explode if we don't share it with someone. For most of us, the identity of that someone matters. We don't just go around venting to anyone who will listen. Rather, we have a small group of people we feel comfortable venting to. When we feel overwhelmed, we call one of these people and share our frustration. By the end of the call, we tend to feel a bit better. "Thanks for listening," we tell them. "I just needed to vent."
The experience is so common that we don't really think about it. Sometimes people need to vent; we vent, we feel better, right?
Actually, the research on venting is pretty clear. Venting negative emotions leads to an increase in their intensity. This is especially true when dealing with anger but seems to apply to other negative emotions as well.
This seems to conflict with what we know from our own experience, right? Not necessarily. The literature seems to equate venting with throwing a "temper tantrum." Personally, I refer to this tantrum-like activity as "bitching." Others refer to it as whining or chronic complaining. It implies the chronic, excessive expression of negative thoughts and feelings. It is expression that serves no purpose; the expression itself is the goal.
Now this is something I'm familiar with! I have, on occasion, had patients like this. In fact, it was my current frustration with just such a patient that led me to write a post about venting. My colleagues informed me that there is actually a name for this type of patient (or person, if the person purports to be asking for help): help-rejecting complainer. I know, it seems a bit perjorative. But if the shoe fits...
Let's go back to venting though. So that we don't confuse venting with throwing a temper tantrum, let's define it as "verbally expressing negative thoughts and emotions." When defined this way, can venting be therapeutic? The answer is yes. There are a number of circumstances in which verbally expressing negative thoughts or feelings to another person can be helpful.
When someone "vents" to me, my initial response is the same, whether I'm in the role of therapist, friend, spouse, sister, or daughter: I listen and I validate. I think that's what most of us want when we express our thouhts and feelings. We want someone to understand how we feel and we want someone to tell us it's okay for us to feel that way. For everyday frustrations, this is often enough to make the person venting feel better.
As a therapist, this is a good first step. Listening empathically and validating a patient's emotions helps to build rapport. The patient feels understood, validated, valued, and accepted; he or she leaves the first session with positive feelings about the therapist. Venting in and of itself, however, does not bring about lasting change. To be truly therapeutic, venting must be used as a catalyst for identifying patterns and gaining insight. For a patient to make use of venting in therapy, he or she must be willing to accept feedback about the material vented. The goal is for the patient to begin to consider alternative perspectives or to identify methods for accepting, tolerating, or coping.
All of us can benefit from considering a few things the next time we "need to vent." Venting is not always helpful and can sometimes cause our negative emotions to intensify. Do we simply need to be heard and validated? Do we just want to know that someone understands? Are you willing to accept feedback? Are you willing to consider other ways of looking at the situation? Are you asking for help? Or do you just want someone to listen? If the latter is true, let the other person know you just need them to listen.