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The Problem With Venting

Real help provides both support and perspective

Today, I’ve asked Ethan Kross to share his tip of the week. This is the second of a two-part series on chatter; you can read the first piece here

Shortly before my wife, Lara, gave birth to our first child, we went through a parental rite of passage: baby boot camp. 

For a full day, we sat in an auditorium with other (mostly) excited soon-to-be parents, listening intently to experts teach us how to change diapers, warm bottles, and swaddle babies. 

Shortly before the session ended, the speaker turned to the topic of managing our emotions and the chatter in our heads. The first few months of parenthood will have lows, not just highs, the instructor cautioned. One piece of advice she offered for dealing with these difficulties? 

Vent. Reach out to your spouse or a friend, she said, and release your feelings.

You’ve probably heard that advice before, too, and even practiced it. If a friend says, “Can I vent for a minute?” your response is likely an emphatic “Of course!” as you let them complain as much as they want.

But research shows that venting doesn’t help you feel better about your problems, and it can even make you feel worse over time. You keep talking about what’s bothering you, fanning the flames of your negative feelings and keeping them alive. 

You may think venting works because it makes you feel closer and more connected to the person you’re talking to. That’s one of the reasons why so many people like to vent: it’s nice to know someone cares enough about us to listen and validate how we feel.

When we approach others for help, we need two things from them: support and perspective. Venting provides support but not perspective. The best kinds of conversations do both. They not only let you talk about your inner turmoil—especially in the immediate aftermath of a negative experience, when your emotions are at their peak—but also help you see the “big picture” and identify constructive ways to move forward.

Don’t rely on venting to solve your problems. Bottling up your emotions isn’t helpful, but sharing how you feel is only half the solution.

Do be deliberate about who you approach for support when you’re going through tough times. Whether the issue relates to work or your partner—or for your kids, school or sports or friends—different people may be better advisors than others. And when friends call you to vent, listen and be supportive, then give the outside perspective they need to reframe the experience—which can help them find their way to a resolution.    

With gratitude,

Ethan Kross, author of the book Chatter, is a professor at the University of Michigan, where he has appointments in the psychology department and the Ross School of Business. He directs the University of Michigan Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory.