Venting Doesn’t Work

I first learned about the You Are Not So Smart blog from someone on Twitter. What a great site, and right up my alley. A recent post takes on the idea that venting one’s anger helps diffuse it. Turns out, not so much. Gretchen Rubin discovered this as well in the course of her Happiness Project. More often than not, “letting it out” through a seemingly cathartic action such as yelling, etc. just continues the feelings and releases all sorts of stress chemicals in your body that can make things worse. Even “positive” physical stuff like exercise can perpetuate the emotion rather than alleviate it.

This runs WAY counter to the conventional wisdom proffered by all kinds of well-intentioned folks, including Mr. Rogers, whose musical prescription for anger is to “pound some clay or some dough.” (Although later in the song he sings, “I can stop when I want to,” so maybe his position on the matter is more nuanced.)

I was a big believer in the venting theory—just get out all that negative energy in one big cathartic typhoon—usually through a big slamming-around cleaning spree. I still do that sometimes, but I am working to wean myself off of it. I always tried not to vent “at” people, but venting near them is unpleasant enough, so away it goes. As my kids will attest, I put myself in timeout a lot these days. Important addendum to all this, according to the blog post I linked above: “Cooling off is not the same thing as not dealing with your anger at all. [The author of the study] suggests you delay your response, relax or distract yourself with an activity totally incompatible with aggression.”

Fair enough. What I’m still trying to figure out, though, is what to do with this from a parenting/teaching perspective. How do you help kids deal with anger in a way that acknowledges the feeling but tries to curb their unhelpful indulgence in it? It’s one thing for me to decide not to go down the angry/venting path, but cutting someone else off from it (even if it’s “good for them”) doesn’t seem quite right—it could be taken as a denial of the feeling rather than a way of showing them a different way to handle it. For example: “Hitting your sister in the grocery store is inappropriate… here, can you help me put these tomatoes in the cart?” Message received: anger is a bad feeling and something to be suppressed.

The trick for a parent is not to drop the matter entirely, but to make sure to revisit it at a less emotionally charged time to talk about it. Which I agree with, but it is easier said than done, practically speaking.

What do you think? Are you a venter?

Image: I know those poster parodies are so overdone but how could I resist a Star Wars one?

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6 thoughts on “Venting Doesn’t Work

  1. Kelly says:

    I understand how venting can perpetuate negative feelings and why it isn’t an effective anger management strategy, but what are we supposed to do with angry feelings? I don’t think the article gave enough help on that front. The suggesstions -walk away, cool off, distract yourself – might keep you from reacting poorly to a situation, but do those things really help you deal with something that made you angry? Can’t anger be a constructive emotion sometimes?

    As for your question about how to help children deal with anger, maybe venting isn’t the right way – I’m thinking of venting as complaining here -but expressing the feeling of anger in a calm, respectful manner is, in my opinion.

    The other day, one of my students *yelled* down the hall, right in front of the Kids Day Out rooms where babies are sleeping. I had already told my class that we had to be especially quiet when we were walking by so we wouldn’t wake the babies. I was mad, and I told him so. I didn’t “vent” or punch anything (obviously!), I just told him that I was angry and why. I didn’t punish him either. I had the feeling, expressed it, he apologized, we went to lunch.

    The only thing is, I can do this very well with children. Adults, not so much.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      This is a helpful response, and I actually went back and added a couple of things to my post. In my small amount of reading about this topic, I think that a healthy expression of anger is almost always appropriate, even in the immediate moment. It’s the yelling, slamming around, etc. that does not “release the pressure valve,” but makes things worse. The times I have put myself in timeout haven’t felt like punishments; instead they enable me to actually calm down, which has made a HUGE difference in how I deal with the kids (who by the way were extra annoying today).

      My goal is to be guided by the serenity prayer, which is a prayer for “serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” 90% of what I am tempted to vent about is stuff I can’t change. What a waste of energy. Unfortunately, I probably achieve this goal maybe once a YEAR. For example, I JUST NOW spent 5 minutes stomping around looking for Caroline’s lunch box, which apparently was left at camp last week. I guess I can consider it a victory that it wasn’t 10 minutes…

      Here’s another post on the subject, this one from Gretchen Rubin. I think this comment speaks to your question:

      There seems to be quite a bit of confusion here about the difference between expressing anger as needed, necessary and healthy, versus “blowing up” — expressing anger in unnecessary, unhealthy ways. Too often people believe they have only an either-or choice between “clamming up” and “blowing up,” when in fact neither is healthy or productive, and both can cause harm to self and/or others. What’s need is mature adult expression of anger that does _not_ include name-calling and other unproductive behavior, but that _does_ clearly explain why the person is angry and how it feels. Difficult, but not impossible … And not the same as “bottling it up” … Note also that Gretchen’s examples of “venting anger” are mostly of the violent or semi-violent type, and likely have nothing to do with actually addressing the problem or source of the anger. Unless the problem is your new printer that really needs to be thrown out the window.

  2. Kelly says:

    The thing that always gets me is the “accept the things you cannot change” part. I always think I can change things, I guess!

  3. Sherry says:

    I have found a way to not vent and yet express, but in only one facet of my life. When I am angry about something in my work that can/does endanger the life of a patient I have learned a way to be extremely firm, sometimes loud, very clear and always in control…..I learned very early in my career that if I lost control of myself in that situation it could be devastating.

    I visualize the anger and fear going to the soles of my feet. I contain it there and use the adrenaline in my veins to be very clear about what needs to be done.

    Unfortunately, this is the ONLY place in my life that I have succeeded in containing the vent. Maybe because in every other aspect of life that makes me angry, I am not in charge and people don’t just do what I say.

  4. kathrynzj says:

    This post reminds me of a mutual friend of ours who shared that their family therapist told them that they needed to show their youngest daughter when they were angry with her. His story to re-tell, but with both parents progressive ‘thinkers’ – one a minister, and one a counselor herself – their daughter was not responding well to, “Now ‘C’… it sounds like you’re angry…”

  5. For me, the important factor as to whether or not my “venting” helps or hurts is my internal dialog. If I am totally steamed over something, I find it most helpful if I go for an intense walk in my very hilly neighborhood while trying to identify my triggers. If I have an internal dialog cataloging my hurts and my justification for being pissed off, it gets worse. If I recognize the intensity of my reaction as a flag for something deeper and actively seek to understand the situation from different perspectives, my mood calms and becomes more productive.

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