It’s not exactly groundbreaking to say that unloading your frustrations on trusted ears can feel great. As anyone who’s ever railed about their crappy day at happy hour can attest, venting about a problem can sometimes be a solution in itself, leaving you calmer and more clear-eyed about the situation at hand.
But sometimes a well-intended rant can create new problems. When you vent to someone, you’re using a third person — a spouse, friend, family member, or co-worker — to help alleviate the anxiety generated by someone else, explains therapist Kathleen Smith, author of a forthcoming book on anxiety and relationships. Getting irritated at your sister and then complaining to your parent about it is one example. Texting your spouse when your boss is being demanding is another.
In moderation, this dynamic can be helpful, and treating someone as your confidant can even strengthen the relationship. But when a rant becomes too intense, it reinforces your pent-up anger instead of releasing it, which can negatively affect both you and the person you’re venting to. Research has shown that co-rumination, or obsessively talking about an event or problem with someone else, can lead to higher stress, depression, and anxiety. There’s a fine line between productive sharing and the kind that pushes you both into a negative spiral.
“It’s hard to tell the difference between ‘Hey, I just want to talk about it’ and ‘Hey, I have this problem, help me solve it.’”
So, the next time you want to blow off steam without stressing out your closest confidants — or making your own stress worse — keep these strategies in mind.
Ask for Permission
I have a bad habit of bombarding my husband with my complaints about the day as soon as he gets home from work. Before he’s even had a chance to set down his briefcase, I’ve launched into a detailed description of everything that’s bothering me.
That’s not a great strategy, according to Summer Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and can leave the listener feeling overwhelmed. Instead of jumping right in, she says, I should first make sure my husband is in a good place to talk and is ready to hear my thoughts. “A lot of times, people don’t ask,” Brown says. “We have to ask permission for things, and people forget the asking-permission part.”
Brown recommends feeling out the other person first — “Hey, is this a good time? Can I vent for five minutes?” — and allowing them to opt in or out of the conversation before you unleash your tirade. This shows you respect their time and are mindful of the mental energy you’re asking them to provide.
Be Clear About Your Goal
Few things are more frustrating than getting unsolicited and unwanted advice when all you want is some commiseration. But without clear direction from you, the person on the other end of the rant is left to guess what kind of response you’re looking for.
“It’s hard to tell the difference between ‘Hey, I just want to talk about it’ and ‘Hey, I have this problem, help me solve it,’” Brown says. That’s why it’s really important to be explicit about what you need and to check and see if the person has the capacity to meet those needs.
“Perhaps a partner has a great solution to a problem,” says psychologist Amanda J. Rose, a professor at the University of Missouri. “It still could be the case that the other person is not ready to hear the solution until they get the emotion out and feel understood.” Articulating what you hope to accomplish with your rant might feel awkward at first, but it’s a useful habit for all involved — you’ll get what you’re looking for out of the interaction, and your loved one will know how they can support you best.
Pay Attention to Tone
No one wants to be shouted at, even if they’re not the reason for the anger. Sometimes, when you’re letting off steam, it can feel like you’re speaking in all caps, which can make the person listening uncomfortable or cause them to tune out altogether, says Kristene A. Doyle, director of the Albert Ellis Institute, a psychotherapy organization.
Doyle suggests providing your loved one with a phrase to gently signal if your pitch is becoming an issue: “Use a code word like ‘You’re getting heated’ to signal it’s a good idea to take a time out, calm yourself down, and come back to the conversation.” She also recommends working on breathing exercises and writing down the points you want to get across so you can remain focused as you get your concerns off your chest.
Doyle also recommends asking for feedback after a venting session. Go over what the experience was like for your partner and what you could do differently in the future to make sure you both feel like it was time well spent. Are there tweaks you can make to your approach? Maybe it would help if you were both sitting down rather than standing, for example, or if you changed into comfortable clothing before settling in to listen. Everyone’s needs are different.
Have a Time Limit
Rose cautions against spending long periods talking about one problem. The time a person spends on an extended rant, she says, is time taken away from “other activities that could be distracting and make them feel better.”
And lingering too long on the same issue will likely just make things worse. While “the person with the problem may feel better” in the short term, Rose says, “after the conversation ends, they are left with a problem that may seem even worse after talking about it for so long.”
Don’t fall into this trap. Set a time limit before you vent — five minutes, one glass of wine, one commercial break of a TV show — so it doesn’t dominate your time with your loved one. At the conclusion of your venting session, thank the person for listening and move on to another topic.
Remember That Your Distress Is Your Responsibility
It’s easy to fall into the habit of rehashing a pessimistic thought without stopping to consider the alternatives. “When we’re on autopilot, we use other people who help calm or reassure us without first trying to do that for ourselves,” Smith says. When she feels the urge to vent to someone else, Smith will try her best to manage the stress on her own first.
“That doesn’t mean I caused my frustration or anger or that it’s my fault. But what I do with it is my responsibility,” Smith says. “So, if I’m looking to a family member or friend to manage it for me, then I’m not being responsible for myself.” Acknowledging ownership of your anger can help you stabilize the situation “before you recruit everyone else to join you in your anger or make you feel better.” That might look like taking a walk around the block or a hot shower to calm down.
For Smith, there’s a difference between disclosing the particulars of one’s interior life and expecting their partner or another loved one to take responsibility for their distress. “It’s amazing how relationships actually become stronger and more intimate when people are able to” differentiate between the two, she says.
Aim for Balance
Lastly, Brown says to check in and see if your venting is sucking all the air out of your relationships.
“If you’re the one always venting, but you don’t have space to have anybody else vent to you, or vice versa, then your relationship is probably not reciprocal, and you need to reevaluate,” she says. If things are one-sided when it comes to venting, it’s more likely that other areas of the relationship, like reaching out to each other or making plans to spend time together, are one-sided as well.
If that’s the case, make an effort to get the relationship back on more equal footing. Venting to someone else is one of the perks of being close, but to really reap the rewards of your relationship, make sure you’re being thoughtful and respectful of the other person even as you complain.