I’d like to think I’m a veteran venter. In fact, games of ‘venting tennis’ are particularly frequent in some of my group chats.
The communal rage is usually fresh and prickly when the frenzied texting begins. Skulls, sad faces and woozy emojis fleck our word bubbles faster than our thoughts can form. Anticipation-inducing ellipses punctuate the thread, letting us know that a fellow frustrated friend is about to fire off, and that we should ready our rackets to return the serve.
And as anyone who has ever partaken in some venting tennis will know, the release that comes after a game feels good.
Until it doesn’t.
If you’re anything like me, there’s a good chance you might not realize it doesn’t, or why, for quite a while — especially if you’re stuck in an ongoing situation that makes you want to, well, vent.
In my case, it took several months. The first inkling appeared after I came away from a particular group chat — one founded specifically as a space to vent — feeling more exhausted than relieved.
The second occurred a few months later, after I was about to call a friend who I’d regularly update on the latest in a personal saga, when I realized that just the thought of telling them what had happened felt draining, never mind talking about it.
The third realization was perhaps the most startling, when I noticed mid-chat that I’d become almost ‘gleeful’ in my rage — revelling in it, even. I caught myself trying to think of the wittiest or funniest response to add to the collective outpouring of bitterness and frustration. Lovely.
As it turns out, while venting has its benefits, such as creating camaraderie with your co-workers and short-term stress relief, there are multiple reasons why just ‘letting it all out’ can unsuspectingly go from helpful to harmful. Associate Professor Fiona Barlow, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland, told Refinery29 Australia that sharing your troubles with people you trust has its positives — if it's done carefully.
“Telling someone about what we are going through — which at times may take the form of venting — can make us feel heard and like we can cope a little more,” she said.
“It reminds us that there are people in our lives that we can count on, and we are not alone when facing challenges. At times, talking through a problem can also help us see it more clearly, and when the person we are talking to reflects the situation back to us, we can often understand new angles of the problem. More broadly, if we have been treated unfairly, being heard and believed can be incredibly validating.”
If you’re not mindful, venting can become a slippery slope into an emotional rabbit hole
On the flipside, however, Barlow revealed that if you’re not mindful, venting can become a slippery slope into an emotional rabbit hole.
“Venting, if unregulated, can become a sort of verbal rumination, at once reinforcing our pain and grievance, and increasing the extent to which it feels severe and important to us,” she added.
“In short, repeatedly going over the same problem, closely examining every problem and issue that has left us hurt, can actually make the hurt feel worse. We started venting to gain comfort, support, and validation, and we have ended up magnifying and fuelling the situation.”
There’s even a word for this magnifying glass style of group venting: co-rumination. According to Juliana De Marco, clinical psychologist and director of Healing Minds Psychology, finding (and avoiding) the line between venting and co-rumination comes down to determining where your boundaries lie and getting in touch with your emotions.
“This can be tricky! It’s about learning your limits. Each person has their own limits,” she told Refinery29 Australia.
“[The key is] being able to notice and acknowledge when it is a healthy amount of offloading by moving forward with positive action, as opposed to sitting in an unhealthy space of ruminating thoughts and talking around in circles, which often fuels your unhelpful emotions.
This is often noticeable when your unhelpful emotions are becoming exacerbated, rather than subdued. We feel the physical sensations of our emotions. Practising mindfulness will teach you the skills to learn to identify this.”
As for why that line often becomes so blurry in the first place? Leaning on venting as our go-to coping mechanism tends to obscure our perception of just how ‘bad’ our problem actually is, and can even create issues that weren’t originally there, De Marco emphasized.
“In my experience, when venting has become a learned response to coping — where it’s easier to blow off steam, vent to friends or ruminate to oneself — rather than noticing thoughts, acknowledging feelings, and sitting with the discomfort that a potential thought is bringing — not to mention checking the facts before going down the rabbit hole — you're going to find that you will end up creating a problem that was never there to begin with,” she said.
You're going to find that you will end up creating a problem that was never there to begin with
Now for something no phone call-phobic millennial or Gen Z person wants to hear? It seems as though the negative effects of venting are even more pronounced when we’re complaining online, be it publicly or privately, with several studies suggesting it’s because we tend to become less filtered (pun intended).
“We often feel uninhibited online. People can’t see us, and thus we feel somewhat anonymous — even if we’re not!” Barlow said of online venting versus IRL chats and phone calls.
“This can lead to us saying things more directly and harshly than we would if we were talking face to face. Online communication often encourages quick or polarized responses as well, so we may get a sea of outrage back in response to ours, which might be why it can be easy for venting to be heightened online. It’s (usually) also written — there is a public record, and we can’t take it back, whereas conversation is more fleeting and fluid.”
If you’ve come this far and are now cursing me because I've tainted the sanctity of your weekly whine'n'wine session — don’t worry, the vents over vinos (or any beverage of choice) are safe. Just keep these psychologist-approved steps in mind before you go spilling your soul onto friends or family to protect both your energy and theirs.
- “Write it down first and see if this helps! This is the best way to externalize what you’re thinking or feeling and will help you notice and slow down the process,” De Marco said.
- “Notice when you have the urge to emotionally dump. Rather than calling your friend, ask yourself ‘Will this really help me?’. Learn to speak to someone who is willing to help you look at the evidence or the facts and challenge you, rather than just blindly agreeing with you and encouraging your habit.”
- If you do plan to go forth and vent, Barlow recommended being mindful of how you feel throughout your conversation. “Recognize if venting is making you feel worse, or increasingly angry and upset as you go on,” she said.
- “Try to vent once, rather than repeatedly — then evaluate how you feel, and whether you need to talk to someone again. If a problem is very severe, consider seeking professional help. Of course, some grievances are severe and need to be reported or called out, but even in these cases self-care is important.”
And if you find yourself sliding into co-rumination territory? Change up your ‘serve’.
“Sometimes, interrupting co-rumination can be as simple as telling a funny story, reflecting on good things, or changing to an activity you all enjoy,” added Barlow. “When things have gotten to a certain stage, however, you may want to directly address it, and work on the problem as a group.”
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.