Kris Christensen, RN, is a self-proclaimed venter. She suspects she vents at least once during every shift, and she’s not afraid to admit it. “My friends at work are the only ones who really understand the situations that I need to vent about,” says the longtime NICU nurse. According to Christensen, venting is a good thing. It lets her release her frustrations, it allows her to find out if others are experiencing the same frustrations, and it helps her feel closer to her coworkers.
When you put it like that, venting does sound like a good thing. After all, it is a metaphor for that very necessary flip of the Tupperware lid before microwaving your soup. But what happens when venting doesn’t go the way you think it will? Not surprisingly, Christensen knows a thing or two about that, too. “There’s definitely a downside to venting. You can get in trouble—and I have—because venting can look an awful lot like gossiping.”
Are venting and gossiping the same?
They’re not the same thing. Venting is more about expressing negative emotions. You could vent to a coworker, a friend, a spouse or even a wall. Gossiping, on the other hand? You don’t need to ask an ethicist if it’s a good idea—it’s not. In fact, it’s a universal no-no to have conversations about other people and their personal lives and details that may or may not be true.
So, if venting isn’t gossiping, why do these two get so easily confused? “It’s because the two have a lot in common,” says Susan Kolod, PhD, a New York-based psychoanalyst and co-chair of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s public information committee. “I often encourage my clients to vent,” she says. “It can reduce the power of the emotion, it can be a bonding experience, it can provide you with a new perspective, it can help you identify solutions to whatever problem you’re facing, or help you find peace with a situation you can’t change,” but it has to be under the right circumstances, with the right person, in order for it to do these things.
“Unfortunately, the way it’s often misused can magnify the thing you’re unhappy about,” Kolod says. “If you’re venting and venting to the same person and nothing’s changing about the situation or how you feel about it, that’s going to make things worse.”
Tips for better venting
According to Kolod, the first necessary ingredient for healthy venting is a willing audience. It may sound silly, but venting should be a consensual relationship. “If you’re going to subject someone else to your negative emotions, you should make sure they’re ready to receive them,” Kolod says.
So, just ask. “There are many situations where people are quite happy and prepared to listen to your problems,” Kolod says. “This is when venting can be helpful because they’re in a position to help you think about how to deal with your situation from a different perspective.”
But, if they’re not in a position to listen right now or they’re not comfortable being vented on, that’s when things can start to feel icky. “They might feel exploited or taken advantage of,” Kolod says. “Or, you may have misjudged them as someone you could trust with your emotions.”
Kolod also recommends setting a time limit for your venting session—that can be as easy as setting a timer—and finding a private space to release your frustrations. Bottom line: Vent carefully.
Tips for the vented-to
What if you’re on the receiving end of some unwanted venting? Kolod and Christensen have different advice. The doctor suggests a direct approach—convey empathy as you explain that you’re not in a position to help right now. As a bonus step, you could also point them in the right direction of alternative sources of support.
Christensen has a more roundabout method for evading venters: “I would advise any nurse who feels uncomfortable being vented to, to say something positive about the nurse, family, manager or whatever situation that’s being discussed,” she says. “In my experience, that will usually stop the venting.”