how to vent responsibly (and win a free book!)

If you’ve ever worried you’re venting about your job too much, or secretly wished your friends or coworkers would vent a little less about theirs, you have a lot of company. People vent about their jobs! Sometimes a lot. And it often makes them feel better … until at some point it starts making them feel worse. It’s a tricky thing.

I really liked the “rules for venting” in Rachel Wilkerson Miller’s new book, The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. In fact, I really liked the whole book. It’s a guide to taking care of yourself (setting boundaries, building a healthy routine, saying no, asking for help) and taking care of your friends (making new friends, building healthy friendships, showing up for friends during big life events, etc.). It’s full of smart insights about how to show up for yourself and the people you care about.

Rachel agreed to let me reprint her rules for venting below (excerpted straight from the book), and she’s giving me two copies to give away to readers here.

To enter to win a free copy: Leave a comment below with your own thoughts about venting. I’ll pick two winners at random (or rather, random selector software will). All entries must be posted in the comments on this post by Tuesday, May 12, at 11:59 p.m. ET. To win, you must fill out the email address section of the comment form so I have a way of contacting you if you’re the winner.

How to Vent Responsibly

excerpted from The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People

When you’re going through a difficult time, venting can really help. Therapist Ryan Howes says that venting is really about processing. You haven’t come to any real conclusions yet; you just need to get your thoughts out of your head, and you need a warm body to listen. Venting tends to feel good; it helps us name what happened and give it a narrative structure, which is really powerful. But it’s also something that we can easily get lost in, draining our energy reserves and alienating the people who are listening to us in the process.

If you’re worried about venting too much and exhausting your friends, here are some tips that might help.

Let people ask you how you’re doing.

When you’re dealing with a lot, it’s easy to blurt out the latest update to the first person you see without so much as a hello. If you’re worried about falling into that trap, consider holding off until someone actually says, “How are you?” or “How’s everything going with [situation]?” Being asked still isn’t a free pass to dump on them for the next three hours, but this is an easy way to keep your urge to unload in check, and to make sure your friends are interested in your latest download.

Explicitly ask for permission to vent—even if you just want to vent via text.

If you need a friend to lend an ear, consider requesting it in a more formal way. Scheduling time to talk or text about a specific topic isn’t silly; it’s courteous. As therapist Andrea Bonior says, “Texting lets us place something—immediately—into someone else’s consciousness, whether they want it there, and are adequately prepared to deal with it at the moment, or not.” Texting something like “When you have a moment, I’d love to talk with you about the latest in this Sam situation” or “If you’re around later and up for it, I’d like to scream about the Sam situation” will go a long way toward communicating respect for their time and energy. (And do be specific about what you want to discuss; just saying “Got a sec?” or “Are you busy?” isn’t cool.) It’s entirely likely they’ll respond, “I can talk now— what’s up?” but they’ll still appreciate that you asked.

If you aren’t looking for advice, say so.

In general, our loved ones want to be helpful and offer solutions to our problems . . . but jumping right to solutions can inadvertently communicate “I don’t want to hear about this anymore; I want to fix this so you’ll shut up about it”—which is maybe not what you want to hear in that moment. So if you know you simply need to vent, or that you aren’t in a place to consider what to do next, tell the other person that up front.

Don’t outright reject all suggestions and attempts to problem-solve.

This might seem at odds with what I said a second ago. And it kind of is! Here’s the thing: Wanting to vent and be validated is totally fine. But only venting, and shutting down whenever the conversation turns to the topic of possible solutions? Not so fine! It’s frustrating to listen to a friend talk endlessly about the same topic, particularly if they are refusing to acknowledge their part in the situation or do anything to feel better. Of course, sometimes there isn’t anything you can do to make things better. But at that point, talking about it for three hours isn’t really making it better either.

Consider the forty-five-minute rule.

A couples therapist once gave me this very good advice: If you’re having an argument or intense conversation, take a break after forty-five minutes. After the forty-five-minute mark, she said, people tend to be too emotionally exhausted to have a productive conversation; a twenty-minute break (at minimum!) can help everyone process and reset a bit. Putting this advice into practice made a huge difference, and I now try to apply it to any negative conversation. Aside from being good for the listener, it’s good for you, too. Because even if you aren’t arguing, you’re still depleting your energy (and probably starting to lose the thread of the conversation) when you vent for that long. So keep an eye on the clock, and remember: There’s a reason most therapy sessions are only fifty minutes long.

Notice if you are repeating yourself.

Ryan Howes says if you find yourself saying the same thing over and over again (or the person you’re talking to keeps responding in the exact same way), you miiiight be ruminating, which can be pretty tiresome for the other person. If you’re just cycling through the same few exchanges (“This is bad! I’m so mad!” “Ugh, I know! It’s so bad!”) and neither of you is bringing up new information or insight, consider wrapping it up soon. Of course, there are exceptions to this, and sometimes a situation is so terrible or tragic or unfixable that all you can do is repeat, “This happened and I’m so upset!” while your friend nods sympathetically and says “It’s awful; I’m so sorry.” But that shouldn’t be the norm in most conversations. So if you’re just rehashing the same points—or if your friend is looking/sounding bored—it might be time to call it quits.

Try not to pre-vent.

Pre-venting is when someone says, “I’ll tell you more about this tonight” . . . and then immediately launches into telling you now . . . and then still wants to discuss it in full when you see them later that night. It’s a variation on repeating yourself, but it can be less obvious because some time passes between the initial conversation and the later one. But if you’ve already established you’re going to talk at not-now-o’clock, try to hold off on emotion-dumping before then. And if you do find yourself getting into the whole story (or, say, 75 percent of it) now, recognize that you don’t really need to rehash or repeat the same details later.

Consider journaling.

I wrote an entire book about journaling, so I admit I’m a bit biased, but the health benefits of journaling are well documented. Dumping your thoughts on a page allows you get everything out and helps you process what you’re experiencing. Set a timer for twenty minutes—any longer than that can actually lead to ruminating—and write freely, without worrying about punctuation, spelling, or the “quality” of the writing. Your writing doesn’t need to be “interesting” because no one is ever going to read it. (You don’t even have to reread it later!) You might find you feel a lot better overall, and that your urge to vent to a friend has mysteriously disappeared.

Give your friend time and space to talk about their life.

I’m of the belief that not every conversation with a friend has to be perfectly balanced in terms of who is talking and who is listening. We’ve all had days when we don’t have much to talk about and a friend has a lot going on, and we’re perfectly happy to listen while the friend vents, and then end the phone call there! It’s fine! But. But. If you only ever contact your friends to vent—or if your “How are you doing?” is perfunctory and communicates “I know this is the correct thing to say” instead of sincere interest—your pals are going to catch on. So be sure you’re leading with “How are you?” sometimes (before you’ve talked about yourself ) . . . and actually listen and engage when they answer. And if you know you’re only going to hang out for an hour, remember to cut yourself off after twenty or thirty minutes so they have a chance to talk, too.

Excerpt from The Art of Showing Up © Rachel Wilkerson Miller, 2020. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.

how to vent responsibly (and win a free book!) was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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