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Venting versus Complaining

There’s a fine line between sharing intense negative feelings, called venting, and their morphing into gripes and grumbles that seem to have a life of their own. The former is a useful way to manage emotions in the short-term, while the latter actually considerably adds to emotional distress. Therefore, it pays to be able to distinguish between the two.

When we feel as if we can’t take it any more, we often vent—about a boss’s constant criticism, our partner’s habits, harried lives, difficult children, or chronic illness. If we’ve picked the right people to vent to (active listeners, for one), we receive validation for our feelings, a sharing of comparable experiences or reactions, and assurance that anyone would feel similarly in our situation. We then experience a release of mental and physical tension and, relieved, we are ready to let go and move on.

However, there’s a particular way of sharing which turns into chronic carping, reinforces negative feelings, and increases a sense of victimhood. For instance, way back in social work school, I’d observe that students would hang out in small knots in the hallways and cafeteria after classes and exams and share frustrations about course work, professors, internships, and general academic pressures. The idea was to blow off steam and feel as if they were all in the same boat which created a kind of we’ll-get- through-it-together camaraderie. Often, however, these klatches became gripe sessions, with the same complaints uttered helplessly week after week—this tough grader, that heavy reading list, the huge amounts of homework we were given, etc.

The truth is, my fellow students didn’t appear to feel better after letting it all hang out on an ongoing basis. They felt worse. I saw them fall deeper and deeper into victimhood, powerlessness, and despair from these venting sessions. This one’s complaints reinforced that one’s gripes and there was often a sense of trying to outdo each other with how awful the school experience was. Helplessness bred helplessness and there was no thrust of trying to empower themselves and resolve their problems.

Which kind of expression do you engage in—venting with a goal of letting go of frustrations or incessantly spouting your grievances and feeling the worse for it? Are you engaging with others to solve problems or simply to complain about them? Be very, very careful that you don’t fall into the “Isn’t this awful and there’s nothing we can do about it” trap. This group victim mentality will intensify, not lessen, your frustrations and sense of powerlessness and may easily drive you toward unwanted eating.