Life sure has changed. We’re all hunkering down, as the saying goes, as we cope with COVID-19. Tucked away in our homes complying with the request to isolate. And feeling, well, isolated.
In psychology school, we’re taught to encourage our patients not to isolate themselves. And now, by necessity, we all have to do just the opposite. But human beings are social by nature. So we’re all feeling the isolation, along with the uncertainty about when we will all return to some kind of normalcy. Did I say uncertainty? That’s something else that humans don’t do well with. We want to know! Where’s that magic date?
So how are you feeling? If you’re anything like the people I am talking with every day, as a mental health professional, as a friend, as a family member, you are most likely feeling all kinds of emotions. Frustration, fear, anger, sadness, disappointment. And more frustration.
If you’re living alone, you may also be experiencing some loneliness as a result of your isolation. And if you’re living with a partner, and maybe children, all that togetherness may on some days feel like a little too much togetherness. As someone recently said to me, “we married each other for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”
All these emotions need somewhere to go. And sometimes you just want to vent.
A Good Vent Can Promote Emotional Wellness
Here are the potential benefits of a good vent: Venting helps you work through your feelings which, in turn, is a step toward accepting the challenges you’re facing. It’s a way to let out all those feelings that have been building up in your mind, taking up valuable space that could be better used for thinking and decision-making. And fighting your feelings is fighting yourself. And when you stop the fight, you’re in a better position to find solutions.
A caution: Venting can turn into a rant, which is a lot of angry words that go on and on and don’t really go anywhere (and drive everybody else away in the process). Venting helps you to release feelings, while ranting is a way of hanging on to them.
Not sure how to vent in a way that promotes your emotional wellness? Here’s how:
Give yourself permission to express strong emotions. Human beings experience a whole wide range of emotions. The emotions we label as “good,” like happiness, and the ones we label as “bad,” like anger. Instead of labeling emotions as good or bad, let’s label them as human. And then tell the positive thinking police to take a break while we feel how we feel. Look at it this way: Not getting bogged down with trying to “swallow” your emotions can help you to maintain your optimism.
Find a willing listener. Not everybody in your life can listen while you vent about a challenge you’re facing. Some may be uncomfortable with strong feelings. Or think they should do something to help you and, as a result, feel helpless. Or have too many of their own problems. In other words, avoid choosing someone who wants to run for the hills as soon as you open your mouth. Also avoid people who will judge you for not “staying positive” or who will try to “fix” you in some way instead of just listening. No one in your life who can do that? Can your partner be a listener or are they too overwhelmed by their own feelings? A colleague you have a friendly relationship with? A friend or family member?
Be mindful of your own intentions. Ever had a political discussion that you realized later was really all about how angry you are at the other person and not about politics? A vent can be just that: a way of indirectly expressing anger at someone. Or, again, turn into a rant. So take a step back and ask yourself what it is you need to vent about and why.
And keep in mind that venting has consequences. A positive consequence is giving voice to your feelings. Doing this can take away their power to do harm or to keep you stuck. But venting that is directed toward someone else can have the consequence of alienating other people.
Start by asking if the other person is willing to listen. Say something like: “I am dealing with ___________. I just need to talk to someone about how I’m feeling. Would you mind listening?” It might help to add: “I don’t expect you to have any answers for me. I just need a listener.”
State what you want to vent about. Doing this accomplishes two purposes. First, it provides the opportunity for the other person to decide whether this is something they can hear. And it will help you to stay focused and not drift into a rant about everything that has frustrated you for the last 10 years.
Be mindful of how the other person is reacting. Body language says it all. Nodding, leaning forward, eye contact – these are signs of involvement. Looking away, moving away, interrupting you with comments like “You’ll be fine” – are signs that the other person has heard enough. It can help to ask: “Is this hard for you to listen to? If so, I understand.” Don’t take it personally. Not everyone can sit with uncomfortable emotions, their own or someone else’s.
Say what you need to get out. Set limits on your vent by being mindful of what you need to say. Signal that you’re done by expressing appreciation: “Thanks a lot for listening. It helps a lot to have a listening ear.”
Be realistic about your expectations. Your listener may have a few words of support or a few suggestions. Or nothing to say. Remember people do the best they can, and all you asked was to listen. But if your listener does respond with a whole list of solutions – or orders – you have a choice as to whether you want to receive this information. Who knows, they may have a perspective you haven’t thought about. But you can also say: “You’ve been really helpful by just listening. I don’t expect you to make it better.”
Healthy venting can be a way of connecting. Starting with your partner. You may both be walking around your home stepping around the elephant that keeps getting in the way of your communication. And what is the name of that elephant? Something like frustration, disappointment, or fear. Address the elephant by name. Talk to each other about feelings, beginning with encouraging each other to vent as needed.
Offer to be a listener, too. Remember your listener, whether your partner or another listening ear, may have some of their own challenges and frustrations and need a listening ear. So be willing to return the favor.
By the way, there is no greater way to connect with another person, your partner, your children, another family member, a friend, a co-worker… than by listening. Really listening. With an open mind. Make space for deeper connections, starting with being a willing listener.