When Venting Becomes a Virus

Studio 5 Clinical Psychologist Dr. Liz Hale says—think again.


Sometimes, in the moment, a good-gripe seems to make us feel better. It can; because we feel justified, right, wronged, and worthy of a good vigorous venting. However, since we’re getting back to basics this month, let’s look at debunking some of the long-held beliefs that the expression of anger is good for the soul…psychological research has shown that it actually makes us angrier.

A recent study found that teenage girls who vented to each other about their problems, from guy gripes to social slights, were more likely to develop depression and anxiety. This is no different for adult women! Talking about a problem, hearing yourself speak out loud, can be helpful but ONLY in moderation. It becomes risky when excessive. Our relationships with girlfriends can tend to spark the most obsessive discussions. The upside of venting to our friends is it bonds us. The downside? It can spiral out of control. All that “listening and agreeing” by well-intentioned friends can confirm our original fears and introduce new ones.

There is a distinct difference between a complaint and a grievance. The difference is who you’re talking to. If you have a grievance with Bill and you tell me, that’s complaining and you won’t be anywhere near absolving your anger. As a matter of fact, it will likely make you even angrier. But if you express your grievance directly to Bill, your anger and frustration are likely to vanish. If you’re venting and you want to feel better, communicate with someone who can assist you with your complaints.

Direct Grievances to the Source

Which includes all complainers, too! When someone complains to you about someone else, kindly direct them to the individual who can do something about it. This is the only productive way to manage grievances. Write that statement on a card or post-it note and memorize it! We naturally complain to someone who isn’t involved because it’s easier than complaining to someone who can do something about it…but it won’t change or improve anything. If your complaint isn’t important enough to take it to the source, then it isn’t important enough to bother yourself with, either. If it is important, it should probably be said – but only to the person who can do something about it!

So how do you respond to someone who has a constant brash of complaints? We know what doesn’t work: suggesting solutions, complaining about the complainers, or even ignoring, avoiding, or joining them. Let me tell you what does work:

Acknowledge Another’s Belief

There was a dentist who had an elderly, grouchy patient who, every time he came in for his appointment, would complain about the weather (it was too hot or too cold), his children, his car, the neighbors, or the government. One day, instead of just stuffing this patient’s mouth with cotton and getting to work, this dentist tried this particular tip. With deep sympathy in his voice, after hearing a litany of complaints from this man, the dentist said, “You know, this sounds terrible! I don’t know how you deal with all of these problems in your life.”

Guess how this seemingly miserable patient responded? “Aw….it’s not THAT bad!” Acknowledgment works because it gives the complainer the very thing that they’re after: Empathy. No cheering up, no solution-bearing, no joining them…just understanding what is a very difficult situation for them. Remember: you’re not agreeing that that this a big problem and you’re not saying, “Poor, poor pitiful you.” You’re just acknowledging that this is a problem for that person. Which, in the moment, it is!

Pessimism Poisons, Optimism Elevates

We sometimes think that pessimists and complainers have the edge because they see problems sooner and squeaky wheels get the grease, etc. But it’s actually optimists who have the lead. Optimists not only lead better lives but believe that what they’re doing is going to work. There is a long list of advantages:

• They live longer.

• They’re healthier.

• The have more friends and better social lives.

• They enjoy life more.

• They’re more successful at work & home.

We can train ourselves to be positive. Just like complaining can be a habit, so can being appreciative, optimistic, and grateful. Make a commitment to break away from the moan-mentality. The next time you start to open your mouth to one friend about another situation they have absolutely nothing to do with, pause the clause. See what’s like to refrain from complaining and move forward; forgetting. If it’s not to the source, skip it! If you want things to change, speak to the source.


Dr. Liz Hale is a Clinical Psychologist and a regular contributor on Studio 5. If you have questions about her weekly segment, or questions about her private practice, you can contact her directly at drliz@ksl.com.

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