The lady doth protest too much, methinks is a quotation from the 1599 play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Over the centuries, it has come to describe an individual’s frequent and vehement attempts to convince others of their version of events when the opposite is true.
Frequent and vehement attempts sounds like venting to me, “to give often vigorous or emotional expression to.” Venting comes on a continuum from a thoughtful airing of thoughts and emotions with a trusted confidante to a self-vindicating verbal barrage on the unwitting listener. The thoughtful sharing can be cathartic; hours of verbal barrage are not. Healthy sharing with a trusted confidante yields assistance in reinterpreting what you may either have taken too personally or perceived erroneously.
Frequently venting frustration or anger is a form of practice — the more you do it the more skilled you become at it. Being more skilled at venting makes you more likely to get upset by future disappointments, even small ones. If venting becomes a pattern as automatic as it is self-reinforcing—it heightens stress and leads to misery.
”Talking out an emotion doesn’t reduce it, it rehearses it,” wrote Dr. Carol Tavris, a social psychologist and researcher. ”People who are most prone to give vent to their rage get angrier, not less angry.” Dr. Willard Gaylin, a New York psychiatrist, calls venting “a form of public littering.”
Have you ever noticed the longer and more vehemently someone vents the more agitated they become? They get louder and their pitch gets higher. They speak faster. They may clench their jaw or make a fist. They breathe faster and shallower. It’s as though they are re-experiencing the situation, not necessarily as it happened but as they have reconstructed it in their minds.
Helping clients recognize that in retelling the story again and again they risk escalating themselves requires helping them accept that the situation is not happening in this moment. To help them see they are escalating themselves in the re-telling takes the repeated gentle observation. “I see you’re escalating.” When they learn to recognize they are escalating, then the question becomes “What about the re-telling is escalating you?” Only then is it possible to begin talking about the means and function of the venting.
The Means of Venting: The Pesky “…ing” Words
So what’s really going on when someone feels the need to vent? That’s where the pesky “…ing” words come in. The “…ing” words describe some of the means people employ in their venting. My running list of means includes:.
Arguing (their point of view)
Interpreting (the facts)
Jumping to conclusions
Five Quick Examples
Example #1: A wife is having an affair. Despite that her spouse has had a series of affairs, he blames his wife and her lover, makes excuses for his own bad choices and spends hours trying to explain why he is the victim. He is blaming, excusing and over-explaining.
Example #2: A woman hates her job. She complains to her supervisors and co-workers about the injustices she has to endure. She defends her performance and accuses her supervisors of not recognizing or appreciating her efforts. She is complaining, defending and accusing.
Example #3: A stay-at-home mom believes her husband should do more around the house. She blames him and he blames her for their teenager’s defiant behavior. He argues he works all day. She says she works all day too. Both do everything within their power to convince the other of the rightness of their argument to no avail. He vents to his golf buddies and she vents to her girlfriends. They are blaming, convincing, arguing, complaining and rationalizing.
Example #4. A man is often in crisis, generally as a result of one relationship or another that’s gone awry. He vents to his brother. He blames others but takes no responsibility himself. He rationalizes and excuses his own behavior while blaming others no matter what went awry. It’s not clear whether he is trying to convince his brother or himself that others are responsible (or perhaps both).
Example #5: A wife is late coming home from work. When she gets home, her spouse accuses her of having an affair. No matter what she says he is unconvinced. The next day he vents to a co-worker. As he vents, his interpretations of her coming home late become increasingly exaggerated. When one of his co-workers asks what evidence he has. He rationalizes his interpretation and tries to persuade her that any reasonable person would know that his wife is having an affair. He complains about being the victim of his wife’s infidelity.
The Function of Unhealthy Venting
The function of unhealthy venting is more complicated. Some people vent because they feel powerless. Venting gives them a sense of empowerment. They are doing something about the problem. In reality, their venting may keep them from actually solving the problem.
Some people vent because their true emotions frighten them too much to even acknowledge. Venting masks the underlying emotions (e.g., shame, guilt, hurt) with anger and self-righteousness.
Other people vent to validate themselves. These people generally have low self-esteem. When they blame or accuse someone else, they feel validated in their own righteousness. They are trying to feel better about themselves.
Some people feel invisible and want to be seen and heard. Others fear if they take any responsibility they will be blamed for all. For many people, however, venting anger and frustration becomes a powerful urge that requires an equally powerful act of willpower to ignore.
So Why Does It Matter?
As therapists, we often complain about the client who comes to sessions wanting to vent week after week. We get frustrated when we can’t redirect them.
In some cases, our frustration may reflect a missed opportunity to help clients identify and explore the means and function of their venting. Identifying and exploring creates the opportunity to discuss cognitive distortions, present (or reinforce) skills, practice mindful awareness and chain problem behaviors (or analyze missing links). Researcher Jennifer Parlamis at the University of San Francisco says, “What is said in response to venting matters. Respondents should be aware of the attributions they use when responding to venting.”
Chain analysis can be an effective response. There are so many things to chain, starting with the venting but then moving on to each one of the relevant “…ing” words. In my experience, clients become mindful of their venting fairly quickly when it leads to identifying and analyzing its means and functions each week.
Redirecting the Venting
Of course, the challenge is how to interrupt the venting in a way that doesn’t invalidate, especially when the client has escalated to the point of nearly being out of his window of tolerance. Here are some ideas:
“I can see you are upset. You were calm when you came in. Let’s figure out what just happened.” (Chain the venting)
“Sounds like you had a hard week. I’m noticing that the more you talk about it the more upset you’re getting. Let’s figure out what’s going on.” (Chain the venting)
“I hear you but who are you really trying to convince – me or you?” (Chain the convincing)
“That situation caused you a lot of pain. I’m confused though. How do you know that’s what she was thinking?” (Chain the mindreading)
“Sounds like a difficult situation. How do you think he would interpret what happened?” (Chain the interpreting)
“I can see you’re in pain. My mother used to say ‘it takes two to tango’ when my brothers and I would argue. What if we come at this from a different direction? How would an observer who didn’t know either of you describe what happened?” (Chain the blaming)
“You must have been scared to death. That’s incredible. I can’t imagine. Please tell me it wasn’t quite that bad. (If you’re lucky, client acknowledges a slight exaggeration.) So tell me, what made you feel like you needed to exaggerate?” (Chain the exaggerating)
Avoiding Implied Judgment
If I chain the venting itself several times the “…ing” words seem to come up naturally over time. Even then, it is tricky to avoid coming off as an implied judgment. It seems to be more comfortable for both the client and me to do an informal verbal chain rather than putting it in writing.
How I define the problem behavior also helps avoid implied judgment. The list includes a lot of synonyms. Finding just the “right” word to describe the problem behavior is critical. Different words have different connotations and meaning differs from person to person. The client whose mother repeatedly blamed her for everything isn’t going to take kindly to chaining blaming. In this situation, the problem behavior might be described as “ignoring my role in the situation.” You have to know your client well.
Chaining the “…ing” words assumes you have a strong therapeutic relationship with the client. It is important that the client trusts you have her best interests at heart, that you are only raising these issues to help her avoid escalating herself unnecessarily.
Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW and sometimes blogger, sees clients at St. Louis DBT, LLC.