Vents happen all the time. Sometimes you don’t even know they are vents.
“My day sucked…”
“My boss is unbelievable…”
“There are so many dishes I have to do…”
“Every time I try to turn on the TV, I can’t find the damn remote…”
What’s in a vent
A vent happens anytime someone complains about, or negatively refers to, someone or something either in a short burst of intense of emotion, or over some extended period.
Imagine that you’re making stir-fry in your kitchen and it gets really smoky. You turn on the air vent and/or open up some windows to let the smoke out. After a few minutes, the smoke has cleared and it doesn’t smell greasy in the kitchen anymore. You can breathe easy again because your kitchen is back to normal.
Venting “lets the smoke out.” When you vent you get something bothersome off your chest, presumably so that you can get back to center, gain more perspective, and do something positive for yourself.
But oftentimes, venting doesn’t lead to response ability — just immobilization and heightened frustration.
This is one reason why “anger management” proponents are against venting.
What’s not in a vent
A vent is a separate event from taking constructive action.
You could very well vent with no intention of:
- Solving a problem
- Admitting your role in co-creating the event that gave you cause to vent
- Taking response ability
Those kinds of vents are not productive and helpful. It’s important to sniff out the difference between unhelpful vents and those vents that actually are productive.
Is your angry roommate venting to you in order to get back on her feet, or venting as a substitute for actually confronting the her ex-boyfriend?
When someone vents about you
It’s one thing if someone vents at you — about you. In those situations you need to be really clear and hold your boundaries when you feel disrespected or upset.
If someone wants to confront you about a problem or asks you to resolve a conflict — they can do that instead of letting off their smoke in your breathing space.
When someone vents about someone or something else
It’s another thing when someone vents at you — but it’s not about you. It could be about their co-worker, dog, or the weather. In those cases, they’re still letting off smoke in your face — but you might not notice it. You might feel obligated to listen. After all, it’s just a disobedient dog. How bad could that be? How long can they complain about it?
Even if someone vents at you about someone or something else, it’s still a violation of your boundaries. Did they ask if you cared to know? Did they ask if you had the time to listen? Did they check to see if you could handle the nature of the topic given your current emotional and physical state, as well as your state of mind?
Or did they disrespect you by dumping their stuff without asking permission?
Do you respect your boundaries?
How much do you respect your boundaries? Can you recognize those times when you’re not physically, emotionally, or mentally capable or willing to listen to someone else’s vent?
Can you recognize a vent?
When you’re surfing the net or channel surfing, do you pay attention to articles and shows that are all about venting (e.g. critical op-eds and political pundits)? Do you make a conscious decision to tune in, or do you just go along with whatever comes your way?
When someone vents at you in person, do you register that?
And do you assess what to do in response?
Do you consciously respond when vented at?
If you don’t do anything, and just take it all in, you set yourself up to be someone else’s venting (read: dumping) ground.
Now you may get lucky if the person does take response ability and does ask for your advice after venting. But you risk that the person just wants some temporary relief and is willing to take advantage of you for that aim alone.
It’s up to you to determine when, where, and how you’ll witness or listen to someone else’s vents, be they about you or about someone or something else.
Start saying “no” to unconsented vents
Saying “no” to vents you don’t want to be subject to is the self-respecting thing to do. It doesn’t matter how insensitive that makes you look or how much you’ll let the other person down. You won’t be much to use to anyone if you’re just a dumping ground anyway.
Start saying “no” to vents, when:
- The other person hasn’t asked your permission to vent at you, and you want nothing to do with it
- You don’t feel up for it, for whatever reason
- You get uncomfortable
- You decide to listen, offer help or try to discuss the matter, and the other person won’t hear it and just continues to spew without regard to you
Some ways to say “no” to unconsented vents
You can say “no” in many different ways. Saying “no” just means that you break the flow of the vent and/or remove yourself. Here are some examples:
- Remove yourself physically from the situation, by walking away, changing the channel, etc.
- Remove yourself emotionally/mentally from the situation, by detaching rather than getting swept up and empathizing with them. This allows you to more fully register the boundary violation and think about how you want to respond.
- Remove yourself emotionally/mentally from the situation, by talking about your feelings and your opinions, possibly by changing the subject. Hopefully they’ll get the message that you’re not interested in a conversation monopolized by their feelings and opinions, but that’s no guarantee.
- Interrupt and ask a question: “What are you going to do about it?” “Do you want my advice?” “What can I do for you?” “What do you need from me?” “How might I help you solve this problem?” “Do you (even) want to solve this problem?”
- Show that you care, and then set a boundary: “I’m sorry to hear you’re going through this, but I have to be somewhere else.” You might even ask: “Do you want to set up a time to talk about this later and figure out what to do about the problem?”
- If it’s a serious issue, it’s not your job to fix their mental health. Refer them to someone else you trust, like a mental health professional, or a 24/7 help hot-line.
Venting to someone doesn’t have to mean “dumping on them”
It drains your time, energy, and empathy whenever someone vents at you without opening it up to a mutual discussion, or without having the intention of doing something constructive about it.
Don’t be someone else’s dumping ground.
But keep in mind that you can listen to someone else’s vent without getting drained.
If they ask your permission, make it clear what they expect from you (i.e. a response or no response) such that it’s agreeable to you, and take response ability for their feelings, you can listen and provide support in a healthy way. Their vent can actually energize you and perhaps help you get in touch with your own emotions.
Healthy venting is all about consent and intent.
Would you agree?
About the Author: Melissa Karnaze founded Mindful Construct to vent constructively about dysfunctional beliefs surrounding emotional health. Sign up for her free 10-part e-class on how to be more emotionally resilient.