Are You Someone Else’s
Venting Ground?

by Melissa Karnaze

not listeningVents 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.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Husain November 5, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Id say its a very tough line to draw for most people.

The thing is, if for example you are aware that this person needs to vent, on some level, what they saying isnt really them, which means in theory you could logic that you just in essence a sounding board. The problem is , is that unconciously I think it affects you, so you right, one probably should learn how to better set boundaries.

The thing is, how many times/chances/excuses do you give people? Some people have hard hard lives, and telling them that you not ready/willing to listent to them right now, in this moment, might be very detrimental, could be the difference between them hurting themselves or anyone else.

Like I said, its a very difficult balance to find, probably one that requires practice

Melissa Karnaze November 5, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Great points Husain.

In the end, it comes down to responsibility. Are you responsible for someone else’s mental health? Is it your job to make sure they feel okay?

Even a mental health professional has to say “no” to clients by only seeing them during designated appointments. They’re not expected to be on call 24/7. Can a mental health professional be held accountable for a client’s decision to hurt themself or anyone else?

The point is that anytime someone vents at you without asking your permission or asking for help, they’re most likely not in a state of mind to actually get help. If it’s a really serious matter, intervention is your call to make.

serge November 6, 2010 at 2:55 am

Hi Mellisa,

Like this post very much. It gives me a different perspective on how to deal with ‘difficult people’ that I cannot avoid (parents, co-workers, etc.) but nevertheless start whining about anything that comes to their minds the moment they see me. This will take a lot of practice in real life situations I suppose…

Kelley Mitchell November 6, 2010 at 8:44 am

The other day I told my husband who is remodeling contractor to not vent to me about his clients. As is typical for these venting conversations, I gave suggestions on how to handle this or that problem next time, like telling his clients that he doesn’t do handyman work since he was complaining to me that these things took up time and weren’t worth much. But just as I started saying it, I could tell he was tuning me out which wasn’t the first time. He suddenly became very interested in scrubbing the kitchen counters, so I told him I couldn’t listen to his rants about clients anymore. I hadn’t realized I was simply setting boundaries until I read your post so I’m happy about that, but now if I could just do the same with my mother-in-law…

Melissa Karnaze November 6, 2010 at 11:32 am

Serge, yes it does take a lot of practice! It can be uncomfortable at first, but guilt in those situations usually indicates you’re breaking through an old (dysfunctional) habit.

Kelley, it’s always great to hear when we we are thinking about the same topics! Thanks for sharing your experience. The more you can set boundaries with those you interact with daily, the easier it gets with everyone else.

Husain November 7, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I was reading a book called men are from mars and women from venus. It basically says that women like to talk about their problems, vent if you want, and men like to solve their problems.

Having understood the need for people to feel comforted, loved, listened to, the person listening to the venting provides a great need at the time for the person venting.

What I dont understand though, is if for example the wife whose husband vents at her, if she knows that hes just venting, blowing off steam or whatver, and takes none of it personally, why and when does it become harmful?

In a way, when kids come from school and want to tell their parents about their good times, sad times, difficult times, its their time to vent to their parents, and it seems this need carries on throughout our lives, so Im a bit unclear as to how and why if children and adults need to get things off their chest, venting becomes bad/harmful?

Perhaps like you say it would be a good idea when someone is venting, and its going to become personal , to stop the person there, and to set some boundaries. But to cut it off completely would I think be bad.

My personal issue with the whole not knowing when to say no or put up boundaries. With things like drugs, alcohol, or victims of any abuse, people get to a stage where for me the issues and diseases have taken over, and they really cant help themselves. In this case, if you are a parent, a friend or family member, are you responsible to help this person? I would think yes, because they arent really able to help themselves.

This setting boundaries and saying no is certainly not black and white, and definetly not easy lol

Melissa Karnaze November 7, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Husain, it sounds to me like you disagree with the article. You can find my answers to your questions within the article itself as well as my previous comment.

Cory November 8, 2010 at 8:39 am

I’m not sure where the idea originated, but I think it’s a popular one, not only in my own mind. It goes: men are supposed to listen to women without offering constructive advice, because the “venting” is her way of expressing emotions, and not her asking for advice.

Whereas, if a guy asks a guy for advice, the guy is expecting answers, so you are free to offer.

I know I’m not the only person who’s heard this. I’m wondering where this idea came from, and how much you agree with this. I have actually become quite good at this in practice throughout all my relationships, but, uh, now I’m considering making a change after reading this article.

Anyway, great article, Melissa, as always. :)

Husain November 8, 2010 at 8:45 am

No , I actually agree with what you saying. All Im saying is its very difficult to do this, as many will tell you. Perhaps you could give more examples/scenarios/role plays of bad and good venting, and what would entail good boundary setting. I think that perhaps this would all fall under what is good and bad communication skills, perhaps you could write something on this.

Husain November 8, 2010 at 10:36 am

Cory I came across this idea in the book Men are from Mars and Women from Venus.

Melissa Karnaze November 8, 2010 at 11:43 am

“I’m wondering where this idea came from, and how much you agree with this.”

Cory, I’m not certain but I think it came from the popularization of John Gray’s teachings. He talks about some interesting gender differences which are probably largely cultural by-products. That whole viewpoint can indirectly reduce actual communication between both partners (in a heterosexual relationship) about what each person actually needs and wants.

It’s always better to clarify and come to a mutual agreement about venting, whether you want feedback, whether you want advice, when you want advice, etc.

Men can get themselves into trouble when they inject advice that they weren’t asked for, and when they inject without asking if it’s okay first. That can really piss a woman off because ultimately she feels invalidated. He’s off thinking about his own stuff (his advice) when she just wanted someone to support her in going through her own stuff.

It gets even worse when his advice goes against or doesn’t regard her in-the-moment feelings. It boils down to listening. If you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next that your partner just “needs to know,” you’re not really listening, just looking for cues for you to step in and control.

The whole difference between men and women, yes there are probably some grounded gender differences, but I think most of it is cultural. Men don’t usually grow up knowing it’s normal and healthy to talk with a bunch of guy friends about their emotions. They step in and “fix” things because it’s easier and it’s a convenient excuse to avoid unpleasant or conflicting emotions.

And this carries over to the advice men give to women who just want to vent — the advice is probably designed to minimize the emotional expression in some way, by distracting her with some “fix” or trying to minimize the offense to reduce the emotional reaction, etc.

Venting discussions are very organic and complex, and all parties should pay attention to intent and consent. It’s healthier than adjusting your behavior just because you think that’s what a “man” or a “woman” wants or needs.

Of course, if your heart’s in it (and that’s where boundaries come in), it usually can’t hurt to just listen when a woman vents. :)

Cory November 8, 2010 at 12:22 pm

So, it’s basically true.

But then again you’re a woman, so of course it’s in your best interest to protect this belief so that your BF won’t stop listening to you, not to mention you don’t want your female readers to be all like, “Gee thanks, Melissa. Now my husband has more excuses to tune me out.” :)

I’m joking, but seriously, I suppose it’s not such a big deal to listen. Actually I don’t mind it. But I do find it peculiar because I literally have zero need to vent in a similar fashion. If I feel like I have a lot going on inside, I go to the park and sit on a bench and stare.

That’s it.

After a while I start feeling awesome again and I then I get on with my life.

Cultural by-products? Mmm, I don’t know about that. Seems like it’s in the genetic code to me.

Then again, if I felt I had a partner who really respected what I had going on inside, I would probably be more open to do so.

Question: are women willing to provide the same service for men that men are dutifully providing for their women? Is there a double standard here?

I mean, this is going back to the same old stereotypes that women are allowed to express emotions, and when men do so they are considered effeminate. Even by women! Which hurts more!

I mean, I totally see the awesomeness in being able to open up emotionally to another human being and venting, but I haven’t ever had a positive experience doing so in my adult life. Not with men or women. So, I’m relegated to the park bench. As I’m sure many men are.

For instance, I HATE it when I have an emotional reaction to something and then someone says, “Oh you’re so sensitive.” No one would say that to a woman! Men don’t EVER want to be labeled as being “sensitive” (except certain R&B singers), so… back to the bench.

What it really seems like is that men are being told by society to not vent emotions, but instead to go retreat to their caves. But women, for some reason, are allowed to vent and be listened to so that they won’t get pissed off. What a deal.

Cultural by-products? Okay, yeah.

Melissa Karnaze November 8, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Most of the major gender differences that get all the air time are actually cultural, or culture exaggerates them to the extent that it’s not really accurate to say things like, men are just born to go to the bench or retreat to their caves (part of Gray’s teachings). Too much of science ignores culture.

“Question: are women willing to provide the same service for men that men are dutifully providing for their women? Is there a double standard here?”

There is definitely a double standard. When a man’s feeling down, all of a sudden he’s less of a man because he has it less together. But if a woman’s feeling down, you have no right to complain because her extra X chromosome entitles her to it.

It’s really, really sad, and it harms both men and women and can cause all kinds of relationship problems. The saddest part to me is the huge role women have in perpetuating this unbalance as you mention. Female partners invalidate their male partners, and mothers train their sons from an early age to disconnect from their emotions. It’s probably the women in men’s lives that do the most damage with this kind of programming.

“are women willing to provide the same service for men that men are dutifully providing for their women?”

You don’t know until you ask right? But yeah, even though there’s a range, the average probably reflects the double standard. Where men often don’t feel they have a right to ask for things they need, like emotional support, so they don’t ask. And women don’t want their men to vent because that would make them “less of a man” or because frankly they’re good at complaining but don’t have a clue as to how to support and really listen to those tough, unresolved issues, so they indirectly discourage the behavior. In turn, men get the message — just in case they were thinking about asking — that it won’t be received well.

It just makes it worse when the women aren’t comfortable in the presence of someone else’s negative emotions. Women tend to vent to each other a lot, but it can be very superficial and there’s often a “Oh, it’s all going to be okay, girlfriend” mentality.

Getting onto another topic, you have to be really comfortable with your own serious vents to be comfortable with someone else’s when it get to their serious and complicated issues. And my guess is that because of all the cultural programming, men don’t vent unless it gets to that point.

Cory November 9, 2010 at 9:44 am

Thank you for the detailed response! I assumed you were going to ignore me like all the other women in my life. :D

Totally kidding. But yes, men don’t really feel the strong urge to vent until it gets to the point of seriousness. I’d say we would rather, due to cultural programming, blow off steam going for a run or some other physical activity. Which, BTW, I’m totally fine with. I like being alone and recharging that way. If this is the world we live in, then I accept that. If I were a woman I’d probably choose to do the whole venting thing.

Oh, Melissa, I don’t envy you. If you decide to get into clinical psychiatry, you’re going to see a lot of men crying. I think the psychiatrist’s office may be the only sanctuary for a man’s tears besides winning (or losing) the Super Bowl or World Series. (Yay Giants!!!)

Sad state of affairs? I suppose so. Can men deal? Yes we can. We just die earlier, that’s all. :)

Chris Edgar November 9, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Hi Melissa — I like how you emphasize that, if we find ourselves getting “vented at” and our time being disrespected, that may be because we aren’t clear about our own boundaries — as opposed to what a lot of people say in personal development, that we should just “get away from toxic people.” The “toxicity” can’t get into our “bloodstream” if we can say a firm “no” to people who want our time and energy.

Tera May 23, 2011 at 5:53 pm

This is one of the most practical answers I think I have ever found on this subject. I have never heard anyone point out the fact that the person venting in fact never ASKED for our permission to dump on us. It really does feel violating. Just like this post, I recently starting setting boundaries for people that vent.
Just the other day someone started whining to me and I said, “What do want me to do about it” She said, “I just want you to listen because your here”. Than I told her to stop complaining to me and find someone else. Than she gets upset and walks off.
I made it clear that I am not a garbage dump, and she starting to catch on. It really does take practice to do this and overtime it gets easier.

Melissa Karnaze May 27, 2011 at 10:11 am

Yes Tera, that’s a really subtle violation that can easily be missed. It may seem “rude” to refuse listening to a vent, but if you trace it back further, it’s rude to vent without consent.

Robert Carroll December 13, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Melissa, I found your blog post totally right on! I found the information clear and concise, as well as, empowering in dealing with someone that has felt it OK to just text me or call me to vent about every kind of frustration. Then, if I say something in response or ask a question, I get my head bit off, and the person is then directing that anger or frustration onto me. I also realize, I have done this same thing to others, and it has been damaging to those relationships. I have finally put my boundary in place, and I feel much better about dealing with this in the future. Including, how I deal with my own emotions with other people. Thank you.

Tebogo September 12, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Hi Melissa, thanks for this info. I also find myself being a dumping ground for my mother, and I have been for many years, but eventually it is draining me, and just 2 days ago, I decided I am setting boundaries; and guess what! She wants to make me guilty that I am disrespectful. Then I saw this article! It is going to take a lot of practise to get the message across, for my sanity’s sake.
Thank you.

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