“This is a safe space, right? Great. Let me tell you how awful yesterday and my boss and my techs and my job and my clients and the other vets and my kids’ school and our government are. Then I’ll feel better.”
You’ve heard something like this before. You’ve probably said something like this before — maybe even just hours or minutes ago. (There’s a lot to vent about these days.) Going on a good, hard rant has always been a popular way for people to deal with frustration. Veterinarians rage, technicians seethe, parents fume, politicians go apeshit, and on and on. It happens.
However, as social media has moved more interactions online, something strange has happened: What might have been, in person, a brief display of hostile emotions that subsided and was then forgotten becomes a lingering diatribe. One with witnesses and additional participants piling on. One that attracts exponentially more attention as it gets more clicks and comments.
I get it. People vent online because it feels so good. There’s a great release and even a thrill that comes with being outraged and discharging emotions unchecked. It’s like lancing a bulging abscess. We imagine the toxic anger draining out of us and being absorbed by the world and our attentive colleagues like so many willing gauze pads. And when our audience responds, we feel attention, validation, companionship, and even unity as they take up offense on our behalf. In that moment, it’s glorious.
The problem is that venting isn’t like lancing an abscess. It’s like starting a bonfire in a forest. Sure, it’s entertaining and interesting for onlookers; it’s cleansing in a way; but it’s unlikely to end without damaging consequences.
It’s easy to imagine how we might get swept up in the moment as we air our real or perceived grievances and go a little too far. We might say or type something that we didn’t exactly intend or that was interpreted very differently from how we meant it. We might also mistakenly believe that the people who have upset us would never, ever find out what we said about them. Anyone who has survived the sixth grade knows these assumptions are fraught with peril.
But what about the less obvious dangers? There are two hazards of emotional venting that don’t get enough consideration. The first is how venting feeds into a perceived lack of control.
Ranting is, at a basic level, an embrace of victimhood. As we detail what has been done to us and how we have been wronged, we are implying a lack of control over our circumstances. “Look what the pet owners did to me! I have never been so angry!”
Let me say here that I am not belittling people who have been victimized. I’m not saying those who have been abused should “suck it up.” My point is that when we embrace a position of raw emotion and look to others to validate that position, we’re letting ourselves get distracted from the thoughts and words that could actually help. We’re not putting our energies into fixing or at least improving the things in our lives and jobs that we have control over (namely ourselves, our own behavior, and how we respond).
Anger and frustration are not pathologies. I did not have a bad day yesterday because I had too much frustration. I had a bad day yesterday because of a problem that caused me to feel frustration. Expressing anger and frustration doesn’t make those feelings go away, because it doesn’t make the problem go away. Spewing rage about a rude pet owner doesn’t change the fact that we are chronically running behind, or we need to work on our customer service skills, or that the world is home to some people who are jerks for no reason we’ll ever know.
The only thing that will make my day better is identifying the problem and fixing it, figuring out what I’ll do differently in the future, or accepting it as something out of my control.
The second major hazard of venting to consider is that it attracts toxic people and repels positive ones.
In 2010, a massive research project called the Farmington Heart Study showed that emotions can spread through patterns analogous to epidemiological models of disease. That’s right — happiness (and sadness) are contagious. I think most of us already knew this on a deep level. Positivity tends to inspire and attract positive people. Negativity does the opposite. When we vent anger and frustration, we attract the people who enjoy wallowing in these emotions, and we repel the people who are willing and able to actually help.
Does that mean we shouldn’t reach out? Am I telling you to handle your problems alone and in silence? Of course not! You may have every right to be completely furious or tearfully frustrated. We all feel that way sometimes, and having those emotions isn’t weakness or failure. Sometimes you have to let your feelings out to a trusted friend or colleague. It can help you get perspective on your situation, it can bring forward people who have faced similar problems, and it can help you feel like you’re not the only one struggling with the issues that are weighing you down.
Reaching out to friends, family, or community can be a life-saving exercise, but reaching out and venting are not the same thing. We need to be careful to make sure that our requests for constructive problem-solving support do not morph into an infinite loop of aimless negativity.
We can do this. We are a profession of diagnosticians, after all. So, the next time you see someone venting or feel like venting yourself, take the time to run some diagnostics. Don’t just lance a nasty abscess. Treat the cause.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.