Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Downside of Venting

You have certainly heard that it is good to vent. You have been told that if you bottle up your feelings you are going to get cancer. Our therapy culture is chock full of advice. It tells you how to live your life in the most therapeutically correct fashion.

Where the Bible tells us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, the therapy culture tells us to express our feelings, especially our feelings of anger and rage, fulsomely, openly and honestly.

Regardless of where this dopey idea came from, you know it and you probably believe it. When people on social media let loose with the most vile imprecations, with the most offensive and insulting and hateful defamations, they are merely following this dubious therapy culture rule. 

As it happens, psycho scientists have long known that this is all a bad idea. Unfortunately, once a dumb idea enters the cultural bloodstream it takes more than some scientific research to undermine everyone’s cherished beliefs, their favorite rules. Besides, what could really be wrong with intemperate expressions. You know that it is bad to repress your emotions, don’t you?

To offer some perspective, we turn to the Harvard Business Review. In a recent article Liz Fosslien and  Mollie West Duffy tell people that it is not a good thing to vent on the job, to express your feelings in the most histrionically inept way imaginable. With any luck you are not an aspiring celebrity.

They write:

Blowing off steam is not as productive as you might think, even though it’s long been presented as a cathartic activity. (Take, for example, the proliferation of “anger rooms,” where you can pay to smash TVs and dinner plates with a baseball bat.) Research shows that this type of “destruction therapy” causes your anger to escalate rather than diminish. Psychologist Brad J. Bushman studied people who used a punching bag to let out their anger, and found that “doing nothing at all was more effective” at diffusing rage.

Now they tell us. Rather than express your rage, you do better to repress it. You gain nothing by pounding the pillow with a whiffle bat-- as some therapists have been known to recommend.

So, no more trash talk. The unfortunate part of this is that if they banned trash talk, quite a few people would be struck dumb:

Similarly, chronic venting, where you rehash the same problems without trying to understand or solve them, has also been shown to make both you and the people listening to you feel worse. One of our readers, Paula, told us, “I finally had to put a limit on how much I trash-talked with co-workers. I found that using the time to instead focus on how I could learn or improve made me feel a lot better.”

And then there is the overriding question. What do you do when your boss keeps venting at you? How do you manage someone else’s anger. Here the authors explain clearly what to do-- and, for those happy few who have the least understanding of shame, it involves shaming the other person. 

More importantly, the authors do not recommend that you retaliate, that you fight back with more of the same. You need to keep in mind that your goal, in the circumstance, is not to get it off your chest, but to allow your manager to see the error of his ways. That means, you are working to produce a specific result, not to vent for the sake of venting:

While we were leading a corporate workshop in early 2020, a woman asked what to do when her boss yelled at her. Another participant spoke up. “I’m an executive assistant, and my boss used to frequently yell at me, even when he wasn’t angry at me but was angry about something else,” she told the group. “It would make me flustered, and then frustrated that he was making me flustered. One day I finally said to him, ‘I know that you’re upset right now, but when you yell at me, I’m not able to focus on my work.’” Her boss apologized and realized that he was inadvertently hurting her performance. His outbursts became much less frequent.

Mission accomplished. 


DeNihilist said...

I think trash talk needs to be defined a bit.

When my life long friends and I get together every June for our annual Fishing Darby, the trash talk happens very naturally (we are in our 60's, so make of that as you will).

Yes a bit of one-upmanship, but not said to release our anger.

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Ares Olympus said...

"How do you manage someone else’s anger. Here the authors explain clearly what to do-- and, for those happy few who have the least understanding of shame, it involves shaming the other person."

I've appreciated the question of the proper function of shame, and we go back to genesis and see self-consciousnesses encourages us to keep private our privates, which can be physical but also the privacy of our own offensive thoughts.

So the modern idea of "letting it all hang out" is clearly flawed, even it is is an overreaction to excess suppression, so the correct answer must be a sweet spot, where you can separate yourself above your emotions, and not take things personally, and see someone else is under some sort of spell that need breaking.

But there's a dilemma in using shame as a tool, because basically the people who shaming best work probably are already self-moderating, and those who most need shaming are those most resistant to it, and in fact every effort to shame a person is giving them more experience to learn how to resist feeling shame.

This means some people can be "moderated" just by a look by someone they care about, and anything more will just trigger neurotic overreactions, while others you probably need to be ready to threaten a relationship ending completely, including being ready to walk away from a parent or friend or partner or boss who has made themselves oblivious to any negative feedback.

And if you read self-help gurus, they're always talking "cutting people off", because they probably dealt with difficult people where that was the only tool, and then you have a hammer that works, and risk overusing it in every circumstance where there is conflict and your ego feels threatened.

But back to the original topic, if someone is venting because they find it motivates other people to change in some way, and avoid actual self-awareness of the venter's own participation, we see that "tactic" is being used because it works. So maybe rather than shaming (Put on your big boy pants!) general disengagement/nonreaction is the answer, and wait until they try something less pitiful, and then rewarding that with engagement.